How does the United States elect its President?

November 3rd, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Today, those Americans who have not already voted by post or in early balloting – as an astonishing nearly 100 million have done – can go to their polling station and vote for the next President of the USA.

In fact, the President is not elected directly by the voters but by an Electoral College representing each state on the basis of a combination of the number of members in the Senate (two for each state regardless of size) and the number of members in the House of Representatives (roughly proportional to population). The states with the largest number of votes are California (55), Texas (38) and New York (29). The states with the smallest number of votes – there are seven of them – have only three votes. The District of Columbia, which has no voting representation in Congress, has three Electoral College votes.

In effect, therefore, the Presidential election is not one election but 51. In virtually all cases, the winner of the presidential election in any given state secures all the Electoral College votes of that state. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska. 

The total Electoral College vote is 538. This means that, to become President, a candidate has to win at least 270 electoral votes. The voting system awards the Electoral College votes from each state to delegates committed to vote for a certain candidate in a “winner take all” system, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska (which award their Electoral College votes according to Congressional Districts rather than for the state as a whole).

In practice, most states are firmly Democrat – for instance, California and New York – or firmly Republican – for instance, Texas and Tennessee. Therefore, candidates concentrate their appearances and resources on the so-called “battleground states”, those that might go to either party. The three largest battleground or swing states are Florida (29 votes), Pennsylvania (20) and Ohio (18). Others include North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Iowa (6) and Nevada (6). 

This system of election means that a candidate can win the largest number of votes nationwide but fail to win the largest number of votes in the Electoral College and therefore fail to become President. Indeed, in practice, this has happened four times in US history: 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016. On the last occasion, the losing candidate (Hillary Clinton) actually secured 2.9 million more votes than the winning candidate (Donald Trump).

If this seems strange (at least to non-Americans), the explanation is that the ‘founding fathers’ who drafted the American Constitution did not wish to give too much power to the people and so devised a system that gives the ultimate power of electing the President to members of the Electoral College. The same Constitution, however, enables each state to determine how its members in the Electoral College are chosen and since the 1820s states have chosen their electors by a direct vote of the people. The United States is the only example in the world of an indirectly elected executive president.

The Electoral College does not actually meet as one body. Instead, since 1936, federal law has provided that the electors in each of the states (and, since 1964, in the District of Columbia) meet “on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December next following their appointment” to vote for President and Vice-President. After the vote, each state then sends a certified record of their electoral votes to Congress. The votes of the electors are opened during a joint session of Congress, held in the first week of January.

In the event that the Electoral College is evenly divided between two candidates or no candidate secures a majority of the votes, the Constitution provides that the choice of President is made by the House of Representatives and the choice of Vice-President is made by the Senate. In the first case, the representatives of each state have to agree collectively on the allocation of a single vote. In the second case, each senator has one vote.

This has actually happened twice – in 1800 and 1824. In 1800, the House of Representatives, after 35 votes in which neither Thomas Jefferson nor Aaron Burr obtained a majority, elected Jefferson on the 36th ballot. In 1824, neither John Quincy Adams nor Andrew Jackson was able to secure a majority of the votes in the Electoral College and the House of Representatives chose Adams even though he had fewer Electoral College votes and fewer votes at the ballot boxes than Jackson.

So now you know …

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A review of the new movie “On The Rocks”

November 2nd, 2020 by Roger Darlington

The weekend before a second lockdown to tackle the coronavirus crisis, I was so keen to enjoy the cinema experience before it was denied to me once more. So I managed to catch “On The Rocks” on the big screen while most people will see it on Apple’s streaming service.

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, this is a comedy-drama with a hint of Woody Allen since it is set in New York and involves elements of neurotic anxiety. Rashida Jones plays writer Laura who needs to know who to trust: her father Felix (Bill Murray), an inveterate womaniser with a certain charm who is protective of his daughter, or her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), a hard-working, often-travelling founder of a start-up who is acting suspiciously in relation to a hot colleague.

It is all rather slight and light but it has some appeal and is watchable enough.

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Who are Americans voting for this week?

November 2nd, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Tuesday 3 November 2020 is a big day in the United States with a massive amount of balloting going on.

Everyone knows that Americans will be electing the next President and Vice-President for a four-year term. The choice is between Donald Trump and Mike Pence for the Republicans and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for the Democrats.

But there’s a lot more going on.

All 435 members of the House of Representatives are up for election for a two-year term. Currently the Democrats have a majority in the House.

One third of the 100 members of the Senate are up for election for a six-year term. In fact, this year 33 seats are up for election on the normal routine with two more seats to be filled as special elections, making 35 in all. Currently the Republicans have a narrow majority in the Senate.

But that’s not all.

There are 13 Governor posts up for election – 11 in states and two in territories.

There are 86 state legislature elections too (all states – except one – have bicameral legislatures).

That’s still not all.

Arizona, South Dakota and Montana are voting on legalising recretaional marijuana; Maryland is voting on legalising sports betting; Mississippi is voting on a new flag; and Puerto Rico is holding a non-binding referendum on statehood (for the fifth time).

