Sunday, 21 February 2016

US elections - how do they work?

If like me you are a UK citizen (or from elsewhere in the world) who has an interest in US politics and their current election cycle, or maybe a US citizen who has forgotten some of the details since high school, you may be getting a bit confused about how it all works.
What is a primary? What are the candidates fighting for if this isn't the general election? Just what is a delegate anyway? Don't worry, it's not you. It really is that confusing.

So here is my simplified basic guide to how a US election works and what some of the terms mean. I'll be comparing to UK elections throughout as that is where I am from and the underpinnings of my political knowledge.

So let's start out with who is being elected and why.
In the UK we elect local MPs who sit in the House of Commons. The party with the most MPs in the house of commons is declared winner and is asked to form a government. The leader of that party (assuming it is an MP who has been elected) will become our Prime Minister.

In the US things are a little different. The President is elected in their own ballot - that is to say, that people can vote specifically for who they want to be in the position of President. People also vote for their local representatives, Senators and Representative (who together form Congress). This is a separate vote for their vote for President. Unlike in the UK, in the US it is entirely possible for the President to be from a party that does not hold a majority in Congress, in fact we have been in that situation in recent years.

So if the Presidential Candidates aren't Senators or Representatives (the US equivalent of MPs) and they aren't given the position just because they are head of the party with most seats, then where do they come from? Well, that's what the Primaries are all about.

What is a Primary and how does it work?

The Primaries are all about choosing which person each party will put forward as a Presidential Candidate in the general election.

In the UK the party leader (and therefore potential Prime Minister) is chosen by party members and affiliates in a vote. This happened with the Labour Party in 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn was selected.

In the US the Presidential Nominee for each party is chosen through Primaries.
Each state will hold a primary for each party. The parties (Democrats and Republicans, though there are technically independents and other parties) will have already had a few candidates put their names forward and will have been campaigning to gain public support. This year we have seen Clinton and Sanders campaigning for the Democrats and the likes of Rubio, Cruz and Trump campaigning for the Republicans. During the primaries, people will vote for their preferred candidate.
There will be a primary in each state for each party, e.g. the New Hampshire Democrats Primary and a separate New Hampshire Republican Primary

Each state can differ a little in their rules. Some states allow an "open vote" that is anybody can vote in any parties primary. You could vote for Republican or Democrat candidates even if you aren't a member of that party.
Other states say that you can only vote in a party's primary if you are registered as a supporter of that party or are officially recognised as "unaffiliated" or not a member of either party.

So you have gone to your primary and cast a vote, and your preferred candidate comes out on top. But that's not the end of it.
Firstly this process has to happen in every state.
Secondly, the candidate isn't just decided by the results of each state's primary. You are voting to tell a Delegate what to do.

Who or what is a delegate?

Each state has a number of delegates for each party. These delegates represent the people of that state at the National Convention for their party. At the National Convention, the delegates will place their votes for which person they want to be the presidential nominee.
When you cast a vote at a primary, you are telling your delegate how you want them to vote at the convention. This is because the government decided that all people should have a say in who the candidates are but recognises that not all people can attend the party's convention. This allows people to express their opinion and have it represented.
Each state varies a little in how they "instruct" their delegates. Some states operate a "winner takes all" system in which, whichever candidate gets the most votes over all, across their counties, they claim all the delegates. Even if the runner up won in some counties, they would still have no delegates for that state.
Other states operate more proportional representation systems i.e. each candidate gets a number of delegates equal to their share of the vote or counties won.
A recent example of this is in the Nevada Democratic Caucus that happened on Saturday the 20th of February.
In this, Hilary Clinton got majority if votes (52%) and won in 19 counties. She therefore got 19 delegates. Bernie Sanders got 47% and won in 15 counties. He therefore got 15 delegates. Clinton is still declared the winner as she got most votes and delegates however Sanders will still have those delegates representing him at the National Convention.

