We live a long way away but most Australians are aware that a presidential election will be held in the United States next week.

The level of interest in the event may range from mild interest to deep concern about possible consequences for Australia and the world, about the future direction of America and its long-standing role as a global leader and influencer of international life.

The problem is, of course, that the past four years of the Donald Trump presidency has seen the U.S. turn many previous foreign and domestic policies on their heads whether they be economic and trade issues, military projection roles, treatment of long-standing allies, health and welfare concerns (notably the COVID-19 pandemic), relations with so-called ‘rogue’ national leaderships, and an apparent return to a more strident American nationalism.

At this election on Tuesday, November 3, the incumbent Republican Trump, 74, will face off against Democrat Joe Biden, (78 in November).

Apart from the relative seniority of the two candidates the two men are very dissimilar.

The differences of personality and political ideologies are stark and it seems clear that the campaign of recent months has clearly shown America to be almost equally divided as election day looms.

However, the strange nature of the American political system means that an overall win in the popular vote does not guarantee occupancy of the White House.

The fate of the two opponents rests on the number of Electoral College votes received.

Under this system each state gets a certain number of electors based on its total number of representatives in Congress.

There are 538 Electoral College votes.

Each elector casts one electoral vote following the general election.

The candidate who gets more than half (270) wins the election.

With the exception of Maine and Nebraska all state electors must award their votes to the winning candidate of the public vote in that state.

The vast populations of say, Texas and California, carry only the same weight as the states with small populations.

Despite widespread disquiet about the system there is not likely to be a change any time soon.

Donald Trump was the fifth president to win the office in U.S. history in 2016 despite having fewer votes overall.

Then, of course, there is the election process itself.

The current campaign has been notable because Donald Trump has vehemently registered his concern that the postal vote will be manipulated and suborned by his Democrat opponents.

However, history shows that such electoral interference is not an issue.

What may be interesting is the fact that there were so many examples of dodgy vote-rigging, methods of voter intimidation and denial of voting rights in the past that one consequence was that Americans turned to an Australian innovation to counter the possibility of fraud.

In the 1850s South Australia adopted a system whereby the government – not political parties – printed the ballot papers!

By the 1890s this system had been largely adopted in the U.S.

This method of using state-printed ballots was successful.

However, one American historian has noted that ‘more opaque forms of election fraud, such as registration fraud and ballot stuffing, actually increased as an effect of the introduction of state-printed ballots.’

In the current election period it is evident that attempts at voter intimidation and ballot manipulation have not gone away.

It was reported at the end of September that some 260 lawsuits had been filed relating to COVID-19 polling place closures and other voting controls being imposed in some states.

A section of a 1965 U.S. Federal voting rights law reads: “No person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, shall intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote.”

Oh yes!? Well, it seems that the American Constitution’s First Amendment provides a strong defence to those exercising ‘freedom of speech’ when haranguing (intimidating?) or advising (threatening?) a group of, say, black people wanting to enter a voting place.

Some state governments still manage to operate disenfranchisement systems which serve to keep certain classes of voter out of polling places.

So, Australians, while there is much to question about our own home-grown pollies and their public antics, it could well be instructive to sit back and enjoy the colourful – and important – spectacle of American democracy in action once again on November 3.

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