What on Earth is the Electoral College? A Quick Breakdown of US Political Jargon

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Even for those of you who do your absolute best to avoid US presidential election coverage, you must admit … things are getting exciting! However, general reporting on US politics can be isolating in its throw-away use of technical jargon that we are magically supposed to understand with little to no clarification. Hopefully, this article will provide clarity to some of the terms currently floating around the news-sphere and maybe, the political circus will begin to make a modicum of sense!

The Electoral College –

Let’s start with the tough stuff! The Electoral College is written into the US constitution, detailing the formation of a body of electors every four years to, as the name would suggest, elect the president. Each state is provided a certain number of electors dependent upon their number of congressional districts along with an extra two electors to represent each states’ two senators. In taking California as an example, they have 53 congressional districts and two senators producing a grand total of 55 electors. Instead of directly voting for a presidential candidate, an American voter is instead voting for a representative who will go forth and represent them in the electoral college. Depending on the state, this tends to work on a winner-takes-all basis; whichever candidate wins a majority of votes will receive all of that states’ allotted electors. Just to add to the complexity, Maine and Nebraska split their electoral votes according to the proportion of votes each candidate received. Crucially, it is electors that win US presidential elections! With 270 electoral votes required to take the presidency, be sure to be watching the numbers closely on the 3rd!

Popular Vote –

It is likely you have heard someone say ‘… but Hilary won the popular vote’. That is true; in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won more votes directly from the American voters than the Electoral College. You may be curious; how could she win the popular vote but lose the election? It is only the Electoral College that matters and with most states assigning it’s electors based upon a winner-takes-all model, vast numbers of votes are rendered inconsequential such as a vote for Donald Trump in California or a vote for Joe Biden in Alabama. Although a strange voting system full of weird quirks that produce distorted outcomes, it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Take it up with the US constitution!

The Senate and House of Representatives –

Yes, the presidential election is taking place on the 3rd November, but so are elections for 1/3 of the Senate and all the House of Representatives. Already overwhelmed? The Senate is the upper chamber of the US federal legislature; currently, it is Republican controlled, meaning President Trump has had success in escaping the removal from office and in passing his nominees to the Courts.

The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of the federal legislature; Democrats possess control of the House, acting as a check and balance upon executive actions. Which party controls each chamber is hugely important as divided government can seriously restrain the actions of a president. A second Trump term with a unified Republican-controlled Senate and House will look very different to a term with a Democrat-controlled legislature.   

Battleground States –

Political junkies fixate upon so-called battleground States. These are states, such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in which the candidates appear neck-and-neck in the polls with it being possible for either to clinch the electoral college votes on election night. States like California don’t make for interesting political coverage with it being almost 100% likely that Biden will win the most votes. Therefore, it is on these battleground states in which the election can be won or lost. This year, Florida, North Carolina, and the ‘Rust Belt’ states may be worth a close watch.

Rust Belt –

States such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and parts of Wisconsin make up the ‘rust belt’. This informal region of northern US was given its name due to the deindustrialisation that has occurred throughout the 20th century. Some political commentators have claimed that it was Trump’s policies focussed upon ‘bringing back’ American industry that won him these states and, subsequently, the election in 2016. It will be interesting to see if Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan will land like it did four years ago.

The Republican and the Democratic Party –

The Republican Party, the party of President Trump, is a broad-church party that generally represents people who identify as ‘right wing’. With multiple different factions within the party, such as the Tea Party and the Christian Right, it is far too complex to explore here! However, under Trump, the party has shifted further to the political right advocating for stricter abortion laws, a stripping back of social services, the curtailing of immigration and more military spending. Although there are some Republican dissenters to the Trumpian hegemony that now grips the party, such as the former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the Trump base appears as enthused as ever!

The Democratic Party, also a broad-church, exists to represent those who are more centrist or left leaning. With Joe Biden and his vice-president nominee Kamala Harris fitting into the centrist wing of the party, their strategy is clearly to pick up the moderate Republican stragglers. The Democratic party is also highly factionalised with an increasingly influential socialist-lite wing, made up of figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It is important to note, what is considered left-wing in America is very different to the left-wing of Europe. To call someone a Socialist or a Communist is considered something of an insult; although this terminology is largely misused, it remains influential over the policies pursued by the Democrats. Notice, for example, Biden distancing himself from the ‘Green New Deal’ plan, which has been labelled by its critics as ‘socialist’.

This list could go on forever and every term is weighted with constitutional, historical, social and cultural weight. However, I hope this list has provided some basic insights into the complexity that will unfold before us on the 3rd of November and its aftermath.

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