The non Americans' guide to US elections

The US presidential election. It's exhilarating, it's exhausting, but it's also inexplicably complicated -- even for us natives. Here's everything you need to know to become an insta-pundit.

When's the election?

Tuesday, November 8, for most Americans. Notice we say "most." Millions will have already voted by then. That's because early voting is a thing in the US. It's estimated more than 40% of all votes this year will be cast before Election Day -- a record. In some states, you can even vote early, change your mind and vote again. Yeah, we make democracy really easy.


Why is the turnout so pathetic?

All right, you got us with that one. Our country loves the hype surrounding the elections, but the actual election? Not so much. Just 53.6% of the voting-age population cast a ballot in 2012. Some can't. (Like felons. That's 6 million right there.) Some just don't feel like it. (We're looking at you Hawaii and your lowest voter turnout in the country!). Compare that with Belgium. In 2014, nearly 90% of those who could vote did.


Why is the election on a work day?

You can thank Congress for that one. Once upon a time, America was a farming nation that went to church on Sundays and market on Wednesdays. Holding elections on Tuesdays gave farmers enough time to get to the polls, get back home, and get their products to market. Hey, they weren't going to sacrifice capitalism for democracy. Why November? So, people could vote after the fall harvest, but before winter weather made travel difficult. Cut to 2016, and we're STILL DOING THAT! There are proposals to move Election Day to the weekend, or make it a federal holiday, but they've gone nowhere.


Why is the election season so darned long?

We can see how this puzzles the world. Britain gets it done in 4 months, Canada in 2 and a 1/2 and Japan in just TWELVE DAYS. America's two main political parties -- the Democrats and the Republicans -- pick nominees through contests called primaries and caucuses in each of the 50 states and the U.S. territories. That process starts in February and it alone takes up to five months! Before that, candidates typically spend a year laying groundwork. They can start earlier, because there are no laws dictating the length of a campaign. Because, you know, freedom.

But don't worry. Sheryl Crow will make it all better.


Can anybody run for president?

Yes, even Kanye West, if he chooses. The list of qualifications listed in the US Constitution isn't exactly long. It says you have to be at least 35 years old, have lived in the US for at least 14 years and be "a natural born citizen." The good folks who put together the Constitution nailed down a lot of things, but the exact definition of a natural born citizen wasn't one of them. And neither Congress nor the Supreme Court have provided much clarity. (Here, enjoy this light reading.) That explains why the birthers who question President Obama's citizenship won't shut up.


Why is it that the greatest country in the world only has two parties?

Actually America has a ton of them. There's the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Socialist Workers Party, even something called the Legal Marijuana Now Party. But for pretty much all of its history, the US has always had just two dominant parties that compete for the White House. These days it's the Democrats and Republicans. In middle of the 19th century, it was the Democrats and the Whigs. It's primarily because of America's winner-take-all elections. In other countries, 20% of the vote means you get some seats in parliament. In America, you get a sympathetic pat on the back and a "you'll get 'em next time" pep talk.


Is it true Americans don't directly vote for President?

The election is determined by this mysterious thing called the Electoral College. Yeah, we were shocked when we learned this in our grade school civics classes too. It's complicated, so stay with us:

  • The Electoral College is a group of people appointed by each party
  • The total number of electors is equal to the number of members in Congress: 538
  • Each state gets electors based on its population. So, Wyoming has 3; New York has 29
  • So, if Candidate A wins the most votes in, say, New York, (s)he gets all 29 electoral votes.
  • The goal is to get to 270, which is just over half of 538.

Because of this wacky system, a candidate can get ZERO votes in THIRTY-NINE states and DC and still win the presidency.


Has anyone ever lost the popular vote and still become president?

Why don't you ask Al Gore? He lost to George W. Bush in 2000, despite winning more votes nationwide.


538 is an even number. What if there's a tie?

An Electoral College tie is extremely rare. It's only happened twice. In a tie, one arm of Congress, the House of Representatives, will elect the president, while the other, the Senate, will elect the vice president. (Here's a helpful chart). This year, if there's a tie in the Electoral College, and the Republicans keep the House but the Democrats win back the Senate, it's quite possible that we'd be looking at a Donald Trump-Tim Kaine administration, a fitting end to the wackiest election we've ever seen. Isn't democracy wonderful?


