Hill Update: U.S. Election

  Primer for the November 8 US Election


Did you know?

On Tuesday November 8, millions of Americans will cast their ballots for the President right down to more than 500,000 state officials ranging from sheriffs, judges, county commissioners, coroners  and yes even dog catchers (Vermont) and local mosquito-control board officials (Florida).

Signs-a-plenty for different offices in Syracuse, New York. Photo by CHG Consultant William Norman

By the numbers

For the 2016 election, there are 226 million eligible voters (69% are white, 31% are Hispanic, Black or Asian) an increase of 10 million since the 2012 election.  In that election (only) 57.5% of eligible voters turned out to vote.  Given this year’s nasty and divisive campaigns, and the distrust most voters have of both the candidates, who knows how many will show up to vote.

Help is here

To guide you through the complexities of the US voting system (makes Canada’s system downright simple), below is a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) and some answers that hopefully will clarify some of the head-scratching and confusing steps Americans use to elect their new President.

We leave to the US experts and talking heads to determine who won and why, but once the dust has settled, CHG will undertake an analysis on the impact in Canada of the vote result and how it might affect your business and relationship with the United States.

The Primer’s FAQs: – click to find the answer.

Q: Who can vote?
A: Each State has discretion to determine who can/cannot vote because The United States Constitution did not define. While each state sets its own rules (about voter eligibility and registration), essentially US citizens cannot be denied a vote on account of race, color, previous condition of servitude, sex, or age for those above 18.
Q: Must voters register to vote? 
A. Yes.  In all states except North Dakota, you must register before you can vote. You can register with a party or simply write “no party” or leave blank in the registration form.  Voter registration deadlines vary. Some states close registration 30 days before the election, while others allow voters to register up to and on Election Day.  Most states require some form of voter identification at the polls.

Q: When can voters cast a ballot?
A. Early voting rules differ state by state, with some states not permitting early or absentee voting without an a state approved excuse. Most states do allow early voting, which kicked off in September-October. These means that despite the hustle and excitement of Election Day itself, in many states a majority of votes will actually have already been cast. With polls in the last week of the campaign showing a tightening race, the Clinton campaign in particular has made a strong effort to “lock in” as many early votes as possible. As a concrete example of how this could make a difference, in 2012 70% of voters in Nevada voted early, and Democrats hold a 6-point advantage among early voters in this election, despite polls showing a closer race. It is entirely possible that Trump could win among actual Election Day voters in Nevada, but lose the state overall because the Democrats were more effective at mobilizing early voters.
Q: Who (actually) elects the President of the United States?
A:  Voters in the US don’t actually vote for the President.  Instead they vote for a group of “Electors” in their state who have pledged to support a party’s nominee for President.  These “Electors” compose the ELECTORAL COLLEGE.  On election day in many states the ballot may list the names of Clinton or Trump, in others, the ballot could list the names of the “Electors”.
Q: What is the Electoral College?
A:  The College is made up of the 538 “Electors” from the various states – see the map below of each state’s number of electors.  A majority of 270 electoral votes is required to elect the President.  Each State gets a set number of electors, equal to the number of members of Congress the State is entitled to.  The US Constitution bars any federal official, elected or appointed, from being an elector.

For example, on November 8, 2016,  Americans will elect “Electors” in each state, and these electors, who have pledged to support their party’s nominees, later will themselves vote for their preferred President and Vice President.  Roll out of the timing:


  • On December 19 the electors in each state will get together and vote on separate ballots, for President and VP. These votes are sent to Congress where they are recorded and filed as official records for the election.
  • On January 7, 2017, in a joint session of Congress, these votes will be made official.
  • On January 20, 2017 the President-elect takes oath of office and will be sworn in.


Q:  How are the “electors” chosen?
A:  Generally, the political  parties either nominate slates of potential Electors at their state party conventions or they chose them by a vote of the party’s central committee. When the voters in each state cast votes for the Presidential candidate of their choice they are actually voting to select their state’s Electors.  Depending on the state, the potential Electors’ names may or may not appear on the ballot below the  name of the Presidential candidates.
Q: Are the electors legally bound to vote for who they pledged for?


A: There is no Constitutional provision or Federal law that requires Electors to vote according to the
results of the popular vote in their states.

