Philippine and US electoral systems on the line
The May 9, 2016 Philippine elections and the November 2016 US elections will not only be a test of candidates, but a test of our respective political systems.
As Jill Lepore in a New Yorker article declared, “Outsiders are in. Insiders are out.”
In the United States, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have ascended, with Trump within reach (not certain yet) of the Republication nomination and Sanders presenting Hilary Clinton with a stiff, unexpected challenge.
In the Philippines, either of two outsiders, a neophyte senator Grace Poe and a mayor from Mindanao Rody Duterte has a good chance of winning the presidency. Two veteran national politicians, former interior secretary Mar Roxas and Vice President Jejomar Binay, could still win as they have the machineries for victory.
How will the 2016 elections shape the discourse on the validity of the Electoral College and the future of the US political system? In particular, what is the future of the Republican and Democratic parties?
For the Philippines, will these elections be a watershed moment for social and political change that would benefit the poor and excluded? Or will the prospective winners fall back again to maintaining the status quo?
To help answer these questions, the authors have written a 3-part series – this first piece will be on the respective electoral systems; the second will be on voting blocs in the US and in the Philippines that could matter this year – the youth and women’s vote; and the final one will be on the candidates.
Political parties in the US and the Philippines
The American two-party system was not born out of the provisions of the US Constitution. In 1796, President George Washington had warned of the dangers of political parties but was unable to prevent his own secretary of treasury, Alexander Hamilton, in leading the Federalist Party against the Democratic-Republicans. By the 1800s the two-party system was a mainstay in the US political arena, with the Democrats facing the Republicans (Hewson, 2002).
Issues that dominated party divisions in these early years included slavery, corruption, tariffs and the extent of federal government growth and authority. There is a long and convoluted history of change in the US electoral system, from how the electors were chosen to how they voted for the country’s president and vice president.
The 2016 US elections will be held on November 8, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Presidential candidates can declare the start of their campaign as early as they want to and there are no limits to the amount of funds they can spend.
Each party’s presidential candidate is selected through a series of primaries or caucuses which began this February. In the primary system, each state’s political party determines the method of choosing their presidential candidate. They can hold a primary where they vote for their candidate or hold meetings called caucuses that occur at smaller “precinct” divisions to nominate and vote for their candidates. The number of party delegates allotted to each state is then awarded to the winning candidate.
Some states have a winner-take-all approach where the winning candidate for the state primary gets all the delegates bound to him. Other states allot delegates in proportion to how their party members’ voted.
The first Tuesday in March, called “Super Tuesday” saw 13 states and territories hold caucuses or primaries which were dominated by Donald Trump (Republican) and Hillary Clinton (Democrat). The more recent April 5th primary in Wisconsin was won by Ted Cruz (Republican) and Bernie Sanders (Democrat).
Whoever wins the most number of delegates becomes their political party’s official presidential candidate. This candidate will also choose who will be his running mate for the vice presidency. In the summer, the Republican and Democratic parties will hold their respective conventions. These 3-4 days of speeches and roll-call of state delegates’ votes have become almost a ceremonial political rally to formally announce their parties’ candidates.
This year, however, we might see something different in the Republican convention if Donald Trump enters the convention without the minimum number of delegates to take the nomination outright. Under the rules of the Republican Party, delegates are freed from their pledges after the first or second round of votes.
A failure of a candidate to garner the necessary majority in early rounds could theoretically lead to a brokered convention and another person (Speaker Paul Ryan has been touted as such a compromise candidate) could conceivably be nominated.
There is also a possibility of third party candidacies. Donald Trump, if aggrieved by the Republican Convention result, could launch such a campaign. Bernie Sanders might also feel compelled to do the same.
No such complications will happen in the Philippines. Unfortunately, we do not have strong political parties in our country. Binay and Roxas have political parties and vaunted local machineries but conventional knowledge has members of those political parties and machineries abandoning them if they are deemed unwinnable.
Duterte is running as a PDP-Laban candidate but is relying heavily on volunteers, while Poe is running as an independent even as several political parties have endorsed her. Should either win, they will have to cobble a political coalition in Congress to get legislation and their national budgets enacted.
The American electoral college
Electing the next US president is not the straightforward counting of individual ballots of eligible voters such as in the Philippines. The Electoral College determines who will be the next US president.
On November 8, individual voters will see the names of the candidates in the ballots, but they are actually voting for a group of electors who will choose their candidates. Each political party selects their slate of electors (who cannot be members of Congress, hold federal jobs or support enemies of the state). If a certain candidate wins the majority of the state’s popular vote, then his party’s electors represent the state in the Electoral College.
