Why Are American Elections Unique?
The United States is not a straight-A student when it comes to democracy. The country’s Electoral College system is rife with flaws and skews the results of an election.
Each state holds a series of elections and caucuses to choose Electors who vote for the president. The Constitution stipulates that a candidate must win at least 270 electoral votes to become president.
The Electoral College
In 1787, the Constitution’s authors drafted the Electoral College to ensure that larger states didn’t overpower smaller ones in selecting the president. Today, each state gets 538 Electoral College votes—one for each U.S. senator and representative, plus three for Washington, D.C. The Electoral College system hasn’t changed much since then.
Currently, all but two states (Maine and Nebraska) use a winner-take-all system, in which every single electoral vote goes to the candidate that won the statewide popular vote. Critics say this forces presidential candidates to spend disproportionate amounts of time, money and energy in so-called “swing states” where no one party has a strong majority.
The Founders were also worried that direct presidential elections or a national popular vote wouldn’t allow them to count enslaved people as full citizens. In addition, they feared that people living so far from each other would know little about the candidates and could be seduced by demagogues.
The Popular Vote
The share of the popular vote a candidate wins does not always correlate with the number of electoral votes won. This is due to the winner-take-all majoritarian voting system used by states to award their electoral votes.
In close elections, a shift of just a few hundred voters in a single state can radically alter the outcome. This is the reason why the Electoral College system was created.
There are no Federal or Constitutional laws that require electors to vote according to their state’s popular vote. However, twenty-nine States have laws that legally bind their electors to their political party. Typically, these electors hold leadership positions in their parties or were chosen to recognize years of loyal service.
A national popular vote would ensure that a presidential candidate earns the support of most Americans. Currently, candidates focus their campaigning inside battleground states like Ohio or Florida, where every vote counts. To date, 17 states and DC have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.
The House of Representatives
From the beginning, the House of Representatives has been viewed as the legislative branch with “an immediate dependence upon, and intimate sympathy with the people.” That’s in part because members of the House are elected directly by voters for two-year terms.
Congressional districts are based on population data collected by the U.S. Census, and seats are redrawn every ten years as population shifts occur. This system is designed to ensure that each state has a proportional number of Representatives and allows for a more accurate and representative representation.
Individuals with similar political ideas form parties, which compete in a series of events called primaries and caucuses to select delegates to their party’s nominating conventions. Those delegates then choose the presidential nominee for their party.
The Senate consists of 100 senators, two from each state. Until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, senators were chosen by their state legislatures, but today they’re directly elected by the people of their states for six-year terms.
The framers of the Constitution modeled the upper chamber after early state senates and governor’s councils. They also drew inspiration from the British parliament’s model. Like the House of Representatives, the Senate has its own set of standing rules designed to promote deliberation. For example, the rules require a greater majority vote to end debate on a bill.
The rules also make it possible for Senators to propose floor amendments to pending bills that would significantly alter their original intent. These are known as “riders” and can be controversial, as ThoughtCo notes. Members of the Senate belong to one of two political parties and are organized into conference committees. Leaders of the two conferences (also called caucuses) play a major role in determining legislative agendas and committee assignments.