Some states (26) bind their Electors to cast their votes according to the popular vote.  Some states can
fine or replace  “faithless Electors” if they don’t vote according to popular vote in their state. To date, no Elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged.
And in an election that has had pretty much everything, two Bernie Sanders supporting electors from Washington State are threatening to disregard the popular vote of the state and not cast an electoral vote for Hillary Clinton. If either of the electors does break with how the state votes (Clinton is a heavy favourite), they would face a $1,000 fine and arrest for violating a state law binding electors.
Q: So on Nov 8th are the results made public even though the college hasn’t met?

A: The results we will see on November 8 will be the national POPULAR vote not the Electoral College Vote.  And these two can be different, mainly because most states (48 out of 50) have a ‘winner take all electoral college vote’.  For example, all 55 of California’s Electoral votes go to the winner of the state election, even if the margin of victory is only 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent.  This also occurred in the 2000 presidential election, where George W. Bush received fewer popular votes than Albert Gore Jr., but received a majority of electoral votes.A: The results we will see on November 8 will be the national POPULAR vote not the Electoral College Vote.  And these two can be different, mainly because most states (48 out of 50) have a ‘winner take all electoral college vote’.  For example, all 55 of California’s Electoral votes go to the winner of the state election, even if the margin of victory is only 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent.  This also occurred in the 2000 presidential election, where George W. Bush received fewer popular votes than Albert Gore Jr., but received a majority of electoral votes.
Key States to Watch
All 50 states plus the District of Columbia will be voting, but of course, the media, pollsters and the campaigns themselves are focusing on a handful of states that for a variety of reasons – demographics, political history, strength of Get Out The Vote operations – will be most likely to tell us who is going to win the election. Here’s a brief overview of some of the states to watch in particular tomorrow:

North Carolina (15 Electoral Votes, won 50.4%-48.4% by Republican Mitt Romney in 2012)

A safe Republican state in Presidential elections during from the 1960’s to the early 2000’s, rapid demographic changes have pushed the state to the left, being picked up by Obama in 2008 and only narrowly won by Mitt Romney in 2012. Voting patterns in recent elections have come down strongly on demographic lines, with rural white conservative areas going heavily Republican, and the more diverse and higher-educated areas in cities such as Raleigh and Charlotte leaning Democratic. With relatively few swing voters, North Carolina will be a real test of the campaigns abilities to motive their own base and get them to the polls.

Ohio (18 Electoral Votes, won 50.7%-47.7% by Democrat Barack Obama in 2012)

Ohio is a must-win state for Trump. No Republican candidate for President has been elected without carrying the Buckeye State. Trump’s protectionist rhetoric on trade, while a break from traditional Republican orthodoxy could put him over the top in this Rust Belt state. Clinton will need a very strong turnout in areas such as Cleveland to overcome Trump’s gains in white-working class areas, but if she can hold Ohio Trump’s path to the White House would wash (or flame) out on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.

Florida (29 Electoral Votes, won 50.%-49.1% by Democrat Barack Obama in 2012)

Home of nail bitingly close elections in 2012 and most famously 2000, polls in Florida once again are showing a very tight contest. Trump’s controversial comments and positions on immigration have not endeared him to the state’s Hispanic and Latino communities, who make up almost a quarter of the population. Trump is strong in the more rural, white northern parts of the state, but a Clinton victory here would demonstrate how difficult it is for Republicans to win a national election while performing poorly with non-white voters.
Pennsylvania (20 Electoral Votes, won 52%-46.6% by Democrat Barack Obama)

Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in every Presidential election since 1992, but this top-line result hides a politically diverse electorate. The political geography of the state has been described as  “Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west and Alabama in the middle”, as the state reaches from the heavily Democratic leaning urban eastern part of the state, deeply conservative and working class Appalachia, and the Rust Belt/Midwestern flavoured southwest. Because of its recent history of voting Democratic, Pennsylvania has been seen as part of Clinton’s “firewall”, but if Trump can breakthrough particularly in the western section of the state around Pittsburgh, get ready for what could be a very long and close election night.
Potential wild cards to watch:

