There are mere hours until the first voting in the 2008 US elections – with the long process of selecting the nominees beginning on January 3 (Friday our time). It may be even longer than usual this year – with an open race for the Democratic nomination, and a wide-open race for the Republican nod – we might not know until the nominating conventions (late August Democrat, early September Republican) who will be fighting it out in November.
I'm sure there'll be enough New Zealand electoral law to keep me going the entire year, and there'll be some ... um ... disappointed my first post of the new year isn't on the Electoral Finance Act, but this seemed a little more timely. With voting beginning so soon after Christmas, there hasn't been much of break in the US (well in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, anyway), and the blessed down-time in the New Zealand political cycle allows our thoughts to wander abroad.
If you're interested in US politics, you might have a fairly good idea about how the president is elected: you'll remember __Bush v Gore__ – so you'll that the person with the most votes doesn't necessarily win, the phrase __electoral math__ might have crossed you – alerting you to the idea that elections get decided in certain swing states – the Florida's or Ohio's – because of a peculiar construction called the electoral college.
But all that's months away.
The voting this week, and over the coming months is about choosing the nominee – and it's a lot more open than New Zealand. How did Grant Robertson get to be Labour's nominee in Wellington Central? How will National decide whether Stephen Franks gets to be theirs? They've got a process, but we don't get any input. They destroy the ballot papers after the decision is made. We find out who won, but not how, or by how much. And though the information is out there, it's only in rare circumstances the public is even aware who the other potential candidates were.
But how do Americans do it differently? You'll be hearing about primaries and caucuses, and even if you're fairly conversant in the American political system, no-one can blame you if a lot of it flies right past you.
As we'll see, Americans don't just do it differently from New Zealanders, and the rest of world, they even do it differently from Americans. Each party has its own rules, each state has its own rules, and each state party has it's own rules – but let us start first with the basics.
The basic structure of the Republican and Democratic nominating race is the same. Delegates at the nominating conventions vote on who get to be the nominees. The nomination goes to the person who commands a majority of the delegates' votes. Note that it is a majoritarian system – it's not the person with more votes than any other who wins – someone has to get over 50% of the votes cast at the convention to get the nomination (at least 2184 votes out of 4367 votes for the Democrats, and at least 1,259 votes out of 2,516 for the Republicans).
If someone doesn't have a majority, then the delegates vote again and again until someone does. That doesn't happen very often, and delegates really just turn up to the convention as the cheering section.
The voting in the primaries and caucuses is about deciding who most of these delegates will be, and as you've probably determined, they don't all happen at once. The contest starting today and over the next weeks and the first of many, with sometimes very few actual convention votes at stake, but lots of coverage and "momentum" up for grabs. The delegates elected via these contests – known as pledged delegates – are generally party faithfuls, and they've slotted in behind their favoured candidate. They pledge to support their chosen candidate in the first round of voting (which is all it usually takes – front-runners will emerge, the race will narrow to two people and someone will secure over half the delegates – often well over – months before the convention vote takes place).
Spaces for pledged delegates are divided between the states (and territories – even some of those that don't get to vote in the Federal elections) based on a fairly complex formula. States with bigger populations get more delegates, but the strength of support for the party within the state is also taken into account – for example, a state that voted for Bush at the 2004 Presidential election will get more delegates to the Republican Convention than an otherwise identical state which voted for Kerry (but less at the Democratic convention – which has a rule of similar effect). Party control of a state legislature, and the existence of a majority delegation in the Congress, or US Senators are among other matters taken into account.
There are also a number of unpledged delegates to each convention – called superdelegates by the democrats (who've had them for a while), and automatic delegates by the Republicans (who aren't big fans of the idea, and have far fewer). A delegate place at the Democratic Party nominating convention is allocated automatically to each Democratic congressman, US Senator, State Governor, member of the Democratic National Committee (the "DNC"), former DNC chair, former President, former Vice-President, former Senate leader, former Speaker, and former House minority leader. They can vote for whomever they want right from the beginning, but many of them have already announced their initial support. The only Republicans given automatic slots are each state party chairman (and their equivalents in non-states like Washington DC), and each state's two members of the Republican National Committee(the "RNC").
