On November 3rd, incumbent President Donald Trump will face Democratic candidate Joe Biden for an American election that is as confusing as it is important. The presidential election system in the United States is based on a much more elaborate logic than a simple direct suffrage with a simple majority, which can lead to paradoxical situations as demonstrated by the defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 against Donald Trump despite her 2.9 million supplementary votes. How can this situation be explained ? How is the candidate chosen for the next four years?
Let us explain everything to you !
The need to choose the party candidate
To run in the US presidential elections, candidates must respect certain conditions. They must be at least 35 years old, be an American citizen by birth and must have lived at least 14 years on American soil. The first stage of the presidential journey takes place in the parties. The debates and reflections on the possible candidate extend over several months and take two possible forms: the primaries or the caucus.
The primaries, a phenomenon imported into France, refers to a race for the internal candidacy of the party. Each candidate presents himself and supports his political project. The primary process ends with a vote. They can be open (every citizen, regardless his political orientation can participate) or closed (only voters registered on the party list can vote). The caucus appoints an electoral committee assembling the party’s political supporters. The aim is to debate and argue. Unlike primaries, a caucus does not end with a vote in the polling booth but with a vote by show of hands.
Caucuses and primaries make it possible to appoint national delegates who will attend the national conventions of their respective party in which they finally elect the presidential ticket, that is to say the candidate and his running mate. The composition of the pair responds to various demands. The pair must be composed of two personalities representing two different trends of thought within the party, and cannot be from the same state. In the 2020 presidential election, the Donald Trump / Mike Pence ticket is renewed against Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
After the candidates have been appointed, the presidential campaign can concretely begin.
The system of the Electoral College
On the first Tuesday of November, voters are called to go to the polls in order to vote in each state for the electors that are going to compose the Electoral College. This rule concerning the calendar responds to transportation problems from the past and is preserved by traditionalism. Indeed, Sunday being the day of rest and prayer, voters only left their cities on Monday to make the often long journey to their polling places on Tuesday. Secondly, the electors meet on the “first Monday following the second Wednesday in December” (headache, when you hold us…) to officially raise a candidate to the status of President of the United States.
This system was an idea defended by the founding fathers in the Constitution in 1787. There are a total of 538 electors who are mainly local elected officials and party officials.
How are these large voters distributed among the states?
Each state is assigned two senators and a number of deputies proportional to its number of inhabitants. California, the most populous state, sends 55 electors to the Electoral College while Wyoming, the least populated state, sends only 3. This state, which has 600,000 inhabitants, represents 0.18% of the American population, a weight of 0.56% at the level of the electors. The Electoral College system therefore allows all states, even the smallest, to have a role to play in the presidential nomination, the rural voter having even a bigger impact than a voter in a large city.
The party with the most votes in the state wins the entire of the electors, it’s the “Winner-take-all” system. There are two states that make exceptions to this principle: Nebraska and Maine introduce each a proportionality in the counting of votes. For some states, the outcome of the ballot is beyond doubt, the electors have been attributed to the same party consistently at each election, due to the specific ideological conception of each state and their situations. Thus, California, a very liberal state, often appoints its electors to the Democratic Party while Texas, very conservative, maintains its confidence in the Republican Party. These considerations influence the electoral campaign of the candidates who will therefore not go “chasing votes” in a territory that they know is impossible to win because their political color is acknowledged. The main issue in their marathon lies in what are called the “Swing States”, that is to say, the states whose vote is still uncertain. These thirteen States, including Florida, Ohio and Nevada, are the real tipping point for the win.
After the assignation of the electors to each state, they then meet on the first Monday following the second Wednesday in December, this year being December 14, 2020. The President is the one who wins the vote of the electors by a simple majority : 270 out of the 538 electors. This system of indirect suffrage can lead to the paradoxical situation where a candidate wins the “popular vote” but is not appointed as the new President. This has occurred five times in history, the most recent example being the election of Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton in 2016. According to François David, lecturer at the University Jean Moulin Lyon III, this system advantages the Republican party because it is the political color of the smallest states, in retreat from globalization. According to its calculations, the Republican Party could win the presidential elections with only 25% of the popular vote on condition of “very fairly voting” at the level of the electors. Some voices are rising against the Electoral College, including Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, while others see it as a firewall preventing the hegemony of large American cities at the expense of the general American interest. In this sense, with the United States remaining a federation where power is at the state level, counting votes nationally would be a systemic incoherence.
The counting of votes for the electors then takes place on January 6 in Congress, followed by the official inauguration of the President on January the 20th, the Inauguration Day takes place in front of the Capitol in Washington. The President takes an oath, hand on the Bible (or any religious text or the Constitution), it is the commencement of his mandate.