  • Utah is usually a rock-solid Republican state, but Trump’s low approval ratings with Mormon voters has fueled an independent campaign by former CIA officer and Republican Hill staffer Evan McMullian, who has an outside but real chance of being the first non-major party candidate to win a state since the 1960’s.
  • Maine and Nebraska are the only state that do not allocate all electoral votes to the statewide winner, instead allocating them in part by the winner of each Congressional district. Obama won one of the Nebraska votes in 2008 based around Omaha with Clinton in contention this time around as well, while Trump has made a serious play for the more rural District in Maine.
  • The campaigns of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green candidate Jill Stein do not have serious chances of winning any states, but their nationwide vote totals are likely to represent the best showing for non-major party candidates since Ross Perot won 8% of the vote as a Reform Party candidate in 1996.

House and Senate

In all the excitement and coverage of the Presidential race, it is important to remember that the House of Representatives and Senate wield considerable power in the American political system. All 438 seats of the House are up for election, as are 34 seats in the Senate.

Republicans are widely expected to maintain control of the House even in the event of a Clinton victory and a Democratic victory in the popular House vote, as incumbency and district maps favour the GOP. Unlike in Canada, electoral district boundaries must by approved by the State Legislatures, and with Republicans holding a majority of State Houses, they have drawn favourable maps for their federal candidate. For example, in Pennsylvania in 2012 Democrats won the House vote 50.3%-48.8%, but Republicans won 13 seats to Democrats 5.

The Senate is hotly contested. Democrats were narrowly favoured to be able to pick up enough seats to gain back control, but as polls tightened in the last week their is a high degree of uncertainty – as of typing this the 538 forecast has it at 50.1% Republican hold, 49.9% Democratic. Polling has key races in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Indiana, Nevada, Missouri and Pennsylvania within 3 percentage points or less, so expect a long night. It is worth noting that the Vice President casts the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, so in the event of a 50-50 Democratic/Republican split (a very real possibility), the party winning the Presidency would control the Senate by the narrowest of margins.

After an election as hot as this one, whoever wins the Presidency will likely face a Congress bitterly divided with little desire to compromise, putting to the test Clinton’s political experience or Trump’s famous “Art of the Deal”.

Capital Hill Group on the Ground: A report from New York’s 24th Congressional District

Capital Hill Group consultant William Norman did some political tourism to New York’s 24th Congressional District this weekend, and brings us an on the ground perspective.

Your correspondent visiting the local campaign offices in Syracuse, New York

While as the next President will face Congressional gridlock and an increasingly polarized population, the local race in New York’s 24th Congressional District is in some ways a throwback. Based around the city of Syracuse and surrounding more rural areas, the seat has natural constituencies for both Democrats and Republicans, causing the seat to flip several times over the last few election cycles.

Incumbent GOP Congressman John Katko seems set for re-election against Democratic challenger Colleen Deacon even as Clinton is likely to win the vote in the area by taking advantage of a fading political tradition in the United States, ticket-splitting.

Traditionally, it was quite common for voters to not support a so-called “straight ticket” for one party come election time, and instead vote for a mix of candidates. For example, even as Ronald Reagan romped to re-election in 1984 with almost 60% of the vote and winning 49 stateshis Republicans only saw modest gains in the House and remained the minority party, while Democrats actually gained seats in the Senate.

Over time, increased political polarization and the “nationalization” of American politics has decreased this tendency over time, as the Presidential vote has become more predictive of support for candidates for lower offices from the same party.

Running in a moderate district, Katko vocally distanced himself from Trump and ads supporting his campaign highlight his independence and work across the aisle with Democrats. In an election where the Republican presidential candidate has railed against the establishment media, Katko is one of the few to proudly tout an endorsement from the epitome of the liberal media establishment, the New York Times. His strategy appears to be paying off, as polls last month showed him with a 23-point lead over his Democratic challenger, even though Clinton leads Trump by 10 points in the district.

Anecdotally, Katko also had a much more visible advertising presence, as I heard probably half a dozen radio ads for his campaign as well as online videos, while I heard or saw nothing from Deacon in terms of ads.

I predict Katko will be re-elected, but if Congress is as deadlocked as many predict it will be, it will be very interesting to see if his campaign rhetoric to bipartisanship will materialize itself into real action, or simply melt away as the partisan temperature stays hot post election.