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Explaining Politics: United States - Elections and Federalism

Explaining Politics: United States - Elections and Federalism

In the United States of America, elections are something many see as emblematic of democracy and give everyone a chance to participate in some capacity in the government. However, the way elections are structured in the US is not always conducive to encouraging as many as possible to be involved, through a variety of rules and regulations. 

When Are US Elections?

Every November, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday, is when a general election happens in the US, where all elected representatives who are up for re-election are voted on. Some, like those in the House of Representatives, are voted on every two years, while others, like in the Senate, are every six years, which makes even years, like 2018, the ones everyone focuses on, as that is when the national government experiences a shake-up.

While even years are what gets all the media attention, there are also elections happening on off years, when people vote for their local board of education and judges. But before it gets to election time, there is usually a primary that happens months before. States differ on when their primaries happen, and whether it's electing the president or just Congresspeople, though they all fall between March and September for non-presidential years and February and June in presidential years.

Primaries are important as they decide which member of each party ends up on the ballot in November, with the rules for who is allowed to vote in what primaries differing from state to state. Some states are closed primaries, where voters can only vote for the party they have registered as on their voter identification, others have open primaries, where it does not matter what party you are registered to when voting.

How Do The Elections Work?

In the US almost all states follow the first past the post voting method during most elections, where one vote is held and the person who has the most votes is declared the winners. A few states and cities use runoff voting for primaries and elections, where the two people with the most votes participate in a second election if no clear winner is found after the first. Just this past election in 2018, Maine was the first state to hold an election involving ranked-choice voting, where voters ranked the people they wanted to vote for so if their first choice did not win, their votes would be reallocated to their second choice and so on. Several cities across the US have adopted ranked choice voting for their elections, but in 2016 Maine was the first to implement rank choice voting statewide. 

What Is Federalism?

With Maine being the only state to have ranked choice voting across its border, it is worth explaining why no other state has such a policy, and that boils down to something as important to the United States as election, the concept of federalism. The US is run by a national government, that sets the laws and regulations that govern the entire, deals with other countries and trade between the US and the rest of the world. However, that is just at the national level, as the US is made up of 50 different states, all with their own laws and regulations that differ from one another and do not always conform to what the federal government has to say.

Each state acts as sort of a miniature form of the national government, with their own state House of Representatives, their own state Senate, and their own state president, called a governor, along with a state supreme court. The legislative bodies in each state are responsible for making laws that are exclusive to the goings on of that state, however, each state is subordinate in power to what the federal government has to say and what the Supreme Court decides.

A perfect example of this in action is the issue of abortion. The Supreme Court has ruled several times in the past 40 years that abortion is, in effect, legal throughout the country. This means, that when states have tried to pass bills or make laws that limit abortions, they come up against the legal precedent of what the Supreme Court has decided, and they tend to get struck down. In Ohio, the governor there recently vetoed a bill that would have made it illegal to perform an abortion if a heartbeat was detected. His reasoning for doing so, despite labelling himself as anti-abortion, is that it would get struck down in federal courts due to established Supreme Court precedent.