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31 January 2020
By Matt Hrkac

A primer on how politics and elections work in the United States

This Tuesday (Australian time), the Iowa caucus for both the United States Democratic Party and Republican Party will be taking place; which will kick-start a weekly schedule of Primary elections in each state to determine the two main candidates for President - an election which will take place in November.

There are some peculiarities about the US political and electoral system that are different to what we know in Australia, so let's break it down.





Most states, and federally, have two houses of Congress (equivalent to the Australian Parliament): a House of Representatives (lower house) and a Senate (upper house).

Much like in the Australian Parliament, the House of Representatives elects single members representing electoral districts. The Senate is the 'States house' and is represented by two members from each state. Federally, members of the House of Representatives come up for election every two years. Senate members serve staggered six year terms, with a third of the Senate coming up for election every two years.

Two main parties

Like in Australia, the United States has two main political parties: the Democratic Party, the main Left party, and the Republican Party, the main Right party. Smaller parties exist in the United States, but unlike in Australia, it is generally near impossible for individuals belonging to third parties to get elected into state or federal legislatures without support or endorsement from one of the two major parties. People not elected as members of the major parties at a state or federal level are almost always affiliated to one of the two major parties, or otherwise caucus with one of the major parties.

Despite there being two major parties, the actions of individual legislators are more 'fluid' compared to those in Australia. In Australia, members of Parliament will almost always adhere to the party line when it comes to voting on legislation and the party's will actively enforce partisan discipline. In the United States, however, legislators voting against the party line (equivalent to crossing the floor) is a far more common occurrence.

The views and ideology represented by each of the two major parties is also very broad because of this and other reasons outlined below. The most Left-wing elements of the Democratic Party sit to the Left of the Australian Greens whereas its most Right-leaning elements would sit comfortably within our Liberal Party. Likewise, the most moderate of Republicans would be small-l-liberal equivalents whereas the most Right-wing of Republicans would sit further to the Right than the One Nation Party.

Party membership isn't really a thing in the United States

In Australia, people can become financial members of political parties by, in most cases, paying that party's annual fee - which entitles those people certain rights within the party structure not afforded to non-members. In the United States, political parties don't have rank and file membership structures.

During elections, people sign up to parties as "registered supporters", which in some US states is required to participate in primary elections. Due to this, people's views within each party are incredibly broad, as outlined above.

The closest thing that the Republican Party and Democratic Party have to a "membership structure" is their respective caucuses in each of the state and federal legislatures - with each party having a leader (Majority Leader for the biggest party, Minority Leader for the second biggest party).

Primary elections

Almost all general elections, including the Presidential election, in the United States is preceded by Primary Elections (or Primaries). Comparing this to the Australian system, this is roughly equivalent to party preselections to endorse candidates at an election, only that Primaries are of a much larger scale, generally sufficiently enough to be considered elections in their own right. Active campaigning for a Presidential election can often begin up to two years in advance; with the Primary process itself taking several months to conclude.

Campaigning itself in the United States is often a major fan-fare, particularly when compared to election campaigning in Australia, with town visits by Presidential candidates, or rallies, being major events which can draw thousands of people. It is not uncommon for rallies supporting Presidential candidate front-runners to fill sports stadiums to capacity.

For Presidential Primaries, the rules and format are largely determined on a state by state basis.

They fall into two types: Caucuses and Primaries. In a Caucus, people will physically attend a meeting and vote by sitting in a particular area of the room - very much similar to how politicians vote in the Westminster system when there is a division called. A Primary is a more simple format, requiring participants to just fill out a ballot. Due to the complicated nature of Caucuses and the commitment level required for people to attend these, Primaries will typically see higher turnouts.

The extent of participation also varies between each state. At the most basic level - in some states, anyone is allowed to participate in a party's primary/caucus, while in others; people must be registered as party supporters on or prior to the day of election in order to participate in that party's primary. The openness of a party's primary is determined by them being classified as either open, semi-open, semi-closed or closed.

Primary's aren't direct elections. Instead, the primary in each state elects a certain number of delegates, divided proportionately to each candidate based on their share of the popular vote.

Party conventions

Once the Primary process has concluded, each party will hold a National Convention - where the delegates from each of the state Primaries, along with state and federal legislators, will meet.

These events are roughly equivalent to the National Conferences that the major Australian parties hold usually on an annual basis - but once again, on a much larger scale - with attendees numbering in the thousands.

For procedural purposes (because delegates are bound to whichever candidate they have been allotted to during the Primary process, hence the candidate for President can be determined well before Convention day), delegates will via a roll call of each state vote for their party's Presidential candidate. The same process is also used to choose the party's nominee for Vice President (the Vice President nominee is almost always determined by the Presidential nominee, however).

In addition to this, delegates will also work through, debate and vote on elements of the party's policy platform. This is why candidates seldom drop out during the Primary process even if the are trailing too far behind to win - such as Bernie Sanders in 2016 - because their delegates can still have an influence over the party's platform. The more delegates a candidate has at the Convention, the greater chance of them being able to get at least some of their positions reflected in the final party platform.

Election Day

The Presidential Election itself is a nationwide election, held in November, and may or may not be held in conjunction with general elections for federal and state legislatures, state Governors, and local/city council/mayoral elections.

Once again, Presidential elections aren't direct elections, but rather delegated (via electors to the Electoral College). Each state has a certain number of electors, based on that states population relative to the rest of the country (for example, California, being the most populous state, has the most electors). In most states, the system is effectively winner takes all - the candidate with the most votes in a particular state takes all of that states electors (only the states of Maine and Nebraska differ from this method, instead giving two electoral votes to the statewide winner and one electoral vote to the winner of each Congressional district). This is how Donald Trump was able to win the 2016 Presidential Election despite having a lower overall popular vote than his opponent.

Electors convene in each state about six weeks after the election to vote for the President and Vice President; with the final result being determined at a joint sitting of Congress in the following January.

About the author:

Matt Hrkac is a writer and photographer based in Geelong. He has particular interests in politics, elections, social movements and the trade union movement. If you like what you see here, please consider giving a small donation to help cover the expenses.

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