How U.S. Elections Work

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

I left a comment yesterday on this post regarding how Mr. Trump did not win a democratic election for U.S. President. Of course, leaving it vague as I did, it invariably prompted a standard response claiming our Presidential elections are supposed to be democratic. While I understand someone living outside the U.S. having that misconception, the blog author had no excuse, and it actually points out a very big misconception people have had after this previous election: that individual votes matter.

First, how do elections for President actually work?
The process is outlined in Art. II, § 1(2)-(3) of the U.S. Constitution and Amend. XII of the same. States determine how they select electors to an Electoral College, and those electors do the real voting. All states and districts that can cast votes do so by popular vote these days; those votes are then translated into an electoral college. Such a college awards electors based on senators and representatives in Congress, so popular votes technically only weigh as much as the electors they can select. Importantly, this allows for a process where a person can win without carrying a democratic majority.

Saying it’s a fully democratic process in the Electoral College is also a bit of a stretch. Electors don’t necessarily have to vote according to the public’s wishes. Only 30 states and Washington D.C. have faithless elector laws (laws that say electors must vote for whoever won that place’s vote), but even many of those laws don’t prevent the elector from picking some random person. In all actuality, only two states actually can stop an elector from going against a state’s vote; the rest of the country’s electors can do whatever they please.

Still, electors generally abide by what their state or district says.
Doing so instills at least some form of public legitimacy to the whole process. People who vote in an election can be reasonably confident that vote will at least matter somewhere. Thus, our public can at least appreciate that votes do matter in the abstract.

It does not negate the fact that a President can get elected without the majority of people in this country not approving of that happening. This doesn’t diminish the legitimacy of an election (much to the original linked blog author’s chagrin), but it does serve as a very distinct reminder that there is a majority out there who already is not convinced a President is right for the job. Pretending this doesn’t exist is just as disastrous as pretending it’s okay to encourage electors to go against their state’s wishes.

This might seem really complicated to people who have more efficient voting methods.
Parliamentary systems don’t generally have this problem, but the U.S.’s system is directly designed to avoid having a purely democratic majority dominate politics. It’s not enough for a large group of people to win an election; the election also must represent the majority of communities and places across it. Sometimes it serves us well, and sometimes people might not like the results.

In short, this system in the U.S. requires people to get some semblance of a consensus from everywhere instead of just a few places. This means listening to people rather than just making assumptions about what people have to say. It also means coalitions have to be broader in order for them to work properly.

In a bit of irony, that’s what the original post I linked to called for, but because the author made the mistake of equating dissent with random other things that aren’t facts, it came out as a sanctimonious appeal for dissatisfied people to just shut up. Coming together means more than just getting people to come to heel, or forming a group large enough to bully others into submission. It means listening to people and finding a way to reach an agreement people can live with.

4 thoughts on “How U.S. Elections Work

  1. I like the post, very informative. I do think there are two versions of the meaning of “legitimate” people are using. While it is true that the person who won the electoral college is now president and nothing can change that. It also is not the meaning some of us use when we say he is not legitimate. When I use that term I mean he is not qualified. He is to be resisted and fought against at every step. His actions on the campaign trail and in office are not acceptable. I equate the delegitimizing of the current administration to the total attempt to delegitimize the former presidence. I feel if they can take a president that was elected by a true landslide and do everything they can to deny him the authority of the office and undermine him at every step, then it is time to do that same thing to a man who did not win in a landslide, did not win the popular vote, and has not the temperament to be president. That is what I mean when I say the current President is not legitimate and I think others are using it that way also. We don’t mean he did not win the electoral college. Hugs


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