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A pile of 'I voted' stickers in the US. SIPA USA/PA Images
US Elections

Explainer: How does the US voting system work?

People have already starting casting their votes in the 2020 election.

THE 2020 ELECTION in the United States is looming over the horizon, with just over two weeks to go until 3 November. 

Many eyes were glued to the ins and outs of the 2016 US presidential election, but with the pandemic and everything else happening in the world this year, the 2020 election may have fallen under the radar for some.

Ahead of the big day next month, here is a very basic guide to how the US voting system works.

So what is happening at the start of next month? 

On 3 November, people from the United States will cast their votes for president. 

A presidential election takes place every four years on the first Tuesday that follows the first Monday in November.

However, it’s not just the president being elected. 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the US Senate will also be elected. 

These are the US equivalent of the Dáil and the Seanad.

Republicans hold a 53-47 Senate advantage at the moment over the Democrats. 

How does voting work in the United States?

When voting for president in the US, the choices presented are generally more limited than those in Irish presidential elections. 

In the US, the real battle is between two candidates – one from the Democratic Party (Joe Biden) and one from the Republican Party (Donald Trump). 

trump-and-biden-meet-in-first-presidential-debate Donald Trump and Joe Biden in a presidential debate last month. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Depending on the State, there could be other candidates from smaller parties on the ballot, but the Republicans and Democrats have been in power for all but a few years in the history of the US.

However, the tally of votes from members of the public (otherwise known as the popular vote) doesn’t determine the winner of the presidency. 

Presidential elections instead use the Electoral College. So to win the presidency, a candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes. 

What is the Electoral College?

In the Electoral College, each state is awarded a certain number of electors (as many as it has members of Congress). There are 538 electors in total. 

For example, there are 39 electors in Texas, 55 in California and three in Wyoming. 

After members of the public cast their ballot papers, each vote is included in a statewide tally. 

In 48 States and in Washington DC, the winner gets all the electoral votes for that state. 

Two States – Maine and Nebraska – elect using a proportional system

A candidate needs the vote of at least 270 electors – more than half of the total – to win the presidency. 

u-s-chicago-presidential-election-early-voting Voters waiting in line for early voting in Chicago, Illinois this week. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

In most cases, a projected winner is announced on election night in November. However, the actual Electoral College vote takes place in mid-December. 

This is how Donald Trump was elected as US president in 2016. He won the Electoral College vote, but lost the popular vote.

This happened before in 2000 and three other times in the 1800s, according to the US government.

If no candidate receives the majority of the electoral votes, the vote then goes to the House of Representatives. 

House members choose the new president from among the top three candidates. The Senate can then elect the vice-president from the remaining top two candidates.

This has only happened once before in 1824, when John Quincy Adams was elected by the House as president. 

Have people tried to change this process? 

It would require a constitutional amendment to change it as it was part of the original US constitution.  

According to US government archives, more than 700 proposals have been put forward to change or get rid of the Electoral College over the past 200 years. 

Who can run for president? 

In order to actually try to become the US president, you must:

  • Be a natural-born US citizen 
  • Be at least 35 years old 
  • Have been a resident of the US for 14 years  

How do political parties select their candidate? 

u-s-texas-plano-presidential-election-early-voting Election signs outside a polling station in Texas. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

The election process in the US starts with primary elections and caucuses. These are how states select a potential presidential nominee. 

Primaries generally use secret voting ballots while caucuses are large gatherings of voters who choose their candidate at the end of a meeting. 

This then moves to nominating conventions where political parties select one nominee to get behind.

During a convention, each nominee also announces their vice-presidential running mate. 

The candidates campaign across the country, much like canvassers in Ireland before elections and referenda, to explain their views and plans to people. 

The candidates also must take part in debates during the run-up to the election. 

What about postal votes? Why has Trump been so critical of them? 

Millions of Americans vote by post in elections, but this year in particular has seen record figures so far.

More than 17.8 million people as of Thursday have cast their ballots ahead of the election. 

The result of the White House race will not be known at the earliest until the night of 3 November in the US, but the early vote indications from these ballots appear to favour Biden, who has a double-digit lead over Trump in the national polls.

Trump frequently denounces voting by post as being rife with fraud, but there has been no evidence of widespread irregularities with mail-in votes in past elections.

voting-in-wilkes-barre-us-15-oct-2020 A banner raised outside an election bureau in the US. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who runs the US Elections Project, said the early voting numbers bode well for Biden but there could be heavy turnout for Trump on 3 November. 

Several polls have shown that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote early because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I’ve warned that the heavily Democratic voting at this point should not be an indicator that Biden has the election [sewn] up,” McDonald said in an early vote analysis on his website. “Yes, the numbers are very good for Biden.

“However, it is very likely Republicans will show up in force to vote in person,” he added.

According to the US Elections Project, as of Thursday voters have requested 80.69 million mail-in ballots in the states reporting such figures.

Of the states that report requests by political party registration, Democrats have requested 23.66 million ballots and Republicans 13.91 million.

Do people in the US vote on paper like we do? 

This varies from state to state. Some have electronic voting devices which some use paper ballots when voting on the day.

Technical hitches are common during US elections and voting machines have led to some concerns about cybersecurity. 

Hackers are capable of entering voting machines. 

In 2016, US intelligence said Russian agents had tried to access the electronic electoral lists of some 20 states and accessed at least one of them, though without apparently modifying the data.

Washington announced in November 2019 that it had strengthened its election security across the country. 

Here in Ireland, you may remember our own issues with electronic voting (otherwise known as e-voting). 

The idea for e-voting was first floated by then-Environment Minister Noel Dempsey back in 1999. 

Legal provisions were made for electronic voting in the Electoral (Amendment) Act of 2000.

The government brought 7,500 machines from Dutch firm Nedap at a cost of €51 million to the state.

However, a commission reported in April 2004 that the system’s reliability could not be established to its satisfaction.

As a result, plans to roll it out were put on ice, and the country went back to full paper voting for the 2004 elections after a brief blip of e-voting. 

oh-biden-and-trump-supporters-gather-in-cincinnati-as-biden-speaks-in-the-area A woman arguing with Trump supporters in Cincinnati earlier this week. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

So when will we actually know who the new president is and when will they enter office?

Although we might have an idea who the winner is by the night of 3 November, the result of the popular vote may not come in until some time after this. 

Trump last month failed to explicitly guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election.

“We might not know for months,” Trump said, adding later: “This is not going to end well.”

“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” he said.

Biden has pledged to respect the results “after all the ballots are counted.”

“That will be the end of it. And if it’s me, fine. If it’s not me, I will support the outcome,” he said.

Electors are due to cast their votes on 14 December and the next US president should be officially inaugurated on 20 January next year. 

- With reporting by AFP and Press Association

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