A Dummy’s Guide to the US Elections

Politics can be a headache inducing topic but when you know the facts it all becomes a lot clearer. Photo credit: www.dreamstime.com

By Jessica Gibson

As America faces another political race to determine the new President, there are still thousands of people worldwide, unsure of left-wing from right-wing, Republican from Democrat and most recently even Barack Obama from Mitt Romney. 

This is not something to be ashamed of, however. There are still some blissfully happy people who think the Tea Party is a Lewis Carroll reference. The point of this guide is to provide a simple reference point for both those who vaguely care and those want to know more. This guide is a toe-dip into the American political system.

The parties

In the US, there are two main political parties: the Democrats (www.democrats.org) and the Republicans (www.gop.com). They hold two opposing views and have two sets of ideas. Both groups want their party to be elected, so they can reach the end goal of seeing their candidate become President.

Requirements for President

This is not an easy game. Firstly, you need to be over 35, no 21-year-olds at the destructive grasp of liquor and blackjack.

Next, you need to have been an American resident for at least 14 years, apparently proving dedication to the cause.

And finally you have to be a natural born US citizen, a majorly old school rule.

Despite many people outside of the US only hearing of the elections and the presidential race come September, the candidates’ campaigns start far in advance. January to June of the election year is vital for establishing who will be one of the party heavyweights. It’s the Ali vs. Frazier of the political world.

The American system of government

And now for the politics lesson, defining the branches of government. There are three: Legislative, Judicial and Executive.

On the Legislative branch, we have the House of Representatives and The Senate.

The House of Representatives includes 435 Members of Congress (important people who vote on the big decisions/bills). These individuals serve a two-year term and the number of reps from each state is determined by population (the bigger the state the more representatives).

The Senate are the big dogs. There are 100 of them. Senators serve terms of six years, which are staggered. At any given time, one-third of the Senate is up for re-election. Each state has two Senate representatives.

We’ll skip the Judicial Branch, as these guys don’t have any impact in an election cycle.

The last branch, the Executive Branch, this is made up of the President and Vice-President of the United States.

Voters are not just voting for their new president on November 6th. They will be voting for their congressmen and their senators as well.

Confused yet? It goes on…

The Electoral College

This is a process originally designed to ensure a fair election, divided up by Congress (important people) and the popular vote of state citizens. Out of 538 state electors (voters), a potential president needs 270 votes/points to win.

The number of votes a state receives depends on its population, so larger states like Florida (29 votes) have more influence in comparison to a state like Alaska that has only three votes.

The problem here is that because most states have a ‘winner takes all’ system (insert ABBA sing-a-long here), meaning that all the state’s votes will be for one candidate instead of allocating them to different candidates. This means that you can still be President even if you lose the popular vote.

An example of this was back in 2000 when President George W. Bush was elected over Al Gore, despite Gore winning the popular vote. Bush got in because of the Electoral College system.

The Electorate

The US voting age is 18, meaning you’re old enough to decide who can run a country, but too irresponsible to handle an alcoholic beverage. Welcome to the land of the free!

You also need standard US citizenship and to fulfil state residency requirements.

Parties go into overdrive, doing all they can to attract voters, in particular those in the so-called swing states. This term refers to the states, which are undecided on which candidate or party they will support; with no leading party, they are politically ‘on the fence’. These states are usually what make or break an election – each candidate battles it out for the swing states’ votes in the Electoral College.

Simple as that!

And that’s pretty much it. In simple terms, a bunch of people who all think they are right, decide to campaign for a spot in the White House. If the parties they support like them they become the candidate.

Then at the end of a very long campaigning process, individual states make an electoral vote (November 6th 2012).

The official count will not be until weeks later, delaying the formal announcement of a new president until early December. Then, closing in on Christmas time the White House will prepare for its new resident.

Come January and the inauguration, the champagne will be out and America will descend into the New Year with new plans.

Now, feel free to go on and read all the other articles, which will no longer make your eyes bleed and brain malfunction!