Currently, the US is in the midst of its 58th election season. Occurring once every four years, election season in this country runs from the beginning of February through to mid-November, culminating in the prominent nationwide vote on election day. This cycle’s election day looms just over 4 weeks away and is set to occur on November 3rd. On this day, Americans all over the country line up to cast votes for their favoured presidential candidate.
But if election day only occurs in mid-November, you might be wondering why the presidential race begins eight and a half months prior in February?
Well, there isn’t actually a straightforward answer. The US Federal system runs a little differently to Australia’s. In the US, the public directly elect their president. In Australia, members of the public instead vote for a member of parliament, known as an MP, who is aligned with a party. Unless you are a registered member of the party you vote for, you do not have a say in who the candidate is that represents that party. There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems, but we will save those for a later day.
So, what about parties?
In the US, there are two major political parties: The Democrats, who are left leaning, and the Republicans, who are conservative. There is also a House of Representatives and a Senate, much like in Australia; however, instead of a Prime Minister, they have a President. It is important to note that these roles are not equivalent to one another. A US President has substantially more power than an Australian Prime Minister. Additionally, the President is independent of the House of Representatives. To give an example, America’s current government is led by the Republican party, however the majority of the seats in the House of Representatives are held by democrats. This is the quintessence of Americans wanting to strike a balance of power in government. With the Republicans in control, they will have certain agendas they wish to pursue, but with a Democrat majority in the House of Representatives, there is certainty that the Republicans will be held to account.
But how does election season actually run?
At the beginning of the US election season, there is a series of votes cast known as primaries (or caucuses). Americans are able to register their support for one of the two major political parties, either Republican or Democrat. Once they are registered for a party, they vote in a “primary”, choosing which party member is their preferred presidential candidate. This year, the Democratic Party had 29 major candidates, while the Republican Party only had 1 (Donald Trump). The candidates from the Democratic party spent months campaigning and debating, which meant the primaries lasted ran from February until July. During this period, if contenders lacked the amount of money or votes needed to win, they dropped out. Like in any election, the candidature goes to the party member with the most votes. In July, Joe Biden was declared the 2020 Democratic Nominee.
So, primaries are over. Each party now has a presidential candidate. Let’s fast forward two and a half months to October: both parties have now also selected their vice-presidential nominees (Mike Pence for the Republicans and Kamala Harris for the Democrats). In the month leading up to the election, these 4 political figures engage in intense campaigning. They host rallies, make TV appearances and numerous public speeches, all in an effort to convey their vision and plans for America. And win the votes of the most American demographics, of course. The presidential candidates also participate in 3 extremely high-profile presidential debates that are guided by a moderator so that the public gets to hear both candidate’s view on topics that are “on the ballot”. If a topic is “on the ballot”, it means it will be highly contentious and an issue on which the presidential candidates are likely to adopt diametrically opposed stances. Some of this election season’s current “on the ballot” topics include the management of COVID-19 and racial inequality.
The US presidential race is highly scrutinised by both US and international media, so much so that candidates often end up becoming celebrities of sorts. Like other high-profile public figures, candidates sell merchandise, create mailing lists and enlist armies of Americans who demonstrate unwavering support.
There is an expectation that candidates appear at multiple public engagements every day, often across different cities and sometimes even different states. Cameras are constantly snapping in an attempt to capture every movement of the campaigns and journalists can be seen dissecting every line that gets said, tweeted or posted. Seldom, if any part of candidate’s livelihoods is private once they emerge on the political stage.
Now let’s discuss voting.
Although everyone’s ballot requires a vote for a specific candidate, not all votes carry equal weight in the election. The US has electoral colleges, which are a group of presidential electors who come together after public voting closes to cast their nomination for the President. In general, these electors go with the popular vote. Each state has a different number of electoral colleges, with the largest state being California, where there are 55 electoral college votes. This causes an inequality because many smaller southern states, have an overrepresented number of electoral votes when compared to population.
By the time election day rolls around, it is estimated that over 25% of Americans will have already voted using mail in ballots. In most states, election day is not a public holiday and employees are only entitled to two hours of paid leave on the day. On this day, voters often flock to the polling places, especially in dense areas. This unfortunately makes for lines that can swell to multiple hours waiting time. Consequently, there have been several calls during election season for politicians to address the voter suppression in the working class, said to arise from these rules that restrict voting time for members of the American workforce.
But what actually happens once polling booths close?
Once the polls are shut, it can take weeks to count and sort every last vote that has been cast. However, there is usually a pretty good idea of who the winner of the race is, and it is customary for them to be ‘declared’ President of the United States by the end of election night or even early the next morning. When this announcement is made, a concession speech will be made by the losing candidate, an act in politics that is used to publicly admit defeat. Following this, the winning candidate takes to the stage to make a victory speech, often thanking campaign organisers, family and party members for all of their hard work. Election season has now concluded. In January of the next year, this candidate is sworn in as the new President of the United States (POTUS).
Now we know how US elections actually run, let’s talk about the country’s current election.
So far, Democrat nominee Joe Biden has been soaring in America’s polls. With Trump’s recent positive test to COVID-19 and his presence absent from public stages, many believe Biden now has a unique opportunity to cement his win. Equally, however, there is conjecture that Trump’s diagnosis may also be just what he needed to catch up to his opponent. Journalists believe that a vulnerable Trump will prick empathy from the American people.
That being said, we are a long way from February when this fierce race began, but assuredly, the race is far from over. In election seasons, nothing is cemented, either candidate could swing ahead in the polls at any hour. What’s for sure, however, whether Trump will have another four years in office or not will be exclusively up to the Americans who show up to cast their vote on November 3rd.