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US Midterm Elections – A Primer for foreigners

US Midterm elections are on Tuesday, November 6, 2018 and these are very important elections for the country. Many of the readers of this blog may wonder what this election is about. What/who is/are being elected? What is the impact of this on Donald Trump? Why are these called midterms? If you have these questions, you have come to the right place. Let’s get down to it and discuss some terms related to the elections, particularly in comparison to the elections in India.
Election Day
Unlike many other countries, US has a fixed Election Day every year — the first Tuesday after November 1. Almost any government election that needs to be held — be it at national level (President, Senator, Member of the House), state level (Governor, state legislators, etc), local level (school board members, sheriffs, mayors), or simply a referendum on one topic or another — is held on this day. Accordingly the ballot paper looks different for different jurisdictions depending upon what the electorate are asked to decide upon. So, let us see what is at stake in this election.
Presidential Election
There is no Presidential election this year. Presidential elections are held every 4 years. Since this election is in the middle of the president’s term, this is called the midterm election. This is unlike other countries, where governments sometimes fall before their terms end and “midterm elections” are held. The US midterm elections have no direct impact on the president’s continuation in office, even though elections are being held to full lower house and one third of upper house of the federal legislature (US Congress). Contrary to the parliamentary system of democracy elsewhere in the world, the head of the government in the US (the President) is an independent entity from the legislature and does not need to enjoy the confidence of the legislature. Even if both houses of the legislature are won by the opposition, the President keeps his post. However, as is expected, his credibility, popularity, effectivity and capability to govern depend largely on getting support from the legislature. That is what makes this election very important for the current president and the administration. As a peek into recent history, the last President Obama enjoyed the confidence of the legislature only for the first two years of his 8 years in office. Midterm elections in 2010 gave the House and the Senate to the Republicans.
House of Representatives

Elections to the House are held every 2 years (even numbered years) – so they are held in Presidential election years and midterms. This is the lower house (think Lok Sabha) with 435 members, with each state being represented by a number of members roughly based on its population. Currently, the majority (235 of 435) is held by Republican Party, the party that the President belongs to. Some polls indicate that the majority party may change to Democrats as a result of this election.
Senate

Senators are elected for 6 year terms, with elections being held to roughly 1/3rd of seats every 2 years (even numbered years), coinciding with elections to the House of Representatives. Thus, the Senate (think Rajya Sabha in India) is a continuous house, with 1/3rd members getting re-elected or replaced every 2 years. The house has 100 members, 2 from each of the 50 states, irrespective of their population. Currently, the majority (51/100) in the Senate is also held by the Republican party. There is a good chance that the Republicans will keep that majority. Since elections to only 1/3rd of the seats are being held each time, the Senate is less vulnerable to changes due to political swings.
State and Local Level Elections
In addition to the above federal (central) level elections, elections are also held on the same day to state level elections. For example, in my state Pennsylvania, the governor post is being filled this year, as are all seats to the lower house of the state legislature, and half of the seats to the upper house. State and Local level elections may also include filling posts like sheriffs, judges, commissioners, school board members, etc., depending on local and state laws applicable. Some state and local level elections are held in “off years”, i.e., odd numbered years, but still on the same day in November.
Ballot Measures
In addition to choosing the representatives for National, State, and Local levels, voters may be asked to vote on a question. For example, should there be a requirement for genetically modified foods to be labeled such, should there be an extra tax on petrol to pay for roads, etc. There can be questions on gay rights, voting rights, etc. Ballot measures may be held any year.
So, all of these questions are asked on one day, in one ballot paper, which looks quite like an examination question paper. Here is a sample ballot paper from 2012 from a random constituency in the country, representing the variety of questions asked.

If this topic interests you, do come back for more on posts related to US elections and other similar topics.

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