US presidential election

How much does the public's vote count?

An image of faded American flags

Less than a week out from the US election, the world is waiting for an outcome that will have huge ramifications both in the US and across the globe.

A lot has happened in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19, the presidential debates wrapped on October 22, and after Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away in September, Amy Coney Barret has been sworn in to a lifetime position as the next US Supreme Court justice, preserving a conservative majority well into the future.

As we approach the election, we can reflect on the same moment four years ago, and remember how it felt to watch the world change.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 to the helm of the global superpower state was – largely – unexpected. Pre-election polls showed a clear lead for Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, including polling aggregation website FiveThirtyEight, which predicted a 71 per cent likelihood of victory for Clinton.

While Clinton did win the popular vote – and by 3 million ballots – her fall was to the Electoral Colleges, where she won only 232 votes to Trump’s 306.

How was it possible the polls got it so wrong?

It’s the question that has baffled observers of the 2016 election and one that hovers over 2020 forecasts, with polls showing Biden currently leading with a comfortable 87 per cent likelihood of victory.

In a recent Global Leadership Series webinar, Associate Professor Sarah Percy explored some of the oddities in the US electoral system that made Donald Trump’s surprise result in 2016 possible: the Electoral College and the absence of an independent electoral commission.

The Electoral College

The US electoral system has a few key quirks, one of which is the Electoral College.

The Electoral College was established in the Constitution as a mechanism to combat ‘tyranny of the majority’ and support federalism by ensuring meaningful representation for regional or sparsely-populated states.

In the Electoral College system, there are 538 electors across the country, divided differently across the states. To become President, a candidate must secure a 270 vote majority – hence Clinton’s 2016 loss, with only 232 of the Electoral College votes.

But how does a candidate win the popular vote and lose in the Electoral College ballot?

The way the Electoral College works is that whoever wins the popular vote in a state gets all the Electoral College votes from that state. So if Biden wins the popular vote in North Carolina, for example, he’ll get all of the Electoral College votes from that state, which is 15 electoral votes. He needs a combination of state wins that give him 270 votes or more to achieve the presidency, regardless of how he polls overall.

What makes it interesting is that each state has a different portion of the national 538 electors, designed to roughly reflect population and ensure fair representation of the state in federal politics. The number of electors is determined by the number of senators (every state has two) plus the number of people elected to congress in the state, which is based on respective populations. For example, California, as a large state, has 55 electoral votes, whereas Wyoming, as a small state, only has three.

A map of electoral college votes by state in the US

A map of the US electoral votes by state.

A map of the US electoral votes by state.

What this means is that victory hinges on winning over certain states. In the webinar, Percy used the case of Michigan in the 2016 election.

“To win the election, you not only have to win the popular vote, but – crucially – you have to win it in the right states,” she said.

“Michigan, in the 2016 election, was really interesting. The vote was extremely close – Clinton lost by only 10,704 votes in Michigan, but with the Electoral College system, all 17 votes from the state went straight to Trump. Michigan was one of the reasons why Trump won the 2016 election.”

How this plays out in an election is through battleground states.

The missing independent electoral commission

Another oddity Percy referred to was the absence of an independent electoral commission, meaning US states can create their own electoral rules and boundaries.

A key consequence of this is gerrymandering, where electorate boundaries are manipulated to secure an unfair political advantage for a certain party, group or individual.

“You see this on both side of politics – there’s a big move to create electoral districts which will continue to support a certain type of candidate,” she said.

“But it also makes it really hard for people to vote, because if you live in one end of [a gerrymandered area], you might find it quite hard to get to a polling place, for example.”

Active voter suppression is another serious issue, according to Percy.

“In Alabama, you have to have a driver’s license to vote in most places,” she said.

“But simultaneously, the state of Alabama has closed Department of Motor Vehicles – where you get your driver’s licenses – in minority neighbourhoods, and that has obviously had the effect of making it harder to vote.

“So getting out the vote is a really significant feature of American political campaigning, where they’ll do things like try and get people on a bus to bring them to the polling places to vote.”

The US presidential election takes place on 3 November 2020. Join UQ School of Political Science and International Studies expert analysts to understand all the detail about who won, how it happened, and what happens next.

An image of Donald Trump from the 2020 Presidential debate
An image of Joe Biden from the 2020 Presidential debate

The Global Leadership Series webinar - US Election: Trump vs Biden