Civics 2004 American Government

Election 2004 - the Process and the Issues

The US elections take place on Tuesday, 2 November 2004. BBC News Online world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds looks at the process.

There was confusion over the final election result in 2000 Is this just an election to choose the president?

The main election is for the presidency, which is contested every four years.

But there are also elections for one-third of the 100 senators (actually 34 seats this year) the whole of the House of Representatives (435 seats) and many state governors, as there are every two years.

US senators serve for six years and the device of having only one-third up for election each time is one of the checks and balances built into the American system. The representatives serve for only two years so they face elections very often.

A president may serve two terms only. President Bush, first elected in 2000, is trying for his second term.

How does the presidential election work?

The president is not elected by a popular vote. He or she is chosen by an Electoral College. This is divided up among the states and in almost of all them, the winner of the popular vote gets all the Electoral College votes in that state.

George W Bush is making the "war on terror" the centrepiece of his re-election bid This is what happened in Florida in 2000 when George W Bush was declared the winner. He took all the electoral votes in Florida, thereby winning him the overall election, even though he had fewer popular votes countrywide than Democrat Al Gore.

There are 538 votes in the Electoral College. The number per state is roughly in proportion to its population; technically it equals the number of its representatives in Congress plus the number of senators (two per state). This gives small states a slight advantage.

For example, California has 55 electoral votes - about 10% - though it has 12% of the US population. Wyoming has three electoral votes representing 0.56%, though it has only 0.18% of the US population.

Why does the popular vote not determine the presidency?

This goes back to the US constitution in 1787. At the time, the 13 original states guarded their rights jealously and there was no enthusiasm for entrusting the election of the president to the people. So the task was given to an Electoral College and each state legislature was given the right to choose its delegates.

Quite quickly, these delegates became chosen by the parties and then by elections, which is what happens today.

If the College could not reach a majority, the decision would be taken by the House of Representatives.

How are the candidates chosen?

A few states hold caucuses (meetings) and conventions; the first such caucuses were held in Iowa on 19 January, 2004.

Howard Dean is among the Democratic frontrunners Most other states select their chosen candidate using primary elections. The first state to vote in a primary is always New Hampshire. It makes its decision this time on 27 January.

In these primaries, delegates are chosen to represent candidates at the national conventions in the summer and the one with the most delegates wins the party's nomination.

These days many primaries are bunched together at the start of the year. The key dates are 3 February and 2 March.

Will there be any more "hanging chads"?

The old voting machines of the kind which did not always punch through the card properly and led to so much trouble in Florida in 2000 have been replaced by touch-screen voting. Congress voted $4bn to help pay for the change.

This, however, has led to complaints that the new electronic machines are not necessarily reliable and that there are no accessible records because the computer codes which store them are held to be trade secrets and not open to scrutiny. So there may well be lawsuits this time as well. Touch-screen voting will, however, make tabulation of the results extremely quick.

What is the timetable?

With the primaries coming so early, the Democrats should choose their candidate by March, or even earlier if Howard Dean or someone else forges ahead. Mr Bush will be selected by the Republicans anyway.

There is also voting for the Senate and House of Representatives Then come the conventions formally to select the candidates in the summer. The Democrats hold theirs in Boston between 26 and 29 July and the Republicans in New York City between 30 August and 2 September.

After that, there are three presidential debates, on 30 September, 8 and 13 October, and the vote is on Tuesday 2 November.

The winner is inaugurated president on 20 January, 2005. In the intervening period, the current administration carries on.

Will it be George W Bush vs Howard Dean?

Barring an unforeseen event, President Bush will be the Republican candidate. He will have his current Vice-President, Dick Cheney, as his running mate.

Consumer activist Ralph Nader ran in 2000 - and may stand again The position on the Democratic side is more open. The Governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, was the early front-runner.

Dean took a stand against the Iraq war and has run hard on that issue, getting a lot of support and money from the grass roots, especially through the internet. He has the endorsement of the Democrats' candidate from 2000, Al Gore.

But he only came third in the Iowa caucuses, behind Senator John Kerry and Senator John Edwards.

The Democratic candidates are:

retired General Wesley Clark, the former Nato supreme commander;

former Vermont Governor Dr John Dean;

North Carolina Senator John Edwards, a former trial lawyer; Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Vietnam veteran and protester;

Congressman Dennis Kucinich from Ohio;

Senator Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's vice-presidential running mate last time, who is rather annoyed at being abandoned by Mr Gore this time;

Civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton.

Congressman Richard Gephardt dropped out after doing poorly in Iowa.

What are the main issues?

Mr Bush is making the "war on terror", which he declared after 11 September 2001, the centrepiece of his campaign, claiming that he has made America safer. He is also arguing that the war in Iraq was justified.

The US economy's strong recent performance is also a plus for Mr Bush and he has plenty of money for his campaign. So he is the favourite as the campaign proper gets under way.

On the Democrat side, Howard Dean scored with an anti-Iraq war stance. He highlighted the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the continuing violence in Iraq.

However, in Iowa these themes did not bring him the big win he sought and voters there turned instead to the more established figure of John Kerry and the rising start John Edwards.

What about third party candidates?

It is possible that Ralph Nader, the veteran consumer activist, will stand again. He is making his mind up in January, having formed an exploratory committee.

Problems in Florida in 2000 have led to new voting methods being introduced.

He stood in 2000 for the Green Party but has decided not to seeks its nomination this time. Supporters of Al Gore argued that if Mr Nader had not been in the race, their man might have won.

The Nader response was to say that he was campaigning against both major establishment parties on major issues of importance which needed discussion and that his supporters might not have voted at all otherwise.

What about congressional elections?

The Republicans hold the 100-strong US Senate with 51 seats. Democrats have 48 seats and there is one independent. The Republicans hope to consolidate this majority, perhaps by winning Democrat-held seats in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. But it might well be a close fight.

Republicans also command the House of Representatives with 229 out of the 435 seats. Democrats have 205 and there is one independent. Again, Republicans hope and expect to hold onto the House.

If the Republicans win the presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives, it will consolidate their grip on power.

from the BBC

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