In 1788-89, at a time when most heads of state were unelected kings and queens, Americans voted to elect their first president. They chose George Washington, the hero of the American War for Independence. Since then, every four years, there has been a new election. Starting in 1848, election day has always been held on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November. This was decided to suit the religious and agrarian society of the time. November falls between harvest time (a busy period for farmers) and the winter months when travelling was more difficult. Tuesday was ideal because it allowed people to go to church on Sunday, travel to their polling place on Monday, vote on Tuesday, and return home for market day, which was on Wednesday.
Fearful of kings and suspicious of people
Washington was elected twice and decided not to run for a third term. This became an unwritten rule: for almost a century and a half no president served for more than two terms. Then, in 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with tradition and was elected for a third term, and, in 1944, for a fourth. In 1951, a maximum of two presidential terms was written into the Constitution. This put an end to a fear that already existed back in 1789: that a president could rule for life, like a king. Curiously, the nation’s founders were also fearful of democracy: what if the people voted for somebody unfit to be president? To prevent this, they made the vote for president indirect. This means that when Americans vote for their candidate, they are actually voting for a group of people called ‘electors’ (who form the Electoral College) who then elect the president. According to the founders, the electors could decide to ignore the popular vote if they believed the winner was unqualified to be president. So far, though, the electors have always respected the popular vote.
Winners and outsiders
This strange system also has a big problem: the winner of the popular vote does not necessarily win the election. This means that a candidate might receive more popular votes than his opponents, but less electoral votes. Donald Trump did not win the popular vote, but still became president. Also George W. Bush, in 2000, lost the popular vote but won the election. Another issue is that the winner is always a candidate of either the Democratic or the Republican party. Some feel that this limits the choice of the voters to just two alternatives. Third parties have tried to break this duopoly, but unsuccessfully. A famous third-party contender was Eugene Debbs, who ran five times for president. His last attempt was in 1920, when he ran his campaign… from jail. Debbs, head of the Socialist Party, was in prison for protesting against the US intervention in World War I. He received 900,000 votes, not enough to compete with the Republican and Democratic candidates.
Trump vs. Biden
This year saw a very tough fight between the two main contenders, the incumbent president Donald Trump and the Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who was vice-president under president Barack Obama. This presidential campaign took place during one of the most turbulent times in American history. A time during which the country has been plagued by the Covid pandemic, its terrible economic impact, serious climate change consequences (such as the megafires in California), and widespread racial tension. On these issues, the programmes of the two candidates differed greatly. They outlined two very different future paths for the United States. Due to this, many consider this election one of the most important in US history. The voter turnout was record-breaking, and it favoured Joe Biden who won the majority of both the popular and the electoral votes. (He received 75 million popular votes, the most ever cast for a presidential candidate.) In his victory speech, Biden vowed to bring unity to a divided nation. He will be helped by his running mate, Kamala Harris, who became the first woman, as well as the first African American and Asian American, to be elected vice-president.
- is considered a hero.
- was elected president three times.
- was the first US president.
- a very religious population.
- the law.
- an unwritten rule.
- the record of presidential terms.
- didn’t like kings.
- wanted to control who became president.
- decided nobody should be president more than two times.
- must respect the popular vote.
- Has always respected the popular vote.
- elects the president of the United States.
- might lose the election.
- always becomes president.
- might receive less electoral votes than his main opponent.
- became president in 1920 after receiving 900,000 votes.
- was not a Democrat or a Republican.
- was against the war.
- a Democrat.
- the current vice-president.
- competing against the current president.
- agree on many issues.
- have very different programmes.
- fought very hard against each other.
- Joe Biden’s presidency can already be considered historic because
- he won both the popular and the electoral votes.
- he is the most voted presidential candidate in US history.
- his running mate is the first Asian and Black female vice president.
___ (Carlo Dellonte) (Image credits: Wikimedia Commons and Flickr)