On the morning of November 7 (Beijing time), President Obama won reelection in the 2012 US presidential election. I was honored with the chance to observe this election and participated in the Democratic Parties¡¯ ¡°Get out the Vote¡± rally in Chicago, as well as other events organized by The Chicago Council of Global Affairs, Occupy Chicago (a branch of the Occupy Wall Street movement), the League of Women Voters, and the Chinese-American Services League. I also met with both the governor and Secretary of State of Indiana. In Indiana I was taken to 12 polling stations on Election Day and observed various voting machines and witnessed the election process from poll opening to closing.
In general, the contemporary American electoral process is one of complex technical details and logistics; it also retains many local idiosyncrasies. The complicated electoral model is only suitable for a super power such as America. The idea that the US election only requires voters to possess the intelligence of an eight-year-old kid is obviously unrealistic.
Given that the US is a country with such a vast territory and perhaps the world¡¯s most diverse population, elections surely have a high cost for both human and material resources. An election in such a super power is not that simple.
Based on my own observations, there are different election provisions between the two states I observed (Illinois and Indiana) or even among the counties within a state. These rules, plus various political views, methods of polling mobilization and voting methods in the counties, constitute the characteristics of local governance under the federal system. Yet this system also creates the existence of variable factors and loopholes inside local institutions that politicians can use for their own political gains.
The officials at the Chicago Board of Elections conducted a specialized analysis of Florida¡¯s sample ballot during the 2000 election, which, as it turned out was especially hard for the elderly to either tell the names of the candidates or to punch corresponding holes on the ballots. Numerous ballots were declared invalid that year in Florida. This was mainly because Florida had Republican leadership in 2000, whose governor, Jeb Bush, was the brother of George Walker Bush, the 2000 Republican presidential nominee. Florida carried out an election strategy in favor of Bush.
Given the aftermath of the Florida ballot issues in 2000, changes were made to make ballots more standardized and voter friendly. However, despite these changes, including reforms with the election method, some states still carry out complex voting procedures that impose restrictions on voters who are less educated or privileged.
First of all, according to an official at an Indiana polling station, their voter turnout has historically hovered at a rate of around 40%, but the turnout in 2012 was lower than that of 2008. The ¡°turnout¡± only refers to registered voters rather than those who could vote, but are not registered. In the US, one has to register first to be qualified as a voter, while the registration procedures sometimes prevent the less educated from voting.
Secondly, the American Election day is the first Tuesday in November, rather than on a weekend or holiday. Having Election Day on a weekday makes it inconvenient for those who have to work or study. Taking Indiana for example, early voting is only held at the Indiana Capital Education Bureau. The last voter I ran into before the polls were closed at 6 pm was a college student who rushed in to vote after class. According to him, there were still some of his classmates who didn¡¯t turn out.
Thirdly, the election is more than just an election for the President. Under various federal conditions, governors, congressmen, state senators, judges and other local administrative officers, even coroners are all elected at the same time. Besides, voters also need to set their own agendas based on their understanding and the demands on local politics. However, given that some lower class Americans are unwilling to probe into politics and the less educated and under-privileged people are discouraged from registering as voters, plus the complexity of the election, there are quite a few marginalized voters in this election.
The elections in nine ¡°swing states¡±[i] this year caught the most public attention. Since obtaining 270 electoral votes wins the election, the 110 electoral votes in these swing states are both essential and important. Ohio, as the most key swing state, with 18 electoral votes in hand, has been a critical battleground state since 1944. State polls before the election in Ohio were highly scrutinized and provided much of the pre-election suspense.
Obama won with a large electoral vote margin by winning eight of the nine swing states, with only North Carolina casting its electoral votes for Mitt Romney. However, Obama¡¯s edge in electoral votes vanished in the popular vote. The outcome of popular vote was very close, and Obama won by narrow margin. If Hurricane Sandy hadn¡¯t helped Obama, the dramatic election in 2000 might have been staged again, when President Bush won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote[ii].
This reveals that the outcome of the United States presidential election may not be consistent with the will of most voters. Meanwhile, the fact that elections in swing states determine the final result, many voters in non-swing states feel their vote has no value. We studied elections held in Obama’s home state, Illinois, a democratic state, and the republican state of Indiana. As the research turned out, election results there were relatively stable and lacking in the heated campaign atmosphere that could be found in the swing states. That¡¯s because presidential candidates invested more efforts in the swing states compared with the more reliable non-swing states. Therefore, for voters in those states, their appeal wouldn¡¯t be easily accepted by candidates, whereas the swing states voters¡¯ demand usually draws a positive response from the federal government.
As a federal country, the US presidential election boasts a distinctive character of local autonomy, and acts as the framework of the nation¡¯s politic system. Every official, whatever their position is, is elected by the voters. This huge electoral machine, with its complex operational mechanisms, has supported the relative political stability of the United States, a superpower which possesses a vast territory and a diversity of ethnic groups. In conclusion, after years of amendments, the electoral system of United States has become sophisticated, diverse, and full of local characteristics.
Many American scholars have pointed out the disadvantages of the electoral system during the discussion. Despite this, their critical words for the democratic system, or even worries for the future possibility of American society¡¯s corruption, are only worries of their own. Those are their self-criticisms and their expressions that they acknowledge there may be unexpected developments. It¡¯s essential for us to maintain sober on this point.
The establishment of a political civilization of a super power, especially its electoral civilization, requires wisdom and balanced interests of parties, as well as a mature operation on electoral technology, motivation, and supervision.
Translators: Gao Di and Li Yang
Gao Di is a student of diplomacy at China Foreign Affairs University. Li Yang is a master¡¯s student in Public Administration at Renmin University.
Editors: Marjorie Perry, Andrew Dirks, and Xiaoyuan Li
Original Author: Kang Bude
Original Publication Date: November 12, 2012
Original Article: http://www.dfdaily.com/html/63/2012/11/12/893157.shtml
[i] Editor¡¯s Note: The nine swing states were the states where the outcome of the election was not evident prior to the election, unlike the remaining 41 states, where the winning party was widely known prior to the election, based on regional politics and recent history. The nine swing states in the 2012 election were Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
[ii] Editor¡¯s Note: The effect of Hurricane Sandy on the 2012 election is difficult to determine. The storm benefited Obama in the fact that it prevented Mitt Romney from being at the center of the news during the last week of the campaign. Obama was generally praised in his quick response to the storm, which possibly helped his prospects at the ballot box. On the other hand the storm drastically affected communities in New York City, New Jersey, and Connecticut, traditionally states with large numbers of registered Democrats. The turmoil caused by the storm could have affected Obama¡¯s margin of victory in the popular vote, as possibly millions of voters could not make it to the polls after the storm.