How people elect parliaments
The election campaign to fill a vacant seat in the US House of Representatives has ended bizarrely, with the Republican candidate assaulting a journalist in front of witnesses the evening before election day.
Montana Republican candidate Greg Gianforte’s novel media relations strategy became national news – and could earn him six months in prison – after he reacted badly to being asked his position on the controversial congressional debate over health care.
Gianforte’s potential position on the attempt to repeal ‘Obamacare’ – the 2010 legislation regulating and subsidizing the national health care insurance market – has been one of the key issues in the campaign.
Mid-afternoon on Wednesday the national Congressional Budget Office released an analysis showing that the House bill to repeal the law would leave 23 million Americans without insurance.
With just hours to go in the election, journalist Ben Jacobs of The Guardian approached Gianforte at a public campaign event for comment on the health insurance issue and the CBO report, and questioned him persistently (but, according to eyewitnesses as well as an audio recording, politely and without aggression).
According to the witnesses and the audio evidence, Gianforte physically assaulted Jacobs, throwing him to the ground, punching him and yelling “I’m sick and tired of you people”. Jacobs sustained minor injuries and was taken to hospital for treatment.
[Update: Jacobs’ online video reflecting on the incident is well worth viewing. Commenting on whether the severe criticism of the media by Donald Trump on recent months is part of the story, Jacobs – who covered the presidential election campaign over 18 months – reflects that Gianforte’s actions are a matter of immediate individual responsibility. “I’ve interviewed Donald Trump several times. Donald Trump never assaulted me,” he points out.]
Gianforte was later questioned by the local sheriff, and will be cited with ‘misdemeanor’ – but not ‘felony’ – assault. The charge, if upheld by a court, may result in a fine as low as $500, but could bring up to six months jail.
It has since emerged that the sheriff who questioned Gianforte and decided upon the charge had himself donated $250 to Gianforte’s campaign – potentially paying off half of Gianforte’s fine in advance.
Republican candidate Greg Gianforte (image: the Missoulian)
In an unprecedented development, three major state newspapers – including the Missoulian, the Helena Independent Record and the Billings Gazette – have urgently editorialised to withdraw their previous endorsements of Gianforte.
The story has dominated statewide news on election day, but over two-thirds of expected votes may already have been submitted by postal ballot.
The election is expected to be close. How the on-the-day voters react to the news of Gianforte’s assault charge could determine the result. Even if he wins, is actions will become central to the post-election analysis.
The seat was won last November with a 15% margin by Republican candidate Ryan Zinke, who later resigned to join Donald Trump’s national cabinet.
A total of 507,000 votes were cast last November: 285,000 for the Republican winner Zinke, 205,000 for the Democratic candidate, and 16,000 for the Libertarian candidate. Candidates for the same three parties are contesting this special election.
Even if Gianforte wins today, a sharply reduced margin will affect the confidence of dozens of other Republican House members elected on margins much lower than 15%. All face re-election in November 2018 under the United States’ unusual two-year congressional electoral cycle.
Montana is the most populous congressional district in the 435-member national House of Representatives. One of seven US states to elect just one member to the House, Montana is the largest, with an estimated population of eligible voters last November of around 804,000 people according to leading elections statistician Dr Michael McDonald at the University of Florida. [Twitter link: https://twitter.com/ElectProject]
American voter turnouts are consistently highest in presidential election years (2016, 2012 etc), with national averages in the low 60%s. Montana turnout last November was around 61%.
Turnouts are only about two-thirds that level in mid-term elections (2014, 2010, etc), and are typically lower still in special elections to fill casual vacancies.
However the 2017 round of special elections – a total of six will be held between April and June this year – are proving to be fairly historic events, with massive party spending on advertising and (so far) unusually high relative turnouts.
In presidential election years Montana turnouts of around 500,000 voters are now expected, but in mid-term elections the turnout is closer to 400,000.
Montana voters lean Republican, but can swing. The single congressional seat has been won by Republican winners every two years 1996.
During the pervious decade the congressional seat would typically be won by Republicans with over 60% of the vote, though since 2012 the wins have been closer to 55%.
But in the last decade Democrat candidates frequently won elections for the state’s US Senate seats. In 2008 former Senator Max Baucus won re-election for the Democratic party with over 72% of the statewide vote.
The bulk of the voting in this month’s Montana special election – perhaps two thirds – seems set to be done by postal ballot.
354,681 out of an estimated 699,000 registered Montana voters have applied for mail-in ballots in recent weeks. As of the Tuesday before the poll 238,320 of these (67%) had been received by the electoral authorities.
The return of postal ballots is expected to substantially exceed those at the most recent mid-term election (2014) and may exceed even last November’s presidential-election-year voting.
These ballots will have been submitted before Gianforte’s election-eve assault, and voters cannot change their vote in person on election day (as can be done in some other US states).
Prediction polling for the special Montana election has been all over the place, leading most pollsters and commentators to cautiously advise that the election will be “close”, for want of any more reliable prediction.