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Beyond the spin - the 2004 US elections

By Don DeBats - posted Tuesday, 2 November 2004

First, we should cast aside the notion, so common in Australia, that either President Bush or the policy debate in the US is uniquely stupid or superficial or facile. Both Bush and Kerry during their debates articulated very different and well-developed policy stances, just as did Howard and Latham so recently in Australia. The same themes of competence and difference are echoed throughout the vast range of offices being contested in this, the most important election in a four-year cycle in the US.

Some things in this US election are the same as all preceding elections. The date as ever is fixed: the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. US political leaders have no capacity to force the moment of the people’s judgement of them to be held at their own most favourable moment: a refreshing honesty. The scope of this election, like its ballot paper, is vast as always, including not just the presidential choice, but also 34 seats in the Senate, all 435 House of Representatives seats, many state, local and judicial offices, and, in many states, multiple referenda.   Many of the referenda issues will, unlike the Australian experience, actually pass. So there are differences, but there are also important similarities.

Consider for example the cost of US elections, a matter which regularly outrages Australian commentators. In considering this we should bear in mind not only the complexity of the US ballot but also that in the US, voting (as in almost all of the world, except Australia) is a personal choice and so is registration (unlike most of the rest of the world, which like Australia, makes registration compulsory). What this means is that the US parties actually have to work, not just to convince voters to vote one way or the other, but to first register and then to convince them to come to the polls on election day. In the US then, mobilising the electorate is a much bigger job, in a much bigger country (nearly 300 million versus. 20 million populations) and is, all in all, a much more difficult job of political salesmanship. Encouraging voter turnout increases costs. Unlike the Australian situation, the US parties are forced to motivate their followers. If they cannot, they will lose and the party system, unassisted by compulsory voting which helps keep the established parties in control of the electoral process in Australia, may change in fundamental ways.


The 2001 Australian election cost the taxpayer $38.5 million. This is public money: private giving to political parties is largely unregulated and very largely unreported in Australia. We don’t have figures for the 2004 elections in either country. But there are good estimates that the 2000 US elections cost about $3 billion, with $0.9 billion spent on the presidential contest and $2.1 billion on the congressional election. This is public and private money. Taking into account the population differential that makes the cost - in just public money - of the 2001 Australian election translated to a nation the size of the US about $0.5 billion. We can make whatever assumptions about private money in Australia we choose to and we can debate whether the proper Australian-American comparison is with the presidential, pongressional or the whole election cycle. But the summary point is simple: the differences in election costs are not as great as we are led to believe and just maybe (the Australian media notwithstanding) Australia and the United States do dwell on the same political planet.

Much the same is true of election participation, the Australian media again notwithstanding. On November 2, in a remarkably intense election, there is a real possibility of a turnout as high as 120 million voters. If so, the 2004 election will be the highest level of participation since 1968, the last election before 18-year-olds were given the vote, and participation rates plunged. But these are estimates.

Let us return to the 2000 election in the US and the 2001 election in Australia. In Australia in 2001, about 86 per cent of the age eligible residents actually voted which was 95 per cent of the registered population. These were the results with compulsory registration and compulsory voting. In the US in 2000, with voluntary registration and voluntary voting, 51 percent of the age eligible and about 82 per cent of the registered population cast a ballot.

Nor is there a vast difference between the methods of choosing a president in the US and a prime minister in Australia. Neither (for good reason) uses direct election; both use a districting system. The districts differ: electoral divisions in Australia and states in the US. The Electoral College and the Australian division of the nation into electorates acknowledges regional differences and the importance of keeping the focus of voting local. In the US presidential election, the districts are states rather than seats. There are marginal states, just as here we have marginal seats. And in both countries these marginals are the districts or states that decide the election.

One question about any districting system is, does it fail - that is, does the districting units produce a result at odds with the total popular vote? Yes, they do, in both cases. There have been 54 US presidential elections and of them, the Electoral College failed to produce the required majority of votes for 1 candidate in 2 (1800 and 1824). Since 1900 there has been only one election (the 2000 election) in which the candidate with the majority of the popular vote failed to get the majority of the Electoral College vote. (Before that there were three others: 1824, 1876, and 1888 and we could debate the 1960 election). The most recent electoral “failure” in the US was of course the 2000 election that at the end of the day saw Gore with 314,175 votes more than Bush of the 104,262,331 votes cast - an “error” of 0.3 per cent.

But the Australian system fails in the same way, and more frequently. Take 1987, Hawke vs. Howard, a tie in first preferences at 45.8 per cent for both. In 1990 Hawke with 39.4 per cent of votes “beat” Peacock’s Coalition with 43.2 per cent. and in 1998 Howard, with 39.2 per cent trumped Beazley’s 40.1 per cent. In the 1998 election, even in two party preferred votes, Beazley won: he obtained a two party preferred vote of 5,630,409 against John Howard’s 5,413,431 - an “error” of 1.96 per cent, 6 times the “error” in the 2000 US election. The complex Australian electoral system, designed to choose the winners in the districts, may in fact not work so well in the modern electorate in which the key matter is not the party in the district, but the national leader of the party. But we might still well ask why Australians, and the Australian media, becomes so easily outraged by the failures of the American system but appear entirely indifferent to the more frequent and larger failures of the Australian electoral system.


Returning to the present - and the future. Most states on November 2 will return all their Electoral College allocation to the candidate who gains a popular vote majority in the state. There are two “split vote” states (Maine and Nebraska, where in fact no Electoral College vote has ever been split because the result has been uniform across the state), and a third (Colorado), with lawyers at the ready, possibly pending.

November 2 is also an election for the whole House and 34 Senate seats. In the 1994 Congressional election, the Republicans gained control of the House and Senate and have held on to that ascendency since then. This marks a huge shift from the pattern that prevailed from the Great Depression to the 1990s during which the Democrats controlled the US House and Senate, almost without exception, for 60 straight years. If the Republicans retain control of both Houses of Congress in this election, it will be further evidence that that the ground has shifted with the south becoming solid for the Republicans. This matters because the party with a majority in the House or Senate obtains a majority of members and appoints the chairman of all of the standing legislative in that chamber or chambers and these committees are in absolute control of the legislative agenda of the US government.

So, what’s the state of play?

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About the Author

Don DeBats is Head of the Department of American Studies, Professor of American Studies and Professor of Politics and International Studies at Flinders University, Adelaide. His research focus is 19th century U.S. political history and he keeps a close watch on contemporary U.S. politics.

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