On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Preview – United States Elections 2016

image - US Capitol 1

On 8 November 2016 around 224 million voters in the United States will go to the polls to elect 435 members of the House of Representatives, 34 Senators, and the 538 Electoral College delegates who will subsequently elect the next President of the United States.

(Americans will also elect a number of state legislatures, state governors, and numerous other officials, but these are not discussed here.)



The House of Representatives

image - US House of Representatives 1

Voters directly elect 435 voting members to the House to serve two-year terms.

Voters in the capital District of Columbia and in 5 US overseas territories also elect members, or ‘delegates’, to the House, but these representatives do not have full voting rights.

Each US state is allocated a number of representatives in proportion to population, with a minimum of 1 seat. Each state then divides its geographical area into districts, with boundaries redrawn every 10 years (the last boundary revision being in 2011-12).

The winner in each district is chosen by the plurality method, except:

  • in California and Washington states, where a preliminary round of voting is held several weeks before election day. Based on a single vote, the top two vote winners proceed to the final ballot on November 8.
  • in Louisiana, where the two-round runoff-method is used, and a second round election is held a few weeks later in any district where no candidate secures 50% of the votes on November 8).



The Senate

image - US Senate 1

The Senate consists of two senators for each of the 50 states, serving 6-year terms. Every two years one third of the states elects one of its two senators.

In November 2016, 34 of the 50 US states will be electing a Senator.

In every state the winner is chosen by the plurality method (except in Louisiana, where the two-round runoff-method is used, and a second round election is held a few weeks later if no candidate secures 50% of the votes on November 8).



The President

image - US White House 1

The US President is not directly elected, but is chosen by an ‘Electoral College’ of 538 members who are elected by the voters.

Each presidential campaign nominates a candidate for president and vice president. For over 150 years America’s two dominant parties – the Republicans and the Democrats – have been the only parties with realistic prospects of winning. However, third-party campaigns sometimes secure enough votes to affect the result of the election, as most recently happened in 1968, 1992 and 2000.

The parties select their candidates through a complex process of primary elections of delegates to national conventions, which will be held in July this year. I have another page covering a brief history of the system, and I have also set out a more detailed preview of the 2016 primaries.

Each of the 50 states and the capital District of Columbia is allocated a number of electoral college delegates, and each state’s voters select a full slate of delegates nominated by each presidential campaign. The campaign ticket with the plurality of votes in each state wins all that state’s delegates. So, for example, the 11 delegates from Indiana will all be won by either the Republican of Democratic party campaign.

There are two states with different methods of awarding delegates: in Maine and Nebraska, the statewide plurality candidate is awarded two delegates, and the candidate with the plurality of votes in each congressional district received one delegate for each district won.

The challenge for any campaign is to amass a total of 270 or more electoral college delegates.

The electoral college delegates meet separately in each state in mid-December, and the delegates record their individual votes for the office of President and Vice-President. These votes are then opened and counted in Washington in a joint session of the Congress on January 6. If candidates secure 270 or more votes for the offices of President and Vice-President respectively, they are elected to office.

Or so it normally goes. However the Twelfth Amendment to the US Constitution provides that if no candidate has secured 270 votes for President (which can happen if a significant third-party campaign performs so well that they actually win electoral college delegates), the selection of the President and Vice-President takes a dramatically different turn. In this circumstance:

  • The outgoing members of the House of Representatives – that is, those elected in November 2014 – will meet in 50 state ‘delegations’ and, by majority, cast a vote for one of the three candidates with the most electoral college votes to become the President. States with tied delegations are disregarded. Of course we already know where the numbers would stand for this exercise: 29 state delegations will have a Republican majority, 18 delegations will have a Democratic majority, and three states will be tied.
  • The current Senate  – that is, the senators elected in 2010, 2012 and 2014, but not the senators recently elected in November 2016 – will vote to select one of the three candidates with the most electoral college votes to become the Vice-President. In such a vote there will be 54 Republican Votes, 45 Democratic votes, and 1 independent.

As a result of the rule concerning no candidate having 270 votes, if the result is close and a third party has won a significant number of electoral college seats, the Republican candidates will win the presidency – unless the electoral college delegates of the third party support the Democratic candidate. There is a general expectation that at the 2016 elections the Democratic Party will recover seats in the House of Representatives – but is not likely to recover a majority – and also the Senate, where the majority may change. But the newly elected members and senators will not be involved in the finalisation of the 2016 presidential election under this procedure.

This alternative method was last used nearly 200 years ago, following the election of 1824.


– 19 January 2016



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