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Home ยป Living here ยป How the election (and politics) works in the United States: A crash course

How the election (and politics) works in the United States: A crash course

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Some of you might be electoral and political junkies, and I get it, me too. But some of you might be standing here wondering why everyone's screaming about the election right now and wouldn't mind a quick crash course in how things work here in the United States, so here goes.

Politics is a huge part of many Americans' lives, and the news follows campaigns, politicians, and decisions closely. But there's nothing quite like a Presidential Election to notice the wall-to-wall coverage of every single vote that is cast in the U.S.

Not to mention the fact that the guy on TV manages to say the same nothing for 36 hours in a row (and I just can't turn it off).

I think it's important to follow what goes on in the political environment of the country you're living in, and even if you don't want to talk about it with others, it's worthwhile having a foundational knowledge of the moving pieces.

So I'm going to try and be brief.

What is this election for and what's the latest?

Right now we're still counting votes from the November 3 election. This is completely normal, there are lots of votes to count and some states don't allow counting of early and mailed-in votes until the day of the election.

Every state makes its own rules for elections, so what is completely normal for one, is illegal in another, but what is happening now has happened every single time.

Not only is the country deciding who will be president for the next 4 years (starting from the inauguration on Wednesday, January 20, 2021) but they're also picking some Senators and House Members too.

Note: Not all Senators and House Members are up for re-election:

Members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms and are considered for reelection every even year. Senators however, serve six-year terms and elections to the Senate are staggered over even years so that only about 1/3 of the Senate is up for reelection during any election.

So you might see some names you've heard of winning and losing, but others are safe for two more years!

There is a “junior” and a “senior” Senator for each state (whoever has been in longer is the “Senior”, it's not based on age) and then the number of house members is decided on based on the state's population and this is why the census is so important, so we know how many people are in the state!

What are the results looking like so far?

While some states have been “called” or “projected” for winners, there are many who are too close to call in the Presidential race, the Senate races, and the House races.

This means that there simply aren't enough votes counted yet to know exactly who won, and all the math in the world can't make an accurate prediction, so we just have to wait.

You will hear lots of predictions over the coming hours and days but it's going to be a very close Presidential race so there's a chance we won't know who wins for sure, for some time.

The fact is, that at the time of writing: It's too close to call.

How do we know who wins?

In the U.S., there is not a popular vote winner for the President. Which means that one person can get more votes than another person, but not win. This is due to the “Electoral College” which you may have heard of!

The Electoral College basically says that each state has an election, and if you get more votes in that state, you get a certain number of votes (most states are “winner takes all” meaning they get all the State's points, but Nebraska and Maine distribute their points depending on how much of the vote each person got).

The points that each state can give away are allocated to each state based on their population, just like the number of House members above.

To win, a Presidential candidate needs 270 points from different states (because the total is 538 when you add them all up and 270 is more than half of that).

The states that you can watch, who will decide who wins: Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and North Carolina.

How can I follow the election results as they happen?

Each different news outlet uses its own algorithms to call and project states for a particular winner. They take exit polls, look at previous polls, use data analysis from past elections, and more to basically say “Is this moving in the direction that we think it will”.

All this goes to say that no-one is perfect and some outlets will project states quicker than others, and some might be more conservative before they come out and declare a winner.

I recommend using a few different windows to give yourself a spread:

  1. My favorite will always be FiveThirtyEight, a statistics-based media source, founded by Nate Silver, and now owned by ABC. You can find their reporting and analysis here.
  2. I also like the New York Times analysis and commentary which offers lots of great information and insight. You can find their statistics here, and their analysis here.
  3. NPR is a fantastic resource for information as it's public radio and they like to speak in facts as opposed to opinion. You can find their tracking here.
  4. Other sources include CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

I thought Trump had already won?

While the President did stand up at around 2 am this morning and declare himself the winner, this is simply not true. Nobody has projected the election for either candidate, and this was premature.

The President has mentioned that counting should stop already, but that is not how a US Presidential Election has ever worked, and it won't be for this one either.

There are millions of ballots and counting them takes time.

So we wait.

Josh Pugh

Josh Pugh

Josh is a business founding, digital marketing focused, charity driving, community builder from South Australia, living in New York City. After moving in 2017, Josh realized that there was an opportunity to curate and help the community of expats who moved to the United States โ€“ and launched America Josh. Josh is also the President of Variety โ€“ the Children's Charity of New York, Secretary at The Mateship Foundation, and Founder & CEO at Fortnight Digital.View Author posts

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