Ridiculous US voting system

By February 4, 2017US Politics

In an online chat, a Trump voter (a trumpette) stated that America had the best voting system in the world (I think the word ‘electoral’ was beyond him). I laughed initially at his ignorance, but by the time I regained my composure, someone else attempted to explain how ludicrous the system was but, unfortunately, that person had to use polysyllabic words and the trumpette drifted off into the ether. Another trumpette thought that ‘democracy’ and ‘republic’ were antonyms!

As in Australia, the US government is divided into three levels, with representatives elected at the federal, state and local government levels. In the US, the head of state is the President, and he (it’s been only males so far) is indirectly elected by the people of each state. Although the US constitution defines the basics of how federal elections are run, the funny thing is that it is state law that regulates most aspects of the federal elections.

The electoral college is the mechanism established by the constitution for the election of the President and Vice President. Citizens entitled and registered to vote are allowed to vote in one state to choose a group of electors, which are pledged to vote for a candidate. The number of electors is equal to the number of senators plus the number of representatives in congress for that state. When the votes in a particular state are counted, that determines for whom the electors vote. In some states (Maine and Nebraska) that is proportional, so if 50% vote for one candidate, and 50% vote for the other candidate, then 50% of the electors vote for one candidate and 50% for the other. However, in all the other states, the person with the most votes in a particular state takes all of the electors. So, if the voters of Texas, with 38 electors, votes 51% for Candidate A and 49% for Candidate B, then Candidate A gets the pledges of all 38 electors. That is how, in the most recent election, Clinton won the popular vote 65,844,610 (51.1%) to Trump’s 62,979,636 (48.9%) compiling only the votes for the two major candidates. This was a difference in favour of Clinton by 2,864,974 votes (2.2%). However, within the electoral college, Clinton lost by 227 (42.75%) votes to 304 (57.25%), again compiling only the votes for the two major candidates. That is a turnaround of 8.35%. That is not particularly democratic.

On top of all this farnacling around, the US does not have preferential voting. Preferential voting has a ballot with all the names of the candidates on it and you put the number ‘1’ alongside your first preference, ‘2’ alongside your second preference, ‘3’ against your third preference and so on until all the candidates’ names have a number against them. Then the first preferences (those with number ‘1’ against their name) are tallied, and the person with the fewest ‘1’ votes has their votes distributed to the candidate with ‘2’ against their name. Then in the second round of preference distribution, the candidate with the fewest votes (the sum of ‘1’ and ‘2’ votes) has their ‘2’ and ‘3’ votes, respectively, distributed and so on until the last two candidates remain. The candidate with the most votes wins. It sounds complex, but it is amazingly simple, and cheap.

The 2013 Australian federal election (the last for which figures are available) cost $193,774,374 to run. Australian elections campaigns are also very cheap, with the two major parties spending something of the order of $30,000,000. So, the election cost around $224 million in total (running of election plus campaign costs), which comes to about $A14.27 per ballot cast. The 2012 US election campaign alone cost an estimated $US6.3 billion. It has been estimated that the cost of running the election itself is over $US1 billion. So, a federal election in the US costs about $7.5 billion and given that just under 129 million ballots were cast, that comes to about $US581 per ballot cast. Coupled with the current exchange rate difference (about $US75 to $A100), that makes the US election about 54 times as costly as an Australian election on a per ballot cast basis. That is ridiculously expensive. If US elections operated at the same rate of per vote expenditure as Australia, then every presidential cycle they would have an extra $US6 billion to spend on schools, hospitals, and other useful things.

The fact that US elections are held on a weekday results in a considerable amount of lost productivity. Australian elections are held on a Saturday so lost productivity is much less.

Preferential voting requires you to be able to count, so perhaps in the dim, dark past when the US electoral system was constructed, the lack of literacy and numeracy may have been a concern, so perhaps a cross in one box was the way to go in the 1860s. However, that was a century and a half ago, and literacy and numeracy are much more widespread than they used to be. In addition, the US election system was designed when transport was by horse and cart, and communication by telegraph. The US also has a jumble of systems which vary from state to state and there is no overarching organisation to run federal elections. In Australia we have a federal electoral commission which is independent of government, and which runs federal elections, changes electoral boundaries as required by population changes, prints all the ballot papers etc. In the US, gerrymanders are fairly common as state governments are in control of electoral boundaries. You can tell this by the odd shapes of some of the electorates, where parts are excised to gain advantage for one party or another. Gerrymanders in Australia are very rare and have only happen in recent times at a state level.

The unbelievably archaic voting system in the US is symptomatic of the nation. They still use gallons and pints, feet and miles, pounds and ounces, for christ’s sake. In many ways the US is still a colony of the UK.












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