Over the next few weeks I will be providing commentaries from the United States on the elections. However since the details and peculiarities of the American system may be unfamiliar to many across the Atlantic I thought I would use this first installment to explain the American electoral system.
The first point to note is that the American presidential system differs from the parliamentary system which is widespread in Europe and in many other democracies. In the parliamentary system the chief executive is chosen by the legislative. Voters usually do not vote directly for the chief executive, but rather for the party delegate of their district and whichever party holds the most seats in the parliament in turn is able to form a government.
Drawing about the writings of great European thinkers such as Montesquieu, the American founding fathers believed that since people tent to be ambitious by nature, where too much power is concentrated in one person or body of the government it will inevitably become tyrannical. They had first hand experience of how the British parliament acting without checks on its power became destructive of freedom. James Madison in his famous Federalist paper #51 wrote that:
“In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others…the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner that each may be a check on the other”(italics added)
For this reason in designing the constitution the founders based the American system of government on a separation of powers which means that the executive power (the President), the legislative power (Congress), and the judicial power (the Supreme Court) are independent of each other and each is able to limit the power of the other branches. In order that the executive and legislative powers maintain their independence of each other the founders created a provision for the president and the congressional representatives to be elected independently of each other. Right now for instance the Democratic Party holds a majority in both Houses of Congress, while the president is a member of the Republican Party.
Under the terms of Article II of the US constitution the president is elected not by Congress but by an electoral college whose sole task is to elect the US president. After it fulfills its function the College dissolves. Each state has a certain number of electors which is equal to the total number of representatives the state has in both houses of congress. Since in the House of Representatives the number of electors is proportional to the population this means that large states such as California, Texas or New York have many more electors than small states such as Wyoming. On day of the general election which falls on November 4, 2008 voters in each state will vote for the person they want to be President and whoever wins the popular vote in each state gets ALL of the electors belonging to that state. The formal electoral vote is a bit later in December.
In addition to the general election there is also another electoral process – currently in full swing – whereby each political party elects its nominee for President. This determination is formally made at the party conventions which meet in late August for the Democrats and in early September for the Republicans. The delegates for the party conventions are chosen by state and each state has its own rules. Most states use the system of a primary election – citizens using a secret ballot simply vote for the candidate they prefer just like in the general election. Some states like New Hampshire use an open primary – you don’t need to be a member of a political party to vote in its primary. Thus for example while Mitt Romney did well among Republicans in the New Hampshire primary, many independents (people belonging to neither party) voted in the Republican primary for John McCain helping him to win the N.H. primary.
Some states such as Iowa do not use a primary system but instead use a caucus. In this system the people of a given town may attend something like a town meeting in which they discuss and debate who should be the nominee of their party. This is a cherished tradition among the people of Iowa who are the first to vote for party presidential nominees.
In this election cycle the big day will be February 5 – “Super Tuesday.” On that day over twenty primaries and caucuses will be held including some of the most delegate rich states. Generally it becomes pretty clear by then who will be the party nominee. On rare occasions however no candidate emerges with a clear majority of delegates and the issue has to be resolved at the convention itself, often through political horse trading.
This is a particularly interesting election year because virtually anything can happen. Looking at the Democratic primaries conventional wisdom had assumed that Hillary Clinton as the former first lady and Senator of New York would be the inevitable nominee. However Barack Obama with his charisma helped to energize younger voters to get involved in the political process, leading to his surprise victory in the Iowa Caucus. Hillary came back with a victory in the New Hampshire primary which disproved all the polls. At this point we can expect a tough battle to the finish. Many voters are attracted to Obama’s powerful rhetoric and air of youthful idealism, but critics doubt his experience and knowledge particularly in foreign policy. The Clintons are one of the most skillful political families in recent American history, and many are excited by the prospect of the first female president. However Hillary also has many strong critics and opponents both within and outside her party.
The Republican race is (to me at least) even more interesting. When the nominee is already an incumbent President the Primary process is often little more than a “rubber stamp”. However since President Bush has already won two terms in office he is ineligible to run again, leaving the Republican field wide open. The nominee will almost certainly be one of four men – Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Senator John McCain, the former Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani. Each is relying on a different strategy. Giuliani is ignoring these early primaries pinning his hopes on a knock blow on Super Tuesday where he polls well in big urban states like New York and California. Mitt Romney until recently his major challenger hoped to win some of the early states to pick up enough momentum to challenge Giuliani. However Mike Huckabee and John McCain both surged unexpectedly the former beating Romney in Iowa the latter in New Hampshire. At this stage Governor Romney is pinning his hopes to beat Giuliani on a win in the next big primary which takes place in Michigan on Tuesday January 15th.
This presidential race has been full of surprises and there are sure to be more to come. One thing however is for certain – the political direction of America now hangs in the balance. What happens in the next months will determine the character of US government policies both domestically and toward the world for years to come. In my next installment I will deal with the campaign issues in more detail focusing on the Republicans.