A primer for the US election

The US presidential election. It’s exhilarating, it’s exhausting, but it’s also inexplicably complicated. Here’s everything you need to know to become an insta-pundit.

When’s the election?

Tuesday, November 8, although millions will have already voted because of early voting. More than 40 percent of votes this year will be cast before Election Day – a record. In some states, you can even vote early, change your mind and vote again.

Why is the turnout so pathetic?

Just 53.6 percent of the voting-age population cast a ballot in 2012. Some can’t vote, like the 6 million felons. Some just don’t feel like it. Compare that with Belgium. In 2014, nearly 90 percent of those who could vote did.

Why is the election on a work day?

Once upon a time, America was a farming nation that went to church on Sundays and market on Wednesdays. Holding elections on Tuesdays gave farmers enough time to get to the polls, get back home, and get their products to market. Why November? So, people could vote after the fall harvest but before winter weather made travel difficult. There are proposals to move Election Day to the weekend, or make it a federal holiday, but they’ve gone nowhere.

Why is the election season so long?

We can see how this puzzles the world. Britain gets it done in 4 months, Canada in 2 and a 1/2 and Japan in just 12 days. America’s two main political parties — the Democrats and the Republicans — pick nominees through contests called primaries in each of the 50 states and the U.S. territories. That process starts in February and it alone takes up to five months. Before that, candidates typically spend a year laying groundwork. They can start earlier, because there are no laws dictating the length of a campaign.

Can anybody run for president?

Yes. The US Constitution says you have to be at least 35 years old, have lived in the US for at least 14 years and be “a natural born citizen.”

Why is it that America only has two parties?

Actually America has a ton of them. There’s the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Socialist Workers Party, even the Legal Marijuana Now Party. But for pretty much all of its history, the US has always had just two dominant parties that compete for the White House. These days it’s the Democrats and Republicans. In middle of the 19th century, it was the Democrats and the Whigs. It’s primarily because of America’s winner-take-all elections. In other countries 20 percent of the vote means you get some seats in parliament. In America, you need a majority.

Is it true Americans don’t directly vote for president?

The election is determined by the Electoral College. The Electoral College is a group of people appointed by each party in each state. The total number of electors is equal to the number of members in Congress: 538, so each state gets electors based on its representation in Congress — Wyoming has 3, New York has 29. If Candidate A wins the most votes in, say, New York, (s)he gets all 29 electoral votes. The goal is to get to 270, which is just over half of 538.

Has anyone ever lost the popular vote and still become president?

Yes. As recently as 2000, Al Gore lost to George W. Bush despite winning more votes nationwide.

538 is an even number. What if there’s a tie?

An Electoral College tie is extremely rare. It’s only happened twice. In a tie, the House of Representatives will elect the president while the Senate will elect the vice president.

What are battleground states?

The way the Electoral College works now is that most states are reliably either “blue,” meaning they vote for the Democratic candidate, or “red,” meaning they go with the Republican candidate. That leaves just a handful of states — the battleground, or swing, states — that the candidates fight over, such as Florida. In 2008 and 2012, Florida went for President Obama, a Democrat; in 2000 and 2004 it went for President Bush, a Republican. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are neck-and-neck there.

Why are Democratic states “blue” and Republican states “red”?

The media made it up. Both are colors in the American flag, and they look sharp on infographics because they’re pretty much on opposite ends of the color spectrum. But the seemingly arbitrary color assignments have actually flip-flopped over the years. In 1980, states won by Republican Ronald Reagan were colored blue; Democrat Jimmy Carter’s states were colored red. Even as late as 1996, major media outlets were divided on how to color-code the parties.

What are the biggest issues?

The usual suspects: The economy, national security, health care.

On foreign policy:

Trump: His is an America-first strategy. He’s suggested not coming to the aid of some countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and said he would work with challenging world leaders.

Clinton: She wants to use diplomacy and development to quell problems abroad, stand by US allies, and stand her ground with rivals such as Russia and China.

On trade:

Trump: He’s said the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a bad deal for America. He’s also said he’d renegotiate or end the North American Free Trade Agreement and label China a currency manipulator.

Clinton: She is also against the TPP, although she is more favorable to international trade agreements than her competitor.

On climate change:

Trump: He called global warming “a hoax.” He has told coal miners he’d save their jobs by dramatically cutting funding for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Clinton: She wants to combat climate change and boost renewable energies, cut waste and reduce the United States’ dependency on oil.

What else are Americans voting on?

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and a third of the seats in the Senate are on the ballot. The GOP majority in the House is so big it’ll probably stay in Republican hands. But the Democrats can flip the Senate if they manage to pick up just a handful of seats. On a state level, eight states will vote on legalizing marijuana, and four states will vote on raising the minimum wage. California voters are considering Proposition 60, which would require the use of condoms and “other protective measures” during the filming of porn.

When will we know the results?

Landslide elections are usually called around 8 p.m. ET when most of the polls have closed on the Eastern and Central time zones. If it all comes down to Ohio and Trump and Clinton are pretty much tied, the election could ride on absentee and provisional ballots. But poll workers there have 10 days to check eligibility. In that case, we wouldn’t know the winner until the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Can you really rig an election?

That’d be really hard. In the last presidential election some 129 million votes were cast, so just think about the large scale of votes you’d have to manipulate to even have an effect.

Vote more than once or vote as someone else? That small army of poll workers and poll watchers at each precinct can easily put a stop to that.

Screw around with the voting machines? Sure, but first you have to figure out how to break the locks and seals that are placed on each voting machine. Also, each machine sits out in the open all Election Day. Hack the machines? The election system is decentralized by design with state, county and local governments all managing voting. Even though many precincts use voting machines, none are connected to the internet, nor are they connected to each other.

Can anyone contest the result?

America doesn’t have a national election as much as a series of state elections so to contest the results, a candidate would have to do it state by state. Each state has its own laws and exceptionally strict criteria to entertain any foolish challenges.

When would the winner take office?

Years ago, the president was inaugurated on March 20. But travel across the country is much faster and easier than before so now Inauguration Day is Jan. 20.

Just how unprecedented is this election?

For the first time, a woman is a step away from being president. That alone makes this campaign unique.

For the first time, you have a true outsider businessman-television personality as a major-party candidate.

For the first time, you have two of the most despised, hated and untrusted candidates. If they were running against any other run-of-mill presidential candidate, they’d be toast.

Who’s going to win?

The general consensus seems to be that this race is Clinton’s to lose. But that’s based on polls and polls missed the Brexit vote and the vote for peace in Colombia.