Proportional representation in the US would work

Washington. Millions of Americans will decide on Tuesday who will move into the White House as the most powerful politician in the Western world. President Donald Trump (74) is running for a second term, his challenger is former Vice President Joe Biden (77).

The Republican Trump wants to continue to rule with Vice President Mike Pence (61), the Democrat Biden in the event of an election victory with Senator Kamala Harris (56). She would be the first woman and first black woman to hold the office of Vice President. The House of Representatives and around a third of the seats in the Senate also vote. Here is an overview of the most important information.

How does the voting system work?

US voters can only vote indirectly on who will be the next president. Your vote decides on the composition of the Electoral College, which then elects the President. In 48 of the 50 states it works like this: the candidate who can secure a majority gets all the votes. An example: If Trump wins Florida with 50.1 percent of the vote, he would get the votes of all 29 electorates in the state, Biden would go completely empty-handed. Americans therefore speak of the principle of "winner takes all" (everything for the winner). Only in the two small states of Nebraska and Maine are the votes of the electorate distributed approximately proportionally.

What about the electorate?

The number of electors in a state corresponds to the number of US senators and congressmen sent from there and is thus roughly based on the number of inhabitants. The electorate will vote 41 days after the presidential election, this year on December 14th. They are guided by the result in their state - in many states the electorate would otherwise face a penalty. To become president, a candidate must win at least 270 votes. The official result will not be announced in Congress until January 6th.

Because of the indirect voting system, it is possible that a candidate could get the most direct votes but still lose the election. That was the case in 2016, for example. At that time, more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, but Donald Trump was able to secure a majority of the electorate through the states he won.

Why is voting on a Tuesday?

Election day has been legally established since 1845 as the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Election day is a normal working day. There are historical reasons that it falls on a Tuesday in November. In the 19th century, most Americans still made a living from agriculture. In the spring and summer, many farmers were busy tilling their fields. In November, however, the harvest season was over in most areas, but the climate was still mild enough to be able to travel to the nearest polling station by horse-drawn carriage or on foot. Sunday was not an option for travel or voting, because that was when you went to church.

When is the vote?

The United States spans multiple time zones. The first polling stations in the northeastern state of Vermont will open at 5 a.m. (11 a.m. CET). From 6 a.m. onwards, many states on the east coast follow, followed by the center of the country. In the west coast state of California, polling stations open at 7 a.m. (4 p.m. CET).

Hawaii and Alaska bottom the long line of states. Islanders can cast their vote until 6 a.m. CET on Wednesday morning. In large parts of Alaska, too, the polling stations are open until 6 a.m. CET, and in the Aleutians an hour longer, until 7 a.m. CET. With the closing of the polling stations in the northernmost state, the US election is over.

Postal voters could vote weeks before the election. In addition, most states offer the possibility of voting in polling stations in advance. In 2016, around 40 percent of the votes were cast in these two ways before election day. This year it seems to be even more: a few days before the election, according to researchers, around 80 million Americans had already voted.

Who can vote?

Initially, everyone of the approximately 330 million US citizens who is at least 18 years old is eligible to vote. Residents of U.S. suburbs such as Puerto Rico are excluded. Most states also do not allow inmates and people convicted of serious crimes to vote. According to a civil rights group, this affects around 5.2 million people. All others must register with the responsible electoral office before voting.

Why is the voter turnout rather low?

According to the Election Commission (FEC), around 137 million Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election. Measured against the population of voting age of around 245 million, this corresponded to a voter turnout of almost 56 percent. This year voter turnout is difficult to estimate because of the pandemic. In many states, high registration hurdles are blamed for the traditionally rather low participation, but also the frustration of voters. Another reason: In some states, such as California, traditionally the same party always wins.

Which states are particularly important?

Florida is considered the jackpot: with 29 voters, it is one of the most contested states. This is followed by the traditional "battleground states" or "swing states", those states that sometimes vote for a Republican and sometimes for a Democrat. These include Pennsylvania (20 votes) and Ohio (18), as well as Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota (together 36 votes). Current polls also suggest an open race in Georgia (16), North Carolina (15) and Arizona (11). It would be a real earthquake if Biden could win Texas. The large state with 36 votes has been going to the Republicans for decades - but some polls give it at least little chance there.

Many other states are hardly contested. For the Democrats, for example, the states on the west coast and those in the northeast are a safe bank. The Republicans usually do particularly well in the center of the country, the Midwest and the South.

Why is the presidential election so important?

No office in the western world can hold a candle to the power of the US president. The president is the head of state and government and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He has largely a free hand in foreign policy. In many other areas of politics too - from military operations to the imposition of punitive tariffs and the regulation of immigration and environmental protection - the president can make a great deal of decisions. In addition, it can intervene at least temporarily in policy areas that are otherwise reserved for the legislative function of Parliament through so-called “executive orders”. But he needs Congress for measures that will cost money or change laws.

When can the election result be expected?

In the past presidential elections, the winner was usually determined on election night. However, experts assume that this year, because of the pandemic, significantly more people will vote by postal vote. As a result, the counting of votes could be significantly delayed - by a few days or even longer.