What are battleground states?

The way the Electoral College works now is that most states are reliably either "blue," meaning they vote for the Democratic candidate, or "red," meaning they go with the Republican candidate. That leaves just a handful of states -- the battleground, or swing, states -- that the candidates fight over, such as Florida. Florida is the swingiest swing state of all. In 2008 and 2012 it went for President Obama; in 2000 and 2004 it went for President Bush. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are neck-and-neck there.

Why are Democratic states 'blue' and Republican states 'red'?


The media made it up. Both are colors in the American flag, and they look sharp on infographics because they're pretty much on opposite ends of the color spectrum. But the seemingly arbitrary color assignments have actually flip-flopped over the years. In 1980, states won by Republican Ronald Reagan were colored blue; Democrat Jimmy Carter's states were colored red. Even as late as 1996, major media outlets were divided on how to color-code the parties.

What are the biggest issues?

The usual suspects: The economy, national security, health care. The issues are so big the candidates never seem to find time to talk about them. How could they, when there's private email servers and lewd hot-mic videos to discuss.


On foreign policy:

  • Trump: His is an America-first strategy. He's suggested not coming to the aid of some countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and said he would work with challenging world leaders.
  • Clinton: She wants to use diplomacy and development to quell problems abroad, stand by US allies, and stand her ground with rivals such as Russia and China.


On trade:

  • Trump: He's said the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a bad deal for America. He's also said he'd renegotiate or end the North American Free Trade Agreement and label China a currency manipulator.
  • Clinton: She used to call TPP the "gold standard" of trade agreements ... until it wasn't politically expedient anymore.


On climate change:

  • Trump: He called global warming "a hoax." He has told coal miners he'd save their jobs by reversing President Barack Obama's executive actions and dramatically cutting funding for the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Clinton: She wants to combat climate change and boost renewable energies, cut waste and reduce the United States' dependency on oil.


What else are Americans voting on?

We're voting to fill all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and a third of the seats in the Senate. The GOP majority in the House is so big it'll probably stay in Republican hands. But the Democracts can flip the Senate if they manage to pick up just a handful of seats. On a state level, eight states will vote on legalizing marijuana, and four states will vote on raising the minimum wage. And onlyCalifornia would have something on the ballot like Proposition 60, which would require the use of condoms and "other protective measures" during the filming of porn.


When will we know the results?

Landslide elections are usually called about 8 p.m. ET when most of the polls have closed on the East Coast and in Central Time zones. This election seems destined to be a nail-biter though, so we'll be lucky if we know who won by midnight. If it all comes down to Ohio -- wouldn't be the first time -- and Trump and Clinton are pretty much tied, the whole thing could ride on absentee and provisional ballots. But poll workers there have a whole 10 days to check eligibility. In that case, we wouldn't know the winner until the weekend before Thanksgiving. (Oh, and the Electoral College could tie 269-269. See above.)


Can you really rig an election?

In America? That'd be really hard. In the last presidential election some 129 million votes were cast, so just think about the large scale of votes you'd have to manipulate to even have an effect.

  • Vote more than once? That small army of poll workers and poll watchers (not to mention the lawyers) at each precinct can easily put a stop to that.
  • Vote as someone else? See above.
  • Screw around with the voting machines? Sure, but first you have to figure out how to break the locks and seals that are placed on each voting machine. And did we mention each machine sits out in the open all Election Day long?
  • Hack the machines? Yeah, good luck. The election system is decentralized by design, with state, county and local governments all managing voting. Even though many precincts use voting machines, none are connected to the Internet, nor are they connected to each other.

It's probably a lot easier to just pick up a campaign sign, stand on a street corner and try to convince people that your candidate's the better option. You know, it's called democracy.


Can anyone contest the result?

Well, sure, a candidate could, but it's not so simple. Remember, America really doesn't have a national election as much as a series of state elections. So if you're going to contest the results, you'll have to do it state by state. And each state has its own laws and exceptionally strict criteria to entertain any foolish challenges.


When would the winner take office?

Back in the old days, the president was inaugurated on March 20. But travel across the country is much faster and easier than before (thanks, airplanes!). So, now Inauguration Day is January 20.