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Seven things you (probably) didn’t know about America’s presidential elections


The 2016 US presidential campaign has been described as one unlike any other. Party politics (and Twitter rants) aside, it is truly exceptional for being the first presidential race between a female major party candidate (the first woman to make a run for the White House was suffragette Victoria  Woodhull in 1872) and a major party candidate with no previous political experience.

However, the country with arguably the oldest mass democracy (white men without property could vote from 1810) has rarely had a controversy-free campaign or a smooth election in its 240 years.

After the votes are counted and the winner announced for the 58th election this incredible race will no doubt go down in history. In a so-called ‘post-factual era’ here are seven historical facts that show just how surprising American politics and the electoral system have been all along:

The public vote vs. electors

Despite what many Americans believe, the president is ultimately selected not by a general public vote but by the Electoral College. In accordance with the Twelfth Amendment each state is allocated electoral votes based on their number of senators and representatives in Congress (with the number of representatives based on each state’s population). The Twelfth Amendment was ratified in 1800 after a seven day standoff in the House of Representatives resulting from an electoral tie for president between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Burr was eventually picked for Vice President and went on to become famous for shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Since the 1880s designated electors choose to pledge their votes to the one candidate who wins the most popular votes in their state (although some do go rogue and become ‘faithless electors’). Maine and Nebraska are exceptions as they divide votes by district and give two votes for the state-wide popular vote. In four elections the candidate who won the popular vote did not win the presidency (Jackson in 1824, Tilden in 1876, Cleveland in 1888, and Gore in 2000).

Nasty Women

American women won the right to vote nationally in 1920. Before they were granted universal suffrage women were running for offices around the country, with over 200 joining the presidential running for minor parties. In response to this change in voters politicians focused more on issues such as child healthcare and education. Despite this effort at first women tended to vote like their male counterparts. In 1928 more women became involved in politics and rallied in low numbers in favour of prohibition and Republican Herbert Hoover. It took another fifty years before women turned out at the polls in the same numbers as men. Since 1980 more women vote than men but there has also been a ‘gender gap’ between the two main parties, with more women than men showing preference for the Democratic Party.

Won’t be fooled again

2016 will see the election of the 45th president, but 17 presidents have been elected for more than one term. Only 13 of them served the full two terms due to death, assassination (Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley), or impeachment (Richard Nixon). George Washington set the precedent for only serving two terms by politely declining to run for a third term. He wrote in a letter to politician Jonathan Trumbull Jr that he wanted to avoid being “charged with concealed ambition.” After the war and the difficult early years of governing the fledgling country Washington’s “ardent wishes” were to “pass through the vale of life in retiremt [sic] undisturbed in the remnant of the days I have to sojourn here.” It wasn’t until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected for a fourth time that the 22nd Amendment limited the number of presidential terms to two.

Not-so-private polling

Voting nowadays is a private affair, with rules forbidding the display of political signs or demonstrations within 100 yards of polling places. Up until the 1880s, however, voting was a very open process (and one that often involved alcohol and cake). Voting before adopting the ‘Australian System’ meant travelling to a polling place, such as a town hall, and placing a candidate’s coloured ballot into the bowl or box – complete with an energetic mob trying to persuade voters with both tongues and fists.

Rigging the system

Donald Trump is the first presidential nominee of a major party to unabashedly claim the election is ‘rigged’ against him, but this has come from an extensive tradition in American politics of mistrusting the election system. Even though real examples of voter fraud are few and far between there is still a sense that stronger voter identification laws and revisions to the Electoral College will ensure a fairer democratic process. There are a few examples of real outright fraud. In 1792 no one was elected to Congress from Georgia after the race was found to be corrupt, and, more recently in 1948 the Texas Senate race was won for Lyndon B. Johnson by just 87 votes, after 200 extra votes mysteriously appeared.

Agreeing to disagree

Nothing says you disagree with the results of an election more than seceding and in 1860 when Lincoln was elected that is exactly what South Carolina did. Other southern states followed suit, and although the sentiment had been simmering for many years the Civil War was resolutely set in motion. In another famous and more light-hearted instance the Chicago Daily Tribune mistakenly printed their front page with the winner of the 1948 race as New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey when, in fact, democrat Harry S. Truman had won by 303 to 189 electoral votes.

Having their cake

A custom began after the American Revolution to help get people to the polls: election cake. During the Revolutionary War women would bake dense fruit and spice cakes with a kick of booze for their men who were mustered to fight. The tradition lived on after the war as ‘election cake’ and was a popular way for women to be as involved as possible in the democratic process. The habit stuck as it fit nicely into the celebratory election holidays of the 18th and 19th centuries, but after voting became more of a bureaucratic and private process cakes were baked less often and eventually the tradition slipped to the wayside. This election season has seen a rise in interest for election cake recipes, with many bakeries around the country re-interpreting the historic recipes found in archives and sharing their baking tips to #MakeAmericaCakeAgain.

Whichever side of the party lines you fall on it cannot be denied that this American presidential election has been one like many others before.

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