How people elect parliaments
Voters in two US states – Virginia and New Jersey – will provide the first major test of the impact of the Trump administration on US politics.
Elections for a wide variety of offices and policy propositions are held across the United States on a Tuesday in early November.
Elections for representatives in the national Congress are held every two years, and the office of US President is elected every four years.
Most of the 50 state legislatures are also re-elected every two years, and most state governor positions are elected every four years.
While most state governor places are held at the main ‘midterm’ elections two years into the four-year presidential election cycle, the states of New Jersey and Virginia are unusual in that they hold their governor elections one year into the cycle, and their legislative elections in the first and third years of the cycle.
Tuesday, November 7 this year is therefore the key cyclical electoral event for these two states.
The main electoral issue with US midterm elections is very low rate of registered voter turnouts.
While presidential-election year elections in the United States see average national turnouts of around 60-65% of voters (varying significantly across the 50 states), mid-term elections have in recent decades seen average voter turnouts of around or below 40%.
This means that midterm election campaigns are heavily dependent on each party prompting its ‘base’ voters to attend the polls, creating incentives for major party candidates to strike more extreme, base-stimulating political positions, and to excite supporters by vilifying their opponents all the more.
In 2014 the second lowest US congressional turnout rate since women won the franchise – a miserable 34% – was recorded.
In the off-year elections used by New Jersey and Virginia, turnouts are similarly low.
US voter turnout rates are in reality even lower than these values, since even the registration rates of eligible voters are relatively low compared to most similar democracies.
New Jersey is in most senses a state where consistent majorities of voters support the Democratic party, although Republican candidates – usually of more moderate political character – do win the governorship fairly frequently.
Current but outgoing Republcian Governor Chris Christie, once seen as one of his party’s presidential hopefuls, has managed to end his term of office in an extraordinarily unpopular condition.
There is no disagreement in the polls that Democratic candidate Phil Murphy will defeat Republican rival Kim Gaudagno.
The New Jersey legislature should also remain safely under Democratic party control.
In the last comparable elections in New Jersey in 2013, the rate of voter turnout was just 39%.
Elections in Virginia this week will be much more interesting. Virginia is currently a ‘swing state’ where elections are close contests between Democrats and Republicans – at least in terms of actual votes.
For several months the polling results between Democratic candidate for Governor, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and his Republican rival Ed Gillespie have been volatile, with each candidate leading in various polls at various times.
In recent weeks Northam appeared to be showing a consistent lead, but pollsters have now detected a late relative swing to Gillespie. The contest is genuinely unpredictable.
One of the difficulties with turning this poll data into a prediction is again the low turnout rate, meaning that pollsters must also measure the partisan intentions among the even more than usually uncertain pool of voters who are actually likely to vote.
Turnout in 2013 was 43% in the race for state governor. The turnout rate for legislative elections was even lower, with the data affected by the fact that several seats were so safe for their dominant party that only one candidate nominated, meaning there was no actual voting.
(More: Activists eye post-Charlottesville surge in black voting in Virginia, Politico)
The elections for the Virginia legislature – the oldest elected legislative body in North America – have an added problem: dramatic gerrymandering. Virginia was one of several states subject to serious partisan gerrymandering by the Republican party earlier this decade.
Despite the fairly balanced partisan character of the state, Republicans currently hold 66 of the 100 state House of Delegates seats to the Democrats’ 34 – reflecting serious partisan bias in the way the House district boundaries have been drawn for this decade.
The gerrymandering issue has been the subject of ongoing litigation in Bethune-Hill v Virginia Board of elections. Earlier this year the US Supreme Court ordered the state courts to reassess the issue, but the dispute remains unsettled going into this week’s elections.
Pollsters loosely predict that in Tuesday’s elections the Democratic Party will pick up state House, despite the gerrymandered boundaries. But even a Democratic majority of votes on polling day may not result in a majority of seats won.
The major US national disgrace of district boundary gerrymandering is itself before the US Supreme Court in a separate case, Cole v Whitfield.
One other election of technical interest is the only remaining US municipal election to use the single transferable vote (STV) voting system.
STV voting was used in many US city government elections during the mid-20th century. It has been used for many decades to elect the nine members of the city council of the City of Cambridge, home of Harvard University.
The voter numbers involved here are very small – only about 13,000 votes. At this scale the City election officials have been able to introduce equipment to optically scan all the ballots, allowing the distribution of preferences to complete the STV counting process to proceed very rapidly.
At the 2013 city council elections the nine candidates who placed best on first preferences were also the nine who won the seats after the distribution of preferences from low-supported candidates who were eliminated during the counting process, and from candidates who won more than the required quota of votes..