That’s far from all – but you get the idea …

And campaigning in these elections doesn’t come cheap – especially when effectively there are no limits on what can be legally spent, This year’s election campaigns will spend a total of nearly $14 billion.

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What is the most important relationship in global politics?

October 30th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

In my last posting, I wrote about a talk hosted online by the London School of Economics. The talk was delivered by Fareed Zakaria who is an Indian-American journalist, political scientist, and author. He was introducing ideas from his new book “Ten Lessons For a Post-Pandemic World”, The session was chaired by Andrés Velasco, formerly finance minister of Chile and currently the Dean of the School of Public Policy at the LSE, who led the discussion which followed.

Velasco asked Zakaria whether populism, which we have seen in Britain, the United States, Brazil, Hungary and elsewhere, would be a winner or loser from the coronavirus crisis. Zakarai believes that the pandemic will dramatically increase the already severe inequalities in income and wealth with smaller businesses and sectors like retail and hospitality being hit especially hard.

He expects that, as a result, there will be a push for an expanded role for the state which would favour centre-left political parties rather than right-wing populist parties. As a believer in the benefits of free markets, he would not wholly support this. He spoke in favour of the Danish model where there are both strong markets and strong government – what Velasco called “flexi-security”.

A key issue for both Zakaria and Velasco was trust. Populism has denigrated the expertise of scientists and elites but they expected the coronavirus crisis to correct some of this. At the international level, Zakaria wanted to see a better integration into the world order of the rising economies of of China, India and Brazil. He identified the relationship between the United States and China – currently so tense – as the most important in global politics.

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“The next crisis could be the last crisis.”

October 29th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Before the global pandemic, I would regularly attend free evening lectures at the London School of Economics. Now such events are all online and this week I attended a particularly fascinating talk by Fareed Zakaria who is an Indian-American journalist, political scientist, and author. He was introducing ideas from his new book “Ten Lessons For a Post-Pandemic World” which I have now ordered.

Zakaria emphasised that with globalisation “We have been living a life of greater risk” with faster growth but more inequality and instability. He contrasted the terrorist threat of 9/11 and the economic crisis of 2008 with the current global pandemic and underlined that, in the case of Covid 19, “It has affected every human being on the planet” and so “This is the most universal crisis which has faced us”.

He explained that zoonotic viruses which jump from animals to humans have always been with us, but that modern methods of food production almost guaranteed a new pandemic. He pointed out the fallacy of believing that “nature has a fondest for human life”. Chillingly he asserted that, unless we change the way we live, “The next crisis could be the last crisis”.

He pointed out that countries which have faced previous zoonotic crises like SARS and MERS have learned the lessons and acted more decisively this time. This has been the case with nations like China, Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam. But he was not confident that Western countries would learn the lessons of Covid because of our sense of inertia and superiority.

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What the United States Supreme Court now looks like

October 27th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

A mere one week before the US presidential election when it looks as if the Republicans will lose both the White House and the Senate, Amy Coney Barrett – nominated by Donald Trump and approved by the Republican-controlled Senate – has been appointed to the country’s Supreme Court.

  • In the history of the United States, there has only been five women members, two black members and one Hispanic member of the Supreme Court. Following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and her replacement by Barrett, the present membership of the Court includes three women members and one black member. 
  • Following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the appointment of Barrett, six of the justices are Roman Catholic and two are Jewish. Neil Gorsuch was raised Roman Catholic but now attends an Episcopal Church.
  • Following the appointment by President Trump of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, there is now a conservative majority on the Court. All the conservative members were appointed by Republican presidents, while all the liberals were appointed by Democratic presidents. Since Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett are young by Supreme Court standards, Trump is viewed to have a secured a legacy that will last decades.

However, as I wrote in this blog posting, if the Democrats take both the White House and the Senate in next week’s election, it would not be unreasonable if Joe Biden nominated two additional members to the Court, although currently all he is promising is a six-month review of the Court.

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A review of the new film version of “Rebecca”

October 26th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

If you’re going to remake a classic movie, you need a lot of confidence and talent and perhaps a new angle.

English novelist Daphne du Maurier wrote the famous “Rebecca”, published in 1938, and Alfred Hitchcock directed the film version of 1940 which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was an impressive cast: Laurence Olivier as wealthy widower Maximilian de Winter, Joan Fontaine as his new second wife, and Judith Anderson as the domineering housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.

This 2020 version simply lacks the same star power. Director Ben Wheatley is no Hitchcock, most of his previous work being for television, and the ballroom sequence in particular is rather histrionic. American Armie Hammer was presumably cast as Maximilian in order to make the movie more marketable to US audiences, while Lily James as the ingénue does her best but was probably cast to win over younger viewers.

Where the remake scores over the original is in the sets and settings. Hitchcock shot his version in California, whereas Wheatley – reflecting the English location of the novel – gives us some wonderful locations in Dorset and Hertfordshire for the stately home of Manderlay and in Devon and Cornwall for the coastal sequences. Also Kristin Scott Thomas is chillingly wonderful as Mrs Danvers.

Released online at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has closed most cinemas and postponed many other films, the new “Rebecca” is worth watching but no challenge to the 1940 classic.

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You can’t beat a good pun

October 21st, 2020 by Roger Darlington

I changed my iPod’s name to Titanic. It’s syncing now. 

England has no kidney bank, but it does have a Liverpool. 

Haunted French pancakes give me the crepes. 

This girl today said she recognized me from the Vegetarians Club, but I’d swear I’ve never met herbivore. 

I know a guy who’s addicted to drinking brake fluid, but he says he can stop any time. 

A thief who stole a calendar got twelve months. 

When the smog lifts in Los Angeles U.C.L.A. 

I got some batteries that were given out free of charge. 

A dentist and a manicurist married. They fought tooth and nail. 

A will is a dead giveaway. 

With her marriage, she got a new name and a dress. 

Police were summoned to a daycare centre where a three-year-old was resisting a rest. 

Did you hear about the fellow whose entire left side was cut off? He’s all right now. 

A bicycle can’t stand alone; it’s just two tyred. 

The guy who fell onto an upholstery machine last week is now fully recovered. 

He had a photographic memory but it was never fully developed. 

When she saw her first strands of gray hair she thought she’d dye. 

Acupuncture is a jab well done. That’s the point of it 

I didn’t like my beard at first. Then it grew on me. 

Did you hear about the cross-eyed teacher who lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils? 

When you get a bladder infection, urine trouble. 

When chemists die, they barium. 

I stayed up all night to see where the sun went, and then it dawned on me. 

I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. I just can’t put it down.


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Ever heard of the rape of Nanjing?

October 20th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

In 1931, Japan occupied a whole swath of north-east China called Manchuria. Then, in 1937, the Japanese moved to occupy as much as possible of the more-populated parts of China.

At this time, the capital of China was Nanjing and, over six weeks from mid December 1937 to mid January 1938, Japanese troops occupied the city murdering, raping and looting on a huge scale.

Since most Japanese military records on the killings were kept secret or destroyed shortly after the surrender of Japan in 1945, historians have been unable to accurately estimate the death toll of the massacre. In 1946, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo estimated that over 200,000 Chinese were killed in the incident. China’s official estimate is more than 300,000 dead based on the evaluation of the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal in 1947.

The Chinese have never forgotten what they call the rape of Nanjing, but the Japanese authorities continue to downplay the massacre and most Japanese know very little about it.

I have been to the city of Nanjing [my account here]; I have seen two films on the massacre, “The Flowers Of War” [my review here] and “City of Life And Death” [my review here]; and I am currently reading “China’s War With Japan 1937-1945” by Rana Mitter [details here].

To understand modern-day China, you have to know something about the country’s “century of humiliation” from the mid 1840s to the mid 1940s. of which the war with Japan – and most especially the rape of Nanjing – is a deep part of the nation’s psyche. You can learn more here.

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How can the Democrats make the American political system a bit fairer?

October 10th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Everybody knows that the 2016 presidential election was won by Republican candidate Donald Trump even though the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won almost three million more votes. The explanation is that the President is not elected directly but chosen by an Electoral College which is biased in favour of the smaller rural states which generally vote Republican.

The bias is caused by the fact that, in accordance with the US Constitution, representation of each state in the College is on the basis of a combination of the number of members in the Senate (two for each state regardless of size) and the number of members in the House of Representatives (roughly proportional to population). 

For all practical purposes, the Constitution is unamendable in any substantive sense because the threshold for change is too great in such divisive times. A proposed amendment has to secure a two-thirds vote of members present in both houses of Congress. Then three-quarters of the state legislatures have to ratify the proposed change.

So, is there any way that the Electoral College (and the Senate) could be made a bit more representative of the American electorate short of amending the Constitution? There are at least three possibilities.

  1. At present, Washington DC has no representation in Congress but it does have three seats in the Electoral College on the grounds that, if it was a state, it would be entitled to two seats in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives. If Washington DC was made a state, it would not change the composition of the College, but it would give the Democrats – the capital is very Democratic – two more seats in the Senate which electorally has a serious conservative bias.
  2. At present, the territory of Puerto Rico has no representation in Congress or in the Electoral College. If it were granted statehood, it would have one seat in the House, two in the Senate and three in the College. The Democrats would probably win all of these seats.
  3. At present, California – with a population of 40 million, by far the largest in the union – has two seats in the Senate, 53 in the House and therefore 55 in the College. If you combine the 23 smallest states in the union, collectively they have a population the same as California but no less than 46 seats in the Senate. If California – the largest of the states – was divided into four states, each with the standard two senators, this would give present-day California 8 seats instead of 2 in the Senate and 61 members instead of 53 in the College. Californians generally vote Democrat.

If, as I expect, the Democrats win the White House, the House and the Senate next month, they should make these changes and, in doing so, make the US federal system just a bit more democratic.

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