Each state is given the same number of electors as the number of representatives they have in the Senate and House of Representatives. This number is determined by the population of the state based on a census taken every 10 years. With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, the candidate who wins the popular vote receives all of that state’s electoral votes.
To win an election, a presidential candidate needs to garner a majority, or at least 270 of 538 electoral votes.
The members of the Electoral College meet at their state capitals to cast their separate votes for president and vice president in December. In almost all cases, the electors vote according to the candidate they have pledged for, though there have been a handful of times when an elector did not follow party lines.
Both votes for president and vice president need to reach a majority for the election to end. If majority is not reached for a presidential candidate, the House of Representatives will elect the president, and if a majority is not reached for a vice president, then the Senate votes for the next vice president. The electoral process concludes with the inauguration of the new US president and vice president in January 2017.
In the US, voters cannot choose their own presidential and vice presidential (VP) tandem. A vote for a presidential candidate is automatically a vote for that candidate’s running mate. In the Philippines, voters can split their ticket.
The VP elections here is an election distinct from the presidential contest. In all but one of our post-1986 presidential elections, the winner of the VP race was not the running mate of the winning presidential candidate. This is unfortunate as it makes the election campaigns in the Philippines more complicated than it already is. It also makes for divided governance after the elections. A constitutional amendment is necessary to change this anomalous situation.
The Electoral College or the popular vote?
Who would you prefer to vote for – a party or a person, and are the lines becoming more unclear? What would the Philippines be like should we have a stronger party system with clear platforms and visions that are carried through election periods? It seems that we keep getting stuck in the quagmire of personal politics that can be fueled by personal vendettas. The US is also now witnessing how a big personality can overpower the party.
What principles are being valued for each kind of electoral system? Where does power lie? In the popular vote it is the voice of the majority and representation of the individual. In the US system, it is the strength of the party and representation of states. The Electoral College was established at a time when the founding fathers did not expect the strength of political parties and that electors would pledge to vote for a party’s candidates. A strong two-party system also makes it difficult for a candidate of a third party to win.
Proponents of the Electoral College say that the system gives a voice to smaller states and special interest groups. Having a two-party system and primaries can also weed out “nuisance candidates”.
However, there could also be a fear of letting go of the two parties’ power over the system. Perhaps the US electoral system prevents a rather expensive recount of individual votes. But would incidents where the Electoral College results do not match the popular vote make voters wonder if their votes count at all? And does an allocation of electoral votes based on a census held every 10 years reflect a big surge in a state’s population?
In US history, a popular vote winner has lost the US presidency 4 times, with the most recent being the infamous 2000 presidential contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
Gore had around half a million votes more than Bush but the Electoral College votes was 271 for Bush and 266 for Gore. Hundreds of proposals to change or abolish the Electoral College have not been successful. It takes two-thirds of both the House of Representatives and the Senate to amend the US Constitution, and the approval of 38 state legislatures.
The Philippine electoral system
There is no equivalent of an electoral college in the Philippines. In our system, the winners of the popular vote becomes the president-elect and the VP-elect. Elections are conducted at the precinct level with registered voters casting their ballots in schools, public centers, and similar places.
Under our automated system, those votes are immediately counted upon closing of the polls and the results electronically transmitted by machine to the provincial and city canvassing centers and to the Commission on Elections. Later, the results are brought to Congress, with the Senate and House of Representatives meeting jointly, for official canvassing.
Absent legitimate objections, Congress proclaims the winners once enough results are in, such that the losing candidates can no longer catch up with the winners.
The big elephant in the room for the Philippine electoral system is the reliability and credibility of the automation system we have chosen. There are many lingering questions regarding the system and there could be serious issues of legitimacy of results if the election results are close in the forthcoming elections. That seems to be the case so we are in for a tough month after May 9.
To sum up, in 2016, both the US and the Philippines could be faced with serious questions about our respective electoral systems. How our institutions, our politicians and ordinary voters respond to the challenges we have identified in this article will matter in finding good solutions to the problems we have identified.
Our next piece will focus on the last in this triad – the voters – and compare voting demographics in the US and the Philippines. This should be interesting, and could explain why outsiders have emerged as serious contenders in both countries. – Rappler.com
Dean Antonio G.M. La Viña is outgoing dean of the Ateneo School of Government. He is an adviser to presidential candidate Grace Poe. His co-writer Denni Jayme Cawley is a Filipina based in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. Her main passion is being a wife and mother but she is also an avid observer of public and international policy developments.