Understanding the Presidential Election: Political Parties and the Electoral College


5 minutes

U.S. Political Parties

Elected officials in the United States are mostly backed by Political Parties. These parties, or political organizations, choose the leaders that they want to represent them and support these leaders in the elections.  In the United States, there are two major political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, that control most of the elected offices, but other smaller parties can play a role in an election as well.

Political parties are not prescribed by the Constitution of the United States. In fact, no parties had officially formed by the time of the first U.S elections. They came about later as a way of organizing voters who agree on certain issues. George Washington, the first U.S president, famously warned against political parties, saying that they might destroy the unity of the nation.

Whether national unity is hurt under the current system is up for debate, but it is true that the parties often disagree on key issues. The Republican Party today is considered the more conservative party and Democrats tend to support plans that are more liberal. The Republicans currently control the U.S House of Representatives. Democrats control the U.S Senate, and the current President, Barack Obama, is a Democrat.  There are other smaller parties that run the gamut from very conservative to very liberal. The candidates that run under these parties don't often win elections but do sometimes affect their outcomes by increasing or taking support away from a candidate from one of the main parties.

Candidates can also run as Independents, or persons with no political party backing them. A candidate may run as an Independent if they can get enough support to organize their own campaign fund raising. Senators Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Joe Lieberman from Connecticut are the only independents serving in the U.S. Congress at this time.

The balance of power between the parties may shift during an election, but control of U.S. government tends to remain between the Republican and Democratic Parties.

Electoral College 

Tomorrow, Americans will go to the polls and vote for President of the United States. Each U.S Citizen is allowed one vote for president but the winner is not necessarily decided by counting up all the votes and seeing who comes out on top. U.S Presidential Elections are determined by something called the Electoral College. The Electoral College is not some kind of university or school. It is a system in which each U.S State is given a certain number of voting representatives to cast ballots during an election. The number of electors has varied throughout American history but in recent elections there have been a total of 538 electors divided up between the states.

The number of electors a state gets depends on their population. Vermont, having a small population, carried only 3 electors in 2008 while Texas, a big state with a large population, carried 34 electors. The residents of each state cast their votes on Election Day, the first Tuesday of November. Each ballot is counted as one vote and the winner of the most votes wins the state. A candidate wins the election by winning states. For example, in the state of California during the 2008 Presidential Election, 13,286,254 votes were cast, with over 8 million going to President Barack Obama. His main competitor, John McCain, a senator from Arizona won about 5 million votes. California, the most populous state in the country, has 55 electors, which all went to President Obama.

Why do we use such a roundabout way to select a president? It is tradition mostly. There are some pros to the Electoral College, as states with small populations don't get wholly ignored. It is still possible to win an election without winning any of the most populated states. Most major presidential candidates make a point to visit as many states as possible, even those that don't hold many electors. Perhaps in a strict popular vote system, candidates would spend most of their time visiting large cities and metropolitan areas, ignoring those living in rural areas or less densely populated towns.

There are criticisms of the Electoral College. The main one is that it allows for a scenario where a candidate can win the most individual votes but still lose the election. This is how George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the 2000 election for U.S President. Mr. Gore won 50,999,897 million total votes but only gained 266 electors. President Bush only won 50,456,002 total votes but finished with 271 electors and was therefore elected president.

The other criticism is that some states end up with too much power in this system. Presidential candidates spend a lot of time campaigning in so-called swing states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Support for the two major political parties (Republican and Democrat) are almost even in these states and they tend to have many independent voters who can be persuaded to vote for either side. These states receive a remarkable amount of news reporting, polling and attention from candidates during an election season.

In the United States, only Presidents are elected using a system of electors. Governors, mayors, congresspersons, etc are all elected by direct elections. However, we are not the only country to use such a representative process to elect a leader. Estonia, India, and Ireland use voting methods that are similar in some capacity.

Polls done on American voters have found that most people would like the Electoral College to be disbanded and the president to be selected by a popular vote. To do so would require a lengthy process to amend the U.S constitution so it is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future.

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Ani Kington Ani Kington

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ani is a fan of exploring new places through photography and the local cuisine. After earning her BFA in photography from NYU and gaining communications experience at International Planned Parenthood Federation, she joined InterExchange in 2012, and worked as the Marketing Producer until 2016.

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