Dispatches from the Potomac#34 | Never Straightforward: The American Presidential Race & Voting

This is a translation of an article originally written in August 2020 for publication in the October 2020 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

A Complicated System

The U.S. presidential election is a race to the Oval Office between, in most cases, one candidate from the Democratic Party and one candidate from the Republican Party. Although we may feel as though the process really is that simple and straightforward, the truth is anything but. The first thing we have to remember is that the U.S. presidential race is an indirect election that utilizes what is called the “Electoral College”. This means that when voters cast their ballots, they are not directly voting for a candidate, but instead for “electors” who have pledged their vote for one candidate in advance. Another complication is that individual states retain most of the control over election processes and voting methods, while the federal government’s involvement is rather limited. Of the 50 states that make up the United States, 48 of them employ a “winner-take-all” method. In other words, the candidate who wins an absolute majority of a state’s allocated electorate votes will then win the votes of all electors for that state. The two exceptions to this rule are Maine and Nebraska, where candidates win the votes of electors allocated to each voting district. In the entire country, there are 538 electors; the candidate who wins a majority of 270 electoral votes is then elected president. If it so happens that no candidate wins an absolute majority, then a contingent election takes place in which the president is elected by a vote in the United States House of Representatives, and the vice president is elected by a vote in the United States Senate.

Just as election protocols are different from state to state, so are voting procedures. In 5 states – Colorado, Hawaii, Washington, and Oregon – mail-in ballots are accepted as the default method of voting. In 22 states, including California and Florida, mail-in ballots are available upon request. In every other state, mail-in ballots are not accepted without a valid reason, for example if you will be unable to vote in person on election day. And while there are provisions for digitally submitted ballots, for example by email, fax or some other online method, these are limited to ex-pats living abroad or individuals stationed abroad related to military activities (especially those deployed to dangerous areas).

The Popular Vote Alone Won’t Seal the Deal

Because the Electoral College is a “winner-take-all” system, it is possible for a presidential candidate to lose the popular vote yet still win the election. In the 2016 election, then-candidate Trump won the presidency despite earning more than 3 million fewer votes than his opponent, then-candidate Clinton; the Electoral College always takes precedence over the popular vote, and Donald Trump received 306 electoral votes compared to Hilary Clinton’s 236. There have also been cases with a smaller margin in the popular vote, but a decisive victory in the Electoral College. In the 1960 election, the popular vote margin between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was a mere 120 thousand votes, but Kennedy clinched the Oval Office with 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219. Some more conspiratorially-minded theories claimed foul play in some states controlled by the Democratic Party, for example Illinois (in which John F. Kennedy’s friend presided as Mayor of Chicago) and Texas (the home state of Vice President Lyndon Johnson), but whether there is any truth to these claims is unclear.

Conspiracy theories aside, voting in the United States has been subject to genuine meddling over the years. The post-Civil War treatment of the African American vote is one well-known example. Racist tactics meant to suppress black voters were thinly veiled as new laws like mandatory voting taxes and reading tests. Poor and uneducated white Americans who would have otherwise been affected by these policies were spared by a law that grandfathered voters who were eligible pre-Civil War into the new system – an exception that by definition could not have applied to black Americans.

Absentee Voting Is Not Without Issues

This year, due to the coronavirus, many voters are feeling increasingly hesitant about the risks of voting in-person at polling places on election day, and many states have been suggesting potential countermeasures. In response to the threat of the virus, 5 states, including Washington and California, are moving to introduce new legislation that will allow eligible voters to submit mail-in ballots for any reason; in these states, all registered voters will receive mail-in ballots automatically. In other states, voters will have to specifically ask for a mail-in ballot via a request form. However, the accepted submission methods for the request form (mail, in-person, online etc.), submission deadlines, and actual mail-in ballot submission deadlines will differ from state to state. While some states will require that mail-in ballots arrive by the day before election day, other states will require only that ballots be post marked by election day. Assuming that all of these ballots do in fact arrive by their various deadlines, guaranteeing their legitimacy is another issue entirely. While it has been suggested that ballots can be verified by signing the ballot itself, signing again upon mailing the ballot and then comparing the two signatures, there is no guarantee that this system will work smoothly in states that are not prepared to analyze and verify handwritten signatures. Especially in battleground states (states that are always closely contested in each election; also called “swing states”), there is a very real possibility that the election could be decided based on invalidated mail-in ballots that, for whatever reason, did not arrive by the deadline, or whose signatures could not be verified. There have even been cases in the past that have developed into lawsuits over the validity of ballots cast in primary elections. Even in a perfect world in which every ballot is properly counted and verified, it is not so difficult to imagine that the process of counting all of the ballots will take a lot of time. In that sense, this upcoming election presents us with a case the likes of which we have never seen before, and a battle that should be fascinating to watch unfold.