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Explainer: Dummy’s guide to the US elections

Everyone’s talking about the US elections, but how does it really work? And what on earth is a swing state?

All eyes are on the US Presidential election as the world waits to find out whether the incumbent, President Donald Trump, will get a second term or will be unseated by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Many political animals are probably setting their alarm for the dead of South Africa’s night as we speak, preparing to settle down in front of the TV or laptop to watch the analysts try to make sense of what’s unfolding.

But even those experts may have a tough time of it. The election is complex, and there’s a lot at stake. (We highly recommend this analysis by former Business Day editor Songezo Zibi to give you an idea of the issues on the table.)  

So, how exactly does the US election work? 

We know the US needs a new president (and how!), but who else are voters picking? 

According to the US Department of State, here’s how it works: 

On a Federal level (a bit like our national government and Parliament): 

Apart from the new president and his (the presidential candidates are both male this year) deputy, voters must also choose 35 members of the US Senate and 435 members of the US House of Representatives. Both these houses make up the US Congress, which is the equivalent of our Parliament. 

Each senator serves a term of six years, so about a third of the 100 seats are up for grabs during each election cycle. The seat of every member of the US House of Representatives is up for election every two years. 

On a state level (a bit like our provincial layer of government): 

Voters choose 11 governors and 5000 state legislators (like members of the provincial legislatures). 

Most laws in the US are passed at state level so this election is also vitally important in this respect, too. 

On a local level (you get the picture):

Seats on the country’s city councils are up for election and mayoral elections are also being held around the country.

When will we know the results? 

That’s the million dollar question. Many people are voting via the mail and it’s unclear how long it will take to count those votes. In short, we will probably not have a firm idea of the outcomes until later this week. The Guardian has an hour-by-hour breakdown of when the results from the different states will start to trickle in, starting on Tuesday night. News networks typically declare a winner later on election night when about 90% of the votes have been counted; this year, though, it’s unlikely that all states will have been counted until about Friday. Read The Guardian again on what the days after the election will mean for vote counting here.

Voting takes place on November 3, although millions (about 98 million, according to vox.com) have already cast their ballots through early voting. That’s about 70% of the total votes cast in 2016. According to the US Constitution, the members of Congress end their terms on January 3. The President’s term is over on January 30, which is when the new president (whether that’s an incumbent beginning a second term or a newcomer to the most powerful office in the land) is typically inaugurated. 

Who decides the winner and what’s the Electoral College? 

Here’s a great explainer from the NY Times on why the Electoral College is such a problem. 

What’s a swing state? 

According to the US department of state, swing states have populations that have gone back and forth between supporting Democrat or Republican candidates over the years – so much so that they are very closely split, politically. It’s not always clear which are the swing states, although some experts count Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona among them. The department says that others like North Carolina and New Hampshire are also sometimes added to the list. 

According to the Daily Maverick, even more states are now considered swing states; these are the ones where Trump narrowly won in 2016 but which were previously considered Democratic territory. 

Here’s a video explainer from The Guardian on how swing states work: 

To keep up to speed with all the latest as the results start to come in, follow CNN’s live blog here.

This story is currently being corrected to reflect the way the Electoral College operates and will be updated soon.