America votes 2012

Right now about 130 million Americans are voting for the 45th President of the United States. Some will have voted early, others will go to the polls in the next few hours. The American electoral system, compared to that in Australia, is quite complex.

Voters vote by state for the candidates to the Electoral College. This means that a handful of so-called swing states will decide the outcome and thus the government for the 314 million citizens of America. In fact a popular vote – i.e. a majority of citizens– may vote for one candidate, but the other may be elected due to a majority of electoral college votes. Confused?

The cost of this election has been calculated to exceed $US6 billion. Yes, that’s right, $6 billion. Such a sum is difficult to understand, but to put it in context, it is slightly less than the amount required to fund Australia’s upcoming National Disability Insurance Scheme for 12 months. So a significant amount of money has been spent to woo voters whose popular choice may well not become the next president.

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Spending on the US election

How many Americans voted in the first election in 1788?

Voter turnout

Super PACs

Money talks, democracy loses

It is somewhat ironic that the nation which created the most democratic constitution has become the nation where only rich men – or those with access to multi millions, if not billions– stand a fighting chance of winning office. In 2008 Democratic candidate Barack Obama swam against the tide by mobilising the many thousands of poorer Americans, often using social media to invite them to donate 10 or 20 dollars to his campaign. This strategy was sufficiently successful to fund a campaign which ultimately overcame the established wealth behind the Republican contender, John McCain.

The $5 billion dollars spent in 2008 has now been overtaken by nearly $6 billion in 2012. The laws have changed also, so that Super PACs may now raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, and spend these unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.  Thus $600 million dollars has been spent by special interest groups supporting or denouncing Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. Who are these special interest groups? Good question. Although they have to report on their activities to the Federal Election Commission, they otherwise seem to be unrestrained.

There are those who rail against the system of compulsory voting in Australia. But when compared to that of non-compulsory voting in the ‘home of democracy’ in the USA, I think our system comes up smelling like a rose.

Today fewer than 40 per cent of Americans will vote in a campaign where $600 million dollars has been spent by special interest groups, for the Electoral Colleges, which will then confirm the man who will lead the American people for the next four years. Currently America has the biggest economy and the highest military spending in the world. So the influence of this President is widespread. Yet the decision will come down to a handful of voters in swing states, voters who have been subject to messages from the Super PACS with the dollars to talk. Some democracy.

What do you think? Is democracy in the USA a thing of the past? Or is the system still working?