Super Delegates (or Superdelegates)

As well as the delegates who get told how to vote by the primaries, there are other Superdelegates who will have a vote in the National Convention. These are often elected officials who will be attending the Convention and are "un-pledged". They are free to decide who to give their support to at the Convention. Candidates will seek to gain the support of these Superdelegates ahead of the Convention.
A superdelegate may then publicly support (or pledge) a candidate. This gives the candidates (potentially) extra votes at the convention and can also sway the decisions of the general public if they see elected officials choosing one candidate over another. This is why the pledges of superdelegates can be big news and are something that candidates are eager to secure early on. Technically superdelegates are not locked in to this pledge and they could change their mind and vote differently at the Convention, though this rarely happens.

Caucus or Primary?

Above, I talked about the Nevada Caucus. You may have heard this word a few times in conjunction with the primaries, but it's not always clear what they are and if or how they differ from a Primary.
A primary is usually a vote by ballot. A process many of us will be familiar with - got to a voting station, tick a box on s voting slip, and then post it in a ballot box anonymously.
A caucus works slightly differently. These are more informal selection processes and will often be decided by public vote (as opposed to a private ballot) in a meeting style. For example a caucus may be people in the county attending a public meeting in a town hall and the vote being decided by a raise of hands, people calling "aye" or "nay" or coming to a consensus via discussion.
For ease, we use the term Primaries to cover all selection of delegates (during Primary Season), though technically, some states choose via Caucus.

The word Caucus has another meaning in US politics too. There are official Congressional Caucuses, which are interest groups made of of members of Congress to promote and support their specific cause. Examples of these are the Black Caucus (black members of Congress, with interest in issues affecting black people) and the Sikh Caucus (representing the interests of the American Sikh community). Though they can be influential in Congress and their communities or interest groups, they have no direct action in the Primaries.

What do the Delegates do, and the National Conventions

Following the Primaries, each party holds their National Convention. During the Convention, The delegates formally make their vote for the preferred Presidential Candidate. Because most of the delegates either pledge early on , or are bound by the results of the Primaries, the actual outcome of this is usually known in advance. However, the vote is still carried out, as technically, some delegates are permitted to change their vote so in theory, the result may be a surprise.
Votes are also cast for a Vice Presidential candidate. The Vice President is an indirect nomination, as they are chosen alongside the President - candidates will usually have declared preferences for their Vice President during their campaign, but it will be finalised at the Convention.
In some ways this is similar to how the UK Prime Minister appoints the Deputy Prime Minister independent of the election.
The Convention is also the place where they agree on certain platforms and policies that they will campaign for as a united party.

A summary of Primaries and Candidate selection

  • Various politicians will state their desire to be a Presidential Candidate. 
  • They will begin campaigning to be chosen as Candidate and eventually as President.
  • "Primary Season" begins, and over a number of months each state holds a caucus or primary.
  • In the Primaries, people vote for their preferred candidate. 
    • Each Party holds their own Primary
    • Different states have different rules about who can vote in which primary. 
    • The result of the primaries are used to tell Delegates how to vote.
  • Each state has a number of Delegates for each party. 
    • The Delegates vote for the preferred candidate at the party's National Convention
    • The Delegates are told how to vote by the result of the Primaries. 
    • They will vote for the overall winner in the state or for the winner in each county
  • There are Superdelegates, who are not tied to state primary results and can vote as they wish.
  • At their National Conventions, delegates will vote in accordance with the results of the primaries to select the party's Presidential Candidate.
    • The result is usually known ahead of time due to the results of the primaries.
    • The Vice Presidential Candidate is also chosen at the Convention but is not elected. 

As clear as mud, right? It is designed this way because every state (and territory, such as Puerto Rico) has it's own governance and is given the opportunity to vote in their own way. It also bridges the gap between the candidate being chosen by only those who can attend the Convention and the general public (or at least those members of the general public who are allowed to vote in each state). Over the decades, as the US has grown the system has become more complex; as things which made sense originally are still used but new systems have been added to accommodate contemporary needs.

This post took us as far as each party choosing their Presidential Candidate. There will be a future post explaining how the General Election itself works.
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