This week, I will tackle a subject that has baffled some of the brightest thinkers of our time. The issue of the missing “dark matter” in our universe? No. Child poverty? Not that either. I will try to explain: the US electoral system.
Why is this such a difficult topic? Well for one thing, scientists can’t explain the epidemic levels of obesity in the US, because Americans are constantly exercising their right to vote. Indeed, a 1995 study suggested that US citizens were asked to cast their ballot approximately once every 3.5 minutes. And this was before the invention of online polls that ask crucial questions like: Should Rudy be voted off the island?
What are Americans voting for? Well, once every four years there is a presidential election, with congressional elections held at the same time. Elections for the House of Representatives are held every two years. Senators have six-year terms, with one-third elected every two years. Meanwhile State governors serve four-year terms with about half up for election every two years. All of this means three things:
1) The “Founding Fathers” — the people who set up this system — anticipated that revolving doors would be installed in every US government building.
2) These same people all had shares in companies that produced campaign promo items like bumper stickers, t-shirts, and US flag bunting.
3) It’s no wonder 95% of Americans have no idea who their local representative is.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start with something simple, like presidential elections. There are two parties in the US, one called the Democrats, the other called the Republicans. The first party has as its symbol a donkey, a pack animal known to bray a lot, and to be stubborn and gloomy. The second party is symbolized by an elephant, a war beast known for knocking down trees and stomping small things. Of course, one shouldn’t read into these things too deeply.
One becomes the leader of a party by going through a marathon process called “the primaries.” Leadership candidates campaign hard, state-by-state, to win delegates who will later attend a convention and select a leader. Many people believe that a successful candidate wins primaries by having a strong platform and discussing the issues. Actually, a successful candidate wins primaries by having a well-stocked campaign bus bar and fridge. This keeps the reporters assigned to cover your campaign happy and well-fed, which in turn prevents them from filing cranky stories with headlines like: “Candidate Flubs Breakfast; Expected to Drop Out of Race Tomorrow.”
Rather than hold all state primaries on the same day, the campaign is waged over a period of several weeks. This means that states further down on the schedule don’t get to choose between all of the candidates, just the ones that haven’t dropped out because they A) collapsed in exhaustion, B) ran out of money or C) forgot to restock the bus fridge. This holds true for every state but Vermont, which votes for a dropped out candidate anyway.
Once the two parties have selected their leaders, they square off in a campaign to become president. The candidates engage in serious, informed debate, and then respectfully ask the voters for their support. No, wait, that’s Finland. In the US, the candidates spend millions of dollars on TV advertisements that air every 32 seconds for about six months. Voter turn out is high in the US simply because the citizens will do anything at that point to make the pain go away.
The voting process itself is quite complex. First, because it is a secret ballot, citizens must register as either a Democrat or a Republican. They then go to a polling station where they enter a booth, confront a machine and pull a lever. Critics have compared US voting machines to Las Vegas slot machines, but really, that’s not a fair comparison: the user at least has some chance at winning when they play the slots.
Finally, all the votes are tallied. Well, except the ones from people named Chad, people overseas, and anyone in Vermont because everyone knows they’re going to vote for a dropped out candidate anyway. All the remaining votes are shipped, either by donkey or elephant convoy, to something called an Electoral College, which declares one of the candidates the president. No one quite knows what goes on there, but because it is a college, many suspect it involves large quantities of beer.
There. Now isn’t that all much clearer?