Sunday, April 11, 2010

It's that time again

In which we muse over our respective election experiences:


In three and a half weeks I am going to have the privilege of voting in my first British National Election.

I've been waiting for this day since I received my citizenship back in 2007 but had no idea when it would arrive. The thing is, they don't hold elections on a schedule here as they do in the States. It's up to the party in power to call an election; they have a five-year window to do it in, but they can call it whenever the mood strikes, and when they do, they only have to give four weeks notice.

This means the party in power can shamble along annoying the electorate as much as they please, but if they manage to do something that makes them suddenly popular and likeable (okay, you may have to stretch your imagination here a bit) they can quickly call an election and hope nothing untoward—like an honors for cash scandal, an embarrassing expenses claim or a the eruption of a particularly kinky affair—pops up over the ensuing month.

However, and as you have probably guessed, political parties generally don't do much to endear themselves to the electorate, so they commonly hang on to power like a wino clutching a half-empty bottle of Night Train, calling an election only at the last possible moment.

That is what has happened in this case. Labour is so very unpopular that most people actually knew the election was going to be on 6 May for some time because that was the last possible date it could be.

The other oddity is, individual voters do not have a say in who becomes Prime Minister. All I can do is vote for my local MP. After the dust settles, the party with the most MPs in power get to have their leader promoted to Prime Minister. But the party elects their leader, and that can be anybody they choose.

Add to this the enigmatic statement locals often inject into political debates: "Of course, we have a 'first past the post' election process" and I sometimes wonder why people vote at all. In all the time I've been here I have never had the "first pas the post" idea satisfactorily explained to me. But I suppose, given the fact that no one over here truly understands the Electoral College, that merely make us even.

So, come 6 May, I will go vote, because that's what I do, whether or not I think it does any good or not.


It’s the exact opposite here; election dates are set in stone thus politicians have years to plan, campaign, raise money and generally make us all so fed up with the whole thing that we can hardly bear to drag ourselves to the voting booth. Presidential elections are held every four years, and it’s the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Usually, there are other positions to vote on too. This year we’ll be voting for a third of the country’s US senators. Each state has two senators apiece, who sit for six years although a third of these fine citizens changes every two years. We will also be voting on a few Representatives (who hold office for two years) and 37 state Governors, (4 years) in the Gubenatorial elections. (That’s pronounced “goobenatorial” and still makes me laugh.)

The recent Presidential campaign literally went on for two years. In the first year Republicans and Democrats had their “primaries”, where various characters from each party campaigned against each other to win the party’s nomination. Once the nominees were named (Obama and McCain) they picked their would-be VP and this “ticket” campaigned for the big job.

The thing that staggers me in this country is the amount of money involved in these campaigns. Candidates either have to possess or raise millions of dollars to campaign competitively. The more money you have, the more advertising you can buy. Simple as that. While in the UK, paid political advertising is not allowed in broadcast media (although parties get free time), in the US it’s the only feasible way to campaign. Both countries have laws regulating campaign financing or election expenditure but they are almost the opposite in what they do. The UK sets a cap on total expenditure while not being as strict on individual donations, whereas the US strictly limits the amount individuals can donate to a party or candidate, while setting no total cap on fund-raising and spending. Obama raised a staggering $750m and spent almost all of it.

By the time we got to the Presidential election I was so burned out by it all, I was secretly wishing that the system could be more like the UK one, with a stealth (ish) announcement of the election date!

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  1. Mike, I'm happy you're keen to vote - I always vote as I feel the responsibility passed down by the suffragettes.

    But can I correct you on two things? One, they have to give 17 working days notice as the absolute minimum, and two, it could have gone as late as June 3 but it was felt that as we are all voting in the local elections in May, we would all be quite unforgiving of schools being shut again a month later so May 6 it is.

  2. I would much rather have a 30 day campaign than one that starts the day after election day. Our pols seem to never stop campaigning. Spin, spin, spin.

  3. Jen: Thanks! I didn't know about the 17 working day rule. I did know that 6 May wasn't the absolute last day they could have had the election but, as you point out, they wouldn't have done themselves any favors by putting it off another month.

    Melissa: That's what I keep telling my wife when she tells me that the next month is going to be nothing but election debates--better four weeks than four years ;)

  4. For years my Dad used to say ' All Politicians should be put up against a wall and shot'. I just used to laugh at him but now I am starting to agree with him.
    I go everytime and do my duty and vote but I always spoil my paper as a form of protest. In the UK everybodies vote can be checked to see who they voted for. Thats not right.


  5. Since the US has a first past the post system too I'm sure you do actually understand the concept. It just means you can win with a plurality of votes, you don't need an actual majority. And of course the winner take all.

  6. That's an interesting contrast, the different rules on campaign financing and electoral expenditure.

  7. What a great post. Much more in-depth than what I wrote over at Accidentally English, but funny that we had the same thing on our minds.

  8. Angela: great blog! I'll be following.

    Elizabeth: WE have a first past the post system? No one in the States ever told me! I guess I have something over my UK friends now; I understand first past the post AND the electoral college ;)

  9. The thing I found tricky to keep uo with was the point at which McCain couldn't possibly win. (Well, that would have been when he picked Sarah Palin, but I meant on Election Night.) It seemed like there were a lot of states still to report their numbers, but their Electoral College votes were very varied.

  10. Actually it's relatively rare for a British government to stay on for a full five years. If you look at the 20th century onwards
    ( ) most have gone at four years or less. Staying for the full term is usually a sign of a government in trouble.

    Although the Prime Minister usually chooses when to opt for an election occasionally it can be forced on the government, ( which is what happened in 1979.

    I think the two big differences which haven't yet been mentioned are:

    a) Although we only have two parties with a serious chance of getting a majority in the House of Commons there are several other parties holding seats, whereas in the US at the moment the Senate is 98% and the House 100% Democrat or Republican. So it's possible, and this time around looks quite likely, that no one party will have a majority in the House of Commons, at which point things will get complicated.

    b) I think we vote for far fewer posts here. It varies to some extent acording to where you live, but over a full electoral cycle I get to elect i) my local town councillor ii) my councillor on the higher level of local government (for me a unitary authority) iii) my Member of Parliament and iv) a set of Members of the European Parliament for my constituency. We don't for instance elect any law enforcement officers such as sheriffs.

  11. Thanks for the info, Shaun. And that is one thing I didn't mention--the number of people your vote for. Back in the US, I used to have a dozen or more choices to make once inside the booth. They used to hand out sheets as you queued up so you could study the options and not have to take so much time in the booth.


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