ColumnsPaul Stokes

Guest column - The Clothes Have No Emperor: Absurdities of the US presidential election by Hayseed Dixie

ColumnsPaul Stokes

If you think countrified rock and roll - "Rockgrass" if you will - sounds odd, then John Wheeler founded of Hayseed Dixie suggests you take a look at the American presidential election. With a new single solo Deeper In Debt out the day before the US goes to the polls (5 November), he's written us an extensive guest column on why most American votes are meaningless... unless you live in Ohio.

The US Presidential Election is inherently undemocratic and the outcome doesn't matter anyway. "What?!" you say. Allow me to explain myself... As an American musician spending the majority of my time touring in Europe, as well as living mainly in the UK for the past seven years, I am frequently asked by fans, friends, interviