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Common misconceptions: Choosing a winner

Part 3: How do we choose a winner?

If you missed out on part one: ‘Common misconceptions: Parties vs presidents’ and two: ‘Common misconceptions: Australian and US voting’ of Hannah’s three-part series, click on the headings to catch up.

Part 3: How do they pick a winner?

Now that we understand who you’re voting for and why you don’t have much of a choice about participating in the election, let’s unpack how a winner is decided.

When you vote on the ballot papers in Australia, you’ll be required to number boxes in order of your preferences for candidates in your electorate – one paper for the House of Representatives, and one for the Senate.

An electorate is an obnoxiously complex term for your voting region.

For the sake of finding out who becomes prime minister, let’s just focus on the House of Representatives. The candidate that wins more than half of these first preference votes, wins the seat in parliament.

In our system of preferential voting, if no one wins a majority of the votes, then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the next preference as marked on the ballot cards. This continues until a candidate secures a seat by scoring over 50 percent of the votes in their electorate.

As mentioned in part one of this series, to become Australia’s ruling political party, you must secure at least 76  of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives.

The Senate has a different system of vote tallying, based on quotas, but let’s save that conversation for another day.

Now, if you’re still struggling to tell your House of Reps from your Senate, then strap in, because US politics is a whole other ball game.

Remember that time The Simpsons predicted Donald Trump would become president of the United States? It included that eerily similar colour breakdown of the US electoral map that The Simpsons episode imitated years prior to the real one occurring.

This coloured map breakdown represents the Electoral College, which is the process by which a president is elected.

Without getting bogged down by the intricacies of this, the most significant take away is that the president is never elected based purely on the popular, or majority vote.

As you may remember, there are typically two main candidates in a presidential election, one representing the Republican party and one representing the Democrats.

The votes in a presidential election are broken down by state. In this case, it takes a majority of votes cast by electors of that state for it to be won.

Each state has a designated number of electoral votes, based on their population. For example, California has 55 electoral votes, whilst Montana, a far less populated state, has just three.

When a state has been won by majority vote, typically all of their electoral votes are given to that party.

So, if California wins a majority of democratic votes from its citizens, then 55 votes will be given towards the democratic representative. On the other hand, if Montana wins a majority of republican votes, only three votes will go towards the republican candidate.

In total there are 538 Electoral College votes, and to become president, you must win at least 270 of these.

In rare cases, a candidate can win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College, due to winning the popular vote by large margins in states that have few electoral votes. It is the winner of the Electoral College that becomes President.

This most recently happened to Hilary Clinton in her 2016 election loss to Donald Trump. After winning almost 2.9 million more votes than Trump, Clinton lost the Electoral College by 306 to 232. This put Clinton in the history books with the largest popular vote victory margin for a losing candidate, according to raw votes.

There’s no doubt that wrapping your head around one country’s political system let alone two is enough to cause a migraine.

Whether you’re blaming a questionable political education or just blatant ignorance, hopefully, you’ll enter this year’s election a fraction more educated on what your vote means.

Hannah Matchett is a third year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @matchett_hannah


Image from Pexels.

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