So it's ordinary delegates that are up for grabs now – and every state divvies up its delegates by it's own rules – rules made by both the state (through the state legislature) and the state party. And these sometimes conflict with the national rules made DNC or RNC (we'll get back to that later). The DNC requires that each state's delegates are divided proportionally between candidates getting at least 15% of the support, and that affirmative action be taken into account (each states' delegation must be half-male/half-female and meet affirmative action guidelines relating to minorities). The RNC doesn't __require__ proportional distribution of delegates, and some states give all their delegates to the state-wide winner.
The delegate election process varies markedly from state to state, and the first state to go to its citizens is Iowa. In just a couple of hours. Next is New Hampshire – five days later, and the first state to hold a primary – the most popular method used to decide the membership of a state's delegation. A presidential primary is a state-wide election – over the course of the day the state's residents turn up to polling booths where they vote for whom they want to have as the nominee.
Except in Louisiana – which does a lot of things differently – voters at a primary can only vote in either the Republican primary or the Democratic primary (they're also voting in primaries to determine candidates for for other office as well – state governor, senator, etc.) – they cannot cast a vote in the Democratic presidential primary, but the Republican gubernatorial primary (you can get used to that word too – it means related to a governor).
An important point to note at this time, is that when registering to vote, Americans have the option of declaring their party affiliation – they can tick a box saying whether they are a Republican or a Democrat (or they can leave it blank or opt to be an unaffiliated voter or independent) – this can have important effects – many statutory bodies – like the Federal Election Commission – require equal numbers of registered Democrats and Republicans.
Some primaries are what are called "closed primaries" – limiting voting to people affiliated with the party. The opposite are naturally "open primaries" – allowing voters registered as Democrats to vote in the Republican primary and vice versa. A few states have open primaries for one party, and closed primaries for the other.
New Hampshire operates what is known as a mixed, or semi-closed, primary. Registered Republicans can only vote in the Republican primary, and registered Democrats can only vote in the Democratic primary, but independents can choose to vote in either. Other states operate semi-open primaries – the voting is only open people registered with the particular party, but registration can be changed on the day.
Iowa doesn't hold a primary, but conducts caucuses – these need a little more explanation.
A caucus isn't an election as we'd think of it, but more like a series of town meetings conducted throughout the state.
In Iowa that's a Republican meeting, and a Democratic meeting, conducted in each of the state's 1781 precincts – public meetings conducted in schools, church halls, or in libraries.
The Democratic process first – these meetings not the state's delegates to the national nominating convention, but delegates to conventions in each of Iowa's 99 counties. In turn these county conventions caucus to choose delegates to conventions held in each of the state's five congressional districts – which choose most of the state's delegates to the national convention, and other delegates to the Iowa state convention, which chooses the remainder of the state's delegates (and Keith thought Hong Kong was complicated).
Voters caucus in the early evening, starting at 6:30, in a process that can take 1-2 hours. There's no ballot, and no secrecy. There are designated areas on the floor, and voters stand with their like-minded compatriots. For 30 minutes, caucus-goers can try to persuade those who haven't yet made up their minds to join with them, or try to convince those who have to switch camps. The numbers are added up, and those people in groups which don't make a certain threshold (usually 15%, but it can be higher in the smaller precincts which elect only a small number of delegates to a county convention) get the opportunity of giving their support to another candidate.
This is an important point: in a primary, it's only the first choice that matters – you vote for the person you want to win; in a caucus, you can support the person you want to win, but your second choice can matter too – and it can have a big impact on the final vote. Once the final tallies are taken, each precinct's delegates are apportioned between the groups that passed the threshold according to their levels of support, and most people go home. The die-hards remain, and determine who exactly will be the delegates appointed by each candidate's supporters to the county convention, perhaps voting for local party offices, or debating items they'd like to see on the platform in the election. Then, in March, the County conventions are held.
And that's the simplified version. I could have told you about the arcane rules that are used to determine how many delegates each county gets, and each precinct gets, that favour smaller, rural areas (to encourage candidates to campaign in rural areas). Some smaller caucuses have very low turnouts – a single family can sway the vote – whereas larger caucuses (which do get more delegates, but not in proportion) can have several hundred attendees. In 2004, some caucuses were one by the candidate supported by the single voter who turned up, apparently there were four caucuses to which no-one turned up at all.
The Republican process in Iowa is simpler – it's more of an informal primary. People go along to the Republican caucuses – they listen to campaigning from other caucus-goers, they get a blank sheet of paper, on which they write the name of their favoured candidate – the votes over the whole state are combined together and are announced. When the state party holds its convention to determine who gets what delegates at the national convention, it remembers how well everyone did.
The vast difference in the process between an Iowa caucus and a New Hampshire primary create very different campaigns. Turnout in New Hampshire is much higher – if you want to help them choose the nominee it takes a couple of minutes to vote, which can be done at your convenience throughout the day – if you want to have your say in Iowa it has to be in the early evening, and it takes a couple of hours.
Because of the intense localisation of the Iowa campaign, organisation is incredibly important – candidates wishing to do well need someone organising their support at every caucus, and preferably a team to back them up. In a primary election, that's not nearly as important – those few people in an area where a candidate's support isn't strong can just vote, and help the overall.
I might get into the politics of it all, and the effect the staggered election races have on the nomination, at a later point (I'm sure there can be robust discussion in the comments) – Iowa is a statistical three-way tie for the democratic nod and could pretty much go to . Suffice to say that Hilary wants to win in Iowa, but would prefer Edwards to win than Obama. McCain also wants Hilary to win for the Democrats in Iowa – so that independents in New Hampshire – where he's making his first stand – will be more likely to choose to take part in Republican primary; and he wants Huckabee to win the most Republican votes in Iowa so that Romney – his major opponent in New Hampshire, can't get any momentum. And political junkies everywhere want three-way races to continue throughout the campaign season so that no-one has a majority come August, and there can be a real floor-fight at the nominating convention.
After Iowa and New Hampshire come primaries in Michigan and South Carolina, and caucuses in a bunch of other – mostly smallish – states (run, of course, differently to those in Iowa). There is likely to be some movement as the lesser-knowns fare poorly or run out of money, and it's possible that a candidate for one the parties will emerge as almost the presumptive nominee, but on Tuesday February 5, the biggest collection of presidential primaries in US history will take place. Historically, a month or so into the race – which used to start later (the Iowa caucuses were around three weeks later in 2004) – a number of states (including some substantially larger than the initial small contests) held their races on the same day, and 4 weeks later, another large batch of contests was held. In 2004 it was 7 on February 3 (called Super Tuesday I, or mini-Tuesday), and then 10 – including California and New York (dubbed Super Tuesday or Super Tuesday II) – in early March
This year it's 24 states. It's getting all sorts of stupid names – I think Super Duper Tuesday is the most widespread (it's the name of the wiki page, anyway) – and over half the delegates are up for grabs. They've all got their own rules too – open, closed, or mixed primaries; open, closed or mixed caucuses – but I think I've probably written enough on that by now.
A final aside – the rules adopted by both the DNC and the RNC set dates at which the earliest primaries and caucuses can be held, and this year they both chose February 5 (with some leeway for the traditional early starters). But various states, perhaps annoyed at the large influence given to small or not terribly representative states like Iowa or New Hampshire passed state laws that would move their contests into January. And as one state crept earlier, states that had traditionally had their contests earlier than that state retaliated, by moving their even earlier. New Hampshire law requires that their contest be held at least a week ahead of any similar nominating race (generally considered to be any state primary or a state caucus other than Iowa). And Iowa law requires their caucus to be 8 days ahead of New Hampshire's primary (they got some sort of waiver this year, though losing a tradition of Monday Night caucuses).
The DNC and RNC are a little miffed at all this. They told just about everyone that the first Tuesday in February was the earliest they could go, and they've been largely ignored as states fight for prominence (in 2004, 2% of the delegates had been selected before the first Tuesday in February, in 2008 it will be around 40%). And they're retaliating. The RNC has decreed that the errant states in the Republican contest have lost half their delegates, and the DNC as well as taking half the delegates, is threatening to remove all state delegates from candidates who campaign in those states (which include Florida – and important state in the Democratic nomination race). And it's not entirely sure what will happen, if the numbers for the convention are close enough for it to matter...
Two ticks ... how boring is that?
[And if you don't feel like discussing electoral rules in the comments, feel free to expound on whom do you want to win? Or think will win. Or want to lose...]