Thursday, October 22, 2020

The view from abroad

 Michael - The last Thursday before who knows what

It just struck me that this is the last blog I’ll be writing before the US election. Two weeks from now, we’ll know the outcome (or maybe not) and, whatever happens, it will change the world for at least the next four years (or maybe not). Of course, it’s a matter for Americans to decide, and many of the issues will be local, but economic and foreign policy issues will impact almost every other country. Failing the magic wand of a perfect vaccine and with the virus settling in for a second (third?) surge, the world economy is going to continue to take a beating whether lockdowns are imposed or not. So maybe this isn't the moment for a global trade war to Make America Great Again. No doubt the big economies will hold their own—China’s economy is growing strongly again in spite of everything—but America First could really hit small countries like South Africa. This isn’t necessary a political issue—George W Bush provided more aid to Africa than Barrack Obama did, for example, and Joe Biden will have a pretty full plate if he does win.

The result of all this is that there's unprecedented interest in the election outside the US. In most (but not all) countries where there have been surveys of public opinion, people are rooting for Biden, and people outside the US are keen to understand how the election works and what might happen. I’m anything but an expert, but I’ve been in the US through elections—I still have a I’m from Minnesota Don’t blame me!! T-shirt from the second Reagan election—and I’m interested, so people chat to me about it. The conversation goes something like this:

“So the whole country votes for the president and the candidate with the most votes wins, right?”

“Well, no. Hilary Clinton won the largest number of the votes cast last time, but Trump won the presidency. Each state has its own election and the winner of the popular vote wins the state. Except in Nebraska and Maine where it’s a bit different.”

Surprise. “The election is different in some states?”

Everything is different is some states.”

“I thought it was one country.”

“Well, it is, but the states have a lot of powers and they guard them very jealously.”

“Oh. So each state has one vote? That’s not very democratic.”

“No, it’s weighted by population. Actually, it’s the number of seats the state has in Congress.”

“So it varies a bit.”

No, I don't understand it either...

“Some states have more than three times the number of electoral votes that an even distribution of population would imply.”

Surprise. “Wow! That's not fair at all. Anyway, then they sum up the weighted votes and that’s it?”

“Well, no, the states appoint electors and they all get together and vote for the president.”

“But that’s more of less the same thing.”

Minnesota Post's take on the Electoral College

“Not quite. The electors may decide to vote for a different person from the one on the ballot.”

Disbelief. “What? You mean they’re bribed or something?”

Or something. They’re called faithless electors and they may be fined as a result. In some states.”

“But that’s mad. Aren’t they careful who they choose as electors?”

“You would think so, but it happened in 2016.”

Thinks. “Well, it’s a system. So why do they say that it may all go wrong?”

“Well, suppose the result in a state is contested - the Republicans have made it clear they'll contest every vote. The state may not be able to appoint its electors by the deadline. Or if the governor and the state legislature disagree, then they may send two delegations—one each.”

“Huh? How does that work?”

“I don’t know. But I’m sure it depends on each state.”

Long think. “So what happens if the electors can’t choose the president?”

“Then it goes to the House of Representatives.”

“So then it will be Biden. The Democrats control the House, right?”

“No, because the states have one vote each and the Republicans have the majority of members in 26 of the 50 states.”

“But wasn’t it supposed to be weighted by population?”


“Then why—

“I don’t know.  I guess it's in the Constitution.”

“So then it’ll be Trump.”

“Not necessary. It’s not the current House. It will be the one elected in November.”

Puzzled. “But aren’t they elected together?”

“Yes, but the inauguration only happens in late January and the new Congress is sworn in before that.”

I think I see… Wasn’t there a story that Nancy Pelosi could become president? The Republicans wouldn’t like that!”

“Well, it’s very unlikely. But if both the House and the Senate are tied, and they can’t resolve it by inauguration day in January, it’s possible. Or maybe the senior senator will take over. He's a Republican. I don’t know.”

“I thought you said it was all spelt out in the Constitution.”

“I said I don’t know. I guess somebody does. At least, I certainly hope so!”

Long think.

“Have they tried tossing a coin? Like to decide who bats first.”

I ignore that.

“Don't you miss live Cricket matches. It’s not the same with no crowds cheering. All a bit antiseptic. Did you see that hat trick Rabada got in the one day match the other day?”


  1. I think there should be an iq test before you are allowed to vote. There could be a list of conditions; being able to reverse park, boil a kettle, juggle etc...

    This podcast will tell you why it is so complicated. I so appreciate the satire here. But I cannot laugh. Not for the next two weeks anyway. I have said this before, but it applies more than ever: I wish I still believed in prayer.

  3. I think I'm going to be ill. Wait a minute... I already am!

  4. That's a great exchange exemplifying the complete mystery that is the Electoral College.

  5. Nicely done, Michael. Your Q & A with a mystified foreign observer does a good job of describing the convoluted and arcane Electoral College system--a ratty patchwork quilt, as someone on this blog once opined :)

  6. Annamaria, prayer couldn't actually hurt at this point though...could it?