by TESSA WEBB

No matter who emerges victorious after November 3rd in the U.S. election, there will be endless analysis, commentary, and possibly protest in response.

TESSA WEBB attempts to break down some of the jargon you may hear and explain what consequences that these terms may have on the end result.  

1. The Basics…What Are The Parties?

In the blue corner, we have The Democratic Party, often depicted by its mascot, a donkey! Their current policy platform includes universal affordable healthcare, reforming the criminal justice system, protecting the environment, and rebuilding a stronger fairer economy (all taken from the DNC website). People who align with the Democratic Party are generally considered “liberal”, which means that they believe the government should play a role in progressive social reform. Their candidate is 77 year old Joe Biden, who served as Vice President under Barack Obama. His running mate (who would become VP if he was elected) is Kamala Harris. 

In the red corner are the Republicans. Their mascot is an elephant. The Republican party platform involves lowering taxes, deregulation and America-first trade and immigration policies, as well as returning to the constitution’s fundamental principles. (taken from the RNC website). Generally, people who align with the Republican Party consider themselves “conservative”, which means they prioritize upholding “traditional” values and free-market capitalism. Their candidate is the current President, 74 year old Donald Trump, running along with current Vice President Mike Pence.

There are other “minor” parties, the largest of which are the Libertarians. However, they rarely garner enough support to elect a candidate for Congress, let alone a President. However, in some states laws may allow them to appear on the ballot (Kanye qualified as an independent in twelve states, identifying as a member of the “Birthday Party”).

2. What Are The Branches Of U.S. Government? 

The U.S. government has three branches, with the idea being that they provide “checks” on each other in order to avoid one getting too powerful. 

The executive branch is made up of the President, the Vice President, and agencies and committees they appoint. The most well-known power that a President has is the veto, which enables them to refuse to sign a bill which has been approved by both the Senate and House of Representatives (however this veto can then be overridden by a ⅔ majority vote from Congress… this is an example of the “checks and balances” system in action). 

The legislative branch comprises two chambers that together are known as “Congress”. The House of Representatives has 435 voting members, who represent voting districts. The number of voting districts in a state is determined by the population, and then how those districts are divided within the state is left up to the state (the division process is explained more below!)  The House of Representatives is also on the ballot on November 3rd. The Senate is made up of 100 members, two for each state. Senators’ terms last 6 years, with 35 of the 100 facing re-election.  

The Judiciary branch is made up of the courts, the most important of which is the appropriately named “ Supreme Court”, which is made up of nine Justices who interpret laws and presides over cases which relate to the constitution. This branch has been in the news recently as Amy Coney Barrett was appointed to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg after her passing on the 18th of September. The Justices are meant to be politically neutral but are appointed for life by the President and Congress when a vacancy emerges. Therefore, it is accepted that six Justices mostly side with the Republicans in their rulings, while three mostly side with the Democrats. 

Currently, there is a Republican president, with a Democratic majority House of Representatives, a Republican majority Senate, and a Supreme Court that leans conservative.)

If the race is very close and requires a recount, the Supreme Court could play a major role in deciding the final outcome, as it did in 2000. The Court has already had an impact on the 2020 election, ruling in several cases relating to voting laws in different states. Furthermore, regardless of who wins the presidency, the makeup of Congress will have a huge effect on how much legislation they can pass. Ideally, a party aims to have power in all three of these domains, as losing one or two presents barriers to passing laws, even if you win the presidency. 

3. How Are Districts Drawn? And What Is Gerrymandering? 

Every state has a different process for drawing their congressional districts. These districts are meant to be as similar in population as possible and are redrawn at least every ten years based on census results. Some states employ independent committees, who draw up the districts as evenly as possible, whereas others are drawn up by the state legislature – the people who are being elected by them. 

This leads to some pretty interesting looking electoral maps. Gerrymandering is the term used to describe when the districts are drawn to favour one political party over another, and typically utilises two types of manipulation; packing (creating districts which put your opponents’ supporters all in one district, making it harder for them to win any others) and cracking (distributing the opposition’s supporters throughout the districts to ensure that they can never gain over 50% of the vote in any region). It got its weird name from Elbridge Gerry, an American politician and vice president in 1813, who created a district shaped like a salamander to result in the most favourable outcome for his party. 

Gerrymandering 101: A visual guide. by Tessa Webb, adapted from Stephen Nass.

The way that congressional districts are drawn can impact the final makeup of the House of Representatives, changing the amount of power each party has to pass legislation. The graphic below shows how the same voters split into different districts can cause completely different results! 

4. What Is The Electoral College? (aka How you can win, even if you get the least amount of votes. )

Okay, so here is the big one. The Electoral College is the collective name for the Presidential Electors (as the name implies, they elect the President). The amount of Electors each state gets is calculated by adding the number of Senators plus the number of House of Representative members they are represented by, for example, Alaska only has 3, whereas California has 55. These are actual people, who represent a state by casting their vote for whoever wins more votes there (in most cases!) For example, Texas has 38 electoral votes. Trump won 52.2% of the vote there, so he received 38 votes from Texas. This makes “swing states”, also known as “purple states”, states in which both candidates have a similar chase of winning, very important. The winner takes all, no matter how small their margin of victory is. 

The total number of electoral college votes up for grabs are 538, so whichever candidate receives 270 electoral college votes is the winner, regardless of how many votes they receive in total.

The winner of this election, as for any other US election, could be the person who receives the least individual votes overall. This has occurred 5 times in the past, most recently in the 2016 election where Hilary Clinton received approximately 2.8 million more votes than Trump, but Trump won 306 electoral college votes.

Because of all these different branches and mechanisms, American politics is unpredictable and confusing at the best of times. Throw in the chaos that has been 2020 in the mix, and it really could be anyone’s game. Now, you can watch informed!

TESSA WEBB is a small-town girl from friendly Feilding who ran her way to North Carolina. Currently living her American dream studying Political Science, eating frozen custard, and staying on that student-athlete grind.

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