Catch Up On: American Elections

This topic has always seemed way too complicated for me to delve into, but it bugged me yesterday that I didn’t know the difference between caucus, cabinet and congress. I looked them up and decided that bugger it, given that the US presidential election is happening this year, I might as well suss out how it all works over there under ol’ Uncle Sam*. Little did I know how convoluted it all is. Anyways, off we go…

The Federal Constitutional Government of the United States was formed in 1789, after the declaration of Independence on July 4 1776 (i.e. independence from the English and other European colonists). Three cornerstones of governmental structure include:

  1.  Federalismwhich means that power is shared between the national and the (then 13, now 50) state governments. This power sharing arrangement is under constant review, change and debate.
  2. There are three branches of Government – the executive, the judicial and the legislative. The idea is that the three can conduct constant “checks and balances” on each other, so that no one branch can get too big headed and stoopid. Hmm, who was running the checks and balances on GW’s mouth is what I want to know?
  3. There are two major political parties. Currently in power (under Barrack Obama) is the Democratic Party, which is the oldest party. It most often positions itself to the left of the Republic party and has been greatly influenced since 1932 by that old lefty liberalist, Franklin D Roosevelt. The Republican Party was founded by anti-slavery activists in 1854. It represents a more conservative stance on economic and social issues. GW Bush was the last Republican president.
Let’s have a closer look at these branches then…
What is the Executive?
My vision of suited people around a large shiny board table is not too far off. Here resides the president, the vice president and the cabinet (not a matching shiny box).
The  president is the head of state and government, as well as the military commander in chief and chief diplomat. He is in charge of the 5 million people who work for Federal Government. His main function is to protect the constitution by passing or vetoing laws.
The vice president presides over the senate and is a member of the cabinet.
The cabinet is a group of smart cookies(or otherwise) nominated by the president and approved by the senate. Most of them have the title of secretary (Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense…their environment department is called Interior – WTF?) and they head up the executive departments. The president generally meets with his cabinet weekly, unless there is a large meteor threatening the fate of planet Earth in which case they might meet more frequently.
What is the Legislative? 
Aha, here’s Congress. Congress is the bit with the power to make laws. It makes up the legislative branch of government. There are two houses of congress – the senate and the house of representatives (or just the house if you’re cool and brainy like I’m pretending to be).
The Senate is the ‘upper chamber’. It has 100 members – two from each state – and holds more power. The senate is lead by the vice president (go Hilary). As well as law wrangling, it is charged with the responsibility of trying impeached presidents who are on the nose (think Bill Clinton and his penis – both acquitted). The senate must also approve Cabinet members and essentially keep the bastards honest.

United States Capitol, Capitol Hill, Washington

The House of Reps or ‘lower chamber’ has many more members (around 425), as each state’s representation is determined by it’s population. Each member represents a specific region of his or her state, which keeps them closer and more accountable to their constituents (voters). The power of the house lies mostly with it’s ability to raise revenue via taxes. It is also responsible for impeaching dodgy presidents and bringing them before a senate trial. The house is lead by the speaker and is divided into committees –  focused groups that tackle the varied issues on which congress must legislate.

Congress is sometimes referred to as Capitol Hill, which is the district of Washington where congress meets. (And here’s me thinking that The Capitol was the White House – well they’re both white ok – – did wonder at times what the president and his family did up in that enormous domey bit.)
What is the Judicial Branch?
This branch of government centres around the Supreme Court, the chief justice and 9 judges. Its role is to work through the confusing mess of US laws and decide what is constitutional and what is not. They preside over cases involving the US constitution, maritime matters, federal laws, diplomatic affairs, the government, interstate relations and when lower court decisions are appealed. The chief justice and judges are selected by the president and approved by the senate. They remain in position until they resign, retire or are removed for being shifty and on the nose. Up to 4,500 cases are reviewed by the supreme court and only about 200 are heard.  The lower courts include court of appeals and district courts.
In the abscence of a white-board, I will stick this here diagram in just to clarify things…
So now we have the structure sorted. God this is boring I feel like I’m at school; just in case anyone is still reading, we’ll move onto the election bit, but first here’s a little ditty to freshen us up a bit:
If this is slightly boring
And I’ve lost you to your snoring
I’d like to wake you with a little tune:
And now I’m going to go and eat a prune.  
Right, that done, elections…
How is a presidential candidate chosen? Firstly the candidate must be at least 35 years old and a native born US citizen. Candidates can only serve two full four year terms. Most presidential candidates are famous, serving in government or in the military. About a year before election day, a candidate will make an official announcement that he or she is running and papers are filed to the federal elections commission in order to regulate the process.
Once this is done, the campaigns begin. For the duration of the year, candidates and their enormous teams generally try to get in good with everyone. This may mean kissing babies, weeping over unfortunates or standing next to George Cloony. They make high profile trips and stirring speeches, give out little flaggies and spend a shit load of money kissing butt.

What are ‘Primaries’? The January of election year marks primary election time. Within each state, people from each party gather together to show their support for their various candidates (there are usually a few candidates for each political party). These gatherings or Caucus (aha!) involve getting together to discuss the pros and cons of candidates, then casting a vote via ballot in a polling  place.

Then what?  So then come the conventions, where each political party picks a group of people (delegates) from each state to represent the state at a large National convention. Here the delegates cast their vote on the candidate who came out on top of the caucus and we finally have the short list of nominated people running for the top job.

Then these top runners get on with more, heightened butt kissing and campaigning as the months close in on election day.

Election Day happens each leap year (every four years) on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (confused? This just means that if the first Tuesday is Nov 1, the elections happen on Nov 8.) This year it is Nov 6th and on that day, people across the country cast their vote for their favourite candidate (not compulsory) and the votes are counted. The candidate with the most votes becomes known at the Popular Vote, but this is still not our president elect, oh no, more voting to come. Jaysus.

Apparently these elections are not a mere popularity contest, there needs to be more checks and balances in the form of the Electoral College. The what?

The Electoral College.  This is in  place because essentially the “common man” is not to be trusted to select the best possible candidate (particularly with all that fake frontage during campaigns, hell, I’d be a bit swayed by a pretty face and a friendship with Brad Pitt). It is also there to afford smaller states a more equal voice. Anyway, what the college means is that voters in each state elect electors to represent their state. Each state is allocated the same number of electors as they have members in the senate and house of reps, which means there are about 535 electors in the college. The elector candidates either campaign for their spot in the college (crikey what a lot of bum licking surrounds a presidential election) or are nominated depending on the rules of their state.

On the Monday following the second Wednesday in December (this is the December after the popular vote is cast), the electors from each state meet in their state capitals and cast their vote for president and vice president. These votes are sealed and delivered to the

Ah yes, that’s the White House.

president of the senate who on Jan 6 opens and reads the votes in the presence of both houses of Congress. The winner is finally sworn into office at noon on January the 20th and gets to move into the White House in Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC (not Capitol Hill).

In most cases, the winner of the popular vote will be the same as the winner of the college vote, but not always. In 2000, the majority of Americans voted for Al Gore, but the college voted in George W Bush. A strong case against the college I would have thought. Go commoners I say.

Who are the main contenders this time around? 

Well we have come through the caucuses (or the primary elections) and are left with:

Democrats: (Incumbent) Barrack Obama, Darcy Richardson, Jim Robinson, Randal Terry and Vermin Supreme (who gets about wearing a large boot on his head and carrying a large toothbrush I kid you not).

Republicans: Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

There are other candidates from a variety of parties, including a naked cowboy and Roseann Barr for the Greens.

Newt and Mitt (despite their Godawful names) are looking like strong competition for Obama, whose popularity is fading in the face of decreasing job opportunities and  financial strains.

What about the elections for senate and house of reps?

Well the congressional elections will happen on the same day as the presidential election – Nov 6th. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for contention, along with 33 of the 100 senate seats. Candidates are voted for by their constituents in their respective states. These elections happen every two years. In the year for which there is no presidential election, they are known as Midterm Elections.

There are also 11 state Governors being elected this year.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that because I’ve had enough and if I keep going I will be mixing up more than my Capitols and my White Houses and starting to look much like this (except not as cute).

And just so you know I’m not making stuff up for cheap laughs (although I’m all for cheap laughs), here is a picture of Vermin Supreme:

Hee hee, I like him already.

 *(love an asterixed aside) Uncle Sam is a common personification of the US Government, named after Sam Wilson, a meat packer from New York who supplied rations to soldiers in the Ango-American war of 1812. He stamped his packaged rations with “US”, meaning from the United States, but someone joked that it stood for Uncle Sam. And that folks, is how a weeny thing can start something huge.

Categories: Newsteller

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1 reply

  1. Nice one Meg, well said. thanks! Now if you haven’t already, go catch the entire West Wing series for some of the best political banter on tv, you’ll love it.

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