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Friday November 23, 2012

Presidential vs parliamentary

MAYBE this is stating the obvious, but the USA’s political system and elections are very different from ours.

In our system of parliamentary democracy, we elect members to the lower house of Parliament and typically the leader of the party with the most seats becomes prime minister.

Our elections are generally held once every five years, which is the length of a parliamentary term. However, this is not a fixed term and Parliament can be dissolved before the end of its term for early elections.

In contrast, the United States holds presidential elections every four years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

This process is a little more complicated than it sounds, as I learnt during my recent exchange programme to study the 2012 US elections.

For a start, the US uses an electoral college system for the presidential election. Each state is allocated a number of electoral votes based on its population, so a heavily populated state like California, for example, has 55 votes while the smallest states have only three.

There are 538 electoral college votes in total and 270 are needed to become president. Generally, the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state wins all the electoral college votes of that state.

In the event of a tie, the House of Representatives will choose the president while the Senate decides the vice-president.

An interesting point was raised on this eventuality during some of our meetings with various people during the exchange programme —if the election ended in a tie, the Republican-controlled House would vote for Mitt Romney while the Democrat-majority Senate would choose Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s running mate. No one seemed quite sure how this arrangement would work!

As it turned out, Obama won a second term with 332 electoral votes to Romney’s 206, so that remained a hypothetical situation.

It was also interesting to hear discussions about the pros and cons of the electoral college. Those in favour say that it gives smaller states an equal voice with the bigger states, that presidential candidates will have to give each state some attention.

Others who think it should be abolished feel that it doesn’t reflect the popular vote accurately enough. Obama’s share of the popular vote, for example, was 51% to Romney’s 48% - much closer than his decisive victory in the electoral college.

Another argument against the system is that some states are heavily Republican and others heavily Democrat. If you were a Democrat voter in a Republican state or vice-versa, your vote wouldn’t really count because the electoral votes would still go to the other candidate.

The US elections weren’t just about choosing a president for the next four years. There were elections for many other positions, including all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 Senate seats.

That was just at federal level. At state and county levels, there were races for governor, state legislature representatives and various local government positions like mayor, city councillors and district attorneys. There might also be ballot measures asking voters to vote on various issues.

In Colorado, where we were based during the elections, voters had to choose the president and vice-president from a list of 16 candidates. They also had to elect members to the US House of Representatives and various state offices, besides voting on three ballot issues.

No wonder the ballot paper was more than a foot long and printed on both sides. Apparently it took voters between five and 15 minutes to fill it. (Still, it wasn’t as big as ballot papers in Indonesia. One of the Indonesian delegates brought along a sample to show us — it was about the size of a broadsheet newspaper.)

Another major difference lies in the voting method. In the US, we learnt, voters can vote by mail, early voting or on election day.

Those who want to vote by mail have to register for a mail-in ballot, which will be sent out about three weeks before election day. The ballot can be returned by mail or other means, such as in drop-off boxes or voter service centres.

Early voting makes it easier and more convenient for voters to cast their ballots, especially if they are unable to go to a polling centre on election day. In Denver, Colorado, early voting was conducted on Oct 22-27 and Oct 29-Nov 2 at designated centres.

Our election delegation visited a polling station in Colorado Springs on election day, where we observed how voters queued up to have their names checked by an official before being issued ballot papers, which they would fill at several booths.

There was also an electronic touch-screen voting machine in a corner; we didn’t see anyone using it during the short time we were there.

Learning about the American political and electoral process has not just been an eye-opener for me, it also gives me a better appreciation of politics back home. Rather than bemoaning the flaws and weaknesses in our political system, I can now look at them differently as things that can be improved.

It’s also useful to have greater awareness of how different countries do things differently according to their history, customs and level of maturity and education. While there is no “one size fits all” solution, there are always good practices we can learn from or emulate to strengthen our practice of democracy.

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