The US electoral law is primarily determined by the states. In some places, ballot papers sent on election day can even be counted, and counting postal votes is more complex, for example because of the need to compare the signatures of the voters. A few thousand votes could decide the outcome of the election in a country. Officials in several states, including the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, have warned the count could last until Friday November 6th.

In addition, according to surveys, more Democrats than Republicans want to use postal votes. Therefore, the first counting results from the polling stations could see Trump in the lead in some places, but the counting of the postal voting documents ultimately help Biden win. In individual states there could also be lawsuits and demands for a recount. In 2000, for example, the result in the state of Florida, which ultimately also decided on the presidential election, was only known a month after the election. The lawsuit went to the Supreme Court in Washington.

Who will announce the election results?

There is no electoral authority in the US that would promptly announce the results for the whole country. Results will gradually be announced locally - i.e. in polling stations, districts and states. The major US media therefore play an important role in collating local results and in some cases combining them with other data in order to predict who has won an election. The results obtained by the Associated Press (AP) news agency are considered very reliable.

What do the polls say?

In national polls, Biden has been well ahead of Trump for months. The website FiveThirtyEight, for example, which evaluates and weights numerous surveys, sees Biden with 52 percent of the vote, Trump with 43.2 percent (Friday). However, national surveys have only limited informative value due to the electoral system. In 2016, Trump managed to win a majority of the electorate through his victories in the states, although he did not have a majority of the votes. At the time, Hillary Clinton had long been in the lead in national polls - but lost to Trump. Currently, both national surveys and polls in the key states point to Biden's victory.

What role does postal voting play?

The authorities expect a massive increase in postal votes because millions of Americans do not want to risk going to the polling station because of Corona. Because the election always takes place on a normal working day, almost a quarter of voters voted by post in 2016, for example. That was a good 33 million votes. Many states have made it easier or extended deadlines to allow postal voting because of the pandemic. Some states, such as California, Ohio and New Jersey, even send the election papers unsolicited to the citizens. According to experts, almost every second vote could come in the mail this year.

How is postal voting suddenly controversial?

Trump has made the established form of voting a bone of contention. He warned that the increase in postal votes would lead to massive election fraud. Above all, he criticizes the fact that in some states election documents are sent out unsolicited. In some places ballots would be sent to "dead and dogs," said Trump. He regards the postal vote as a ruse by the Democrats to beat him with the help of a high turnout. He also does not like the fact that some postal voters can vote weeks before the election and will not see the TV duels between him and Biden, for example.

What's up with Trump's warnings?

Trump has so far not provided any solid evidence. Experts, and even many Republicans, reject Trump's warnings. Election fraud is very rare in the United States. Even smaller cases can lead to prison sentences, as an overview by the conservative Heritage Foundation shows. According to experts at the Brennan Center think tank, only around 0.0025 percent of the votes cast in polling stations were fraudulent, and even less for postal votes. The probability that an American manipulates the postal vote is less than the probability of being struck by lightning, it said.

What consequences could Trump's warnings have?

Many Democrats fear that Trump could question the legality of the vote as a whole. This is the logic: if Trump is defeated, he could speak of electoral fraud and refuse to recognize the result. A delayed announcement of the result could give tailwind to his allegations. The scenario is not out of thin air. In August, for example, Trump said several times that he would only lose “if the election is rigged”. The doubts are sown: four years ago, around 60 percent of those questioned in a survey had confidence that the election results would be counted correctly; in August it was only 45 percent.

What will happen after the election?

On December 14th, the 538 electoral women and electors vote in their states, which ideally is only a formality and reflects the result from the states. On January 6, the US Congress will officially announce who will be the next President and Vice President at a joint session of the two chambers of parliament at 7 p.m. CET. The new president will then take his oath of office ("inauguration") on January 20 at a festive ceremony in front of the Capitol in Washington from 6 p.m. CET.

What else will be voted on on November 3rd?

The composition of the US Congress is also voted on at the same time as the presidential election. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and around a third of the 100 seats in the Senate are available for election. There are also many popular votes in the states. For example, Colorado is voting on the reintroduction of gray wolves into the wild, while Mississippi is voting on the approval of marijuana as a medicinal product and the design of the state's new flag.

How important are the congressional elections?

The presidential election overshadows almost everything in public perception, especially abroad. But without a majority in both chambers of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, a president can make little lasting domestic political change. Parliament has budget sovereignty and the right to propose laws. The Senate must also approve the appointment of all outstanding government offices - from ministers to ambassadors. The same applies to the appointment of federal and constitutional judges.

The number of representatives in the House of Representatives is roughly based on the population of the constituencies. In the Senate, the representation of the states in Washington, however, each state is entitled to two seats - for tiny Rhode Island with one million inhabitants as well as for California with 40 million. The House of Representatives is completely re-elected every two years.

The Democrats have been in control of the House of Representatives since 2018. Republicans have a majority in the Senate. Trump hopes to defend the Senate; a victory in the election to the House of Representatives seems hardly possible for the Republicans. The Democrats, in turn, hope to win the Senate. There the Republicans only have a slim majority (53 against 47). A president whose party controls both houses can implement many of his political priorities. (dpa)