Voting, Elections, and the U.S. Political System
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Voting, Elections, and the U.S. Political System

By Jeff Fleischer

Jeff Fleischer’s new book, Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections, is designed as a primer (or refresher) for teens and adults alike -- about voting, elections, and the US political system in general. With the election just a few months away, he joins LitPick to answer a few questions about how that system works.

***How do absentee ballots work? Do they start counting the absentee ballots as soon as they are received?

As with many voting-related things, the answer is different from state to state. That said, most states don’t start counting them until Election Day. More than a quarter of states don’t start totaling absentee ballots until the polls close. Others have a set time (usually, but not always, at night) when the counting begins. There are some outliers, too. Colorado now conducts all its elections by mail, and starts tallying absentee ballots a few days before Election Day; Maryland, on the other hand, doesn’t count them until two days after the election.

***Primary elections - how is the date determined for these? Can a state’s primary date be changed?

Primary dates can absolutely be changed. California’s a good example. After voting in early March for years, the state voted on February 5 in 2008, part of the biggest and earliest group of Super Tuesday presidential primaries in American history. In 2012 and 2016, it mixed things up and didn’t vote until the first week of June. Part of why this year’s Democratic race was competitive longer than it was eight years ago was because California (and a few other states) pushed their primaries back, leaving a lot of delegates still up for grabs.

As far as who decides the date, that’s mostly up to the state parties. Plus, some states have their presidential primary and their primaries for other offices on separate days. By tradition, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are the first two events on the presidential calendar. When other states have moved their primaries earlier (a gambit known as “frontloading”), those two states scheduled theirs even earlier in response. The national parties try to prevent that by enforcing the Iowa-then-New-Hampshire tradition, and have punished states that tried to frontload by refusing to seat some of their delegates at the national convention. The book goes into more detail about how Michigan tried to do that in 2008.

***If we vote with a secret ballot, why would voters reveal who they voted for in a poll after they vote?

Like the name suggests, exit polls are conducted when voters are leaving their polling place. Since their debut (in 1967 in Kentucky), they’ve been an important tool for news organizations to predict election results.

Of course, if voters want to keep their preference a secret, they have every right not to answer. However, as you can tell from any parking lot’s bumper-sticker collection, a lot of voters are more than happy to let everybody know their political preference. Plus, while you have to check in with your name and identifying information in order to vote, you don’t have to offer any personal details at all in an anonymous exit poll. Pollsters do account for non-responses (and for false responses) when determining how many exit poll results they need in order to get a representative sample.

***What exactly is the Electoral College and how does it work?

There’s a lot more information about this in the book, but here’s a quick version.

The Electoral College is a specifically American system for selecting the president, in which each state casts a set number of votes based on its representation in Congress. Since every state has two senators and at least one representative, every state has at least three electoral votes (Washington D.C. also gets three, thanks to the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution). States with significantly more voters have more influence -- California has 55 votes this year, Texas has 34, and New York has 31. When you vote for president in November, you’re actually voting for electors, nominated by each party, who will officially cast the state’s votes after the results are certified. (They almost always go along with the state’s voters.)

While it takes 270 electoral votes out of 538 to win the presidency, those 270 votes can come from any combination of states. The Electoral College also makes it possible to win more overall votes but lose the election, which has happened several times -- most recently in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but Governor George W. Bush became president.

***Could you explain the history of superdelegates and why they are necessary?

Well, they’re not really necessary. And they’re not that old of an idea; the Democratic National Committee created them and used them for the first time in 1984.

Basically, superdelegates are high-ranking party officials who can support any candidate in the Democratic primary, regardless of what their state does, and they can change their mind at any point. They include the elected members of the DNC, elected Democratic governors and members of Congress, and other big-name leaders (such as former and current presidents and vice presidents, and former DNC chairs).

The party designed this system as a way for party leadership to have some say in the primary process. To supporters, they’re a check against rank-and-file voters picking somebody unacceptable to the party leadership. To opponents, they’re potentially a way for insiders to overrule the voice of the people. Superdelegates are relatively few in number (715 in 2016), but they can have a lot of influence. This year, the system came under scrutiny when many superdelegates supported Secretary Hillary Clinton very early in the process, making her lead against Senator Bernie Sanders look much larger than it would have with only state-by-state pledged delegates, and potentially influencing whether voters saw the race as still competitive.

The Republican Party has superdelegates too, but its process is totally different, and the superdelegates have almost no influence. Each state gets three GOP superdelegates who are seated at the national convention, but they’re required by party rules to vote whichever way their state already voted.


Thanks for answering these questions, Jeff, and we’ll be sure to learn more about voting and elections in your book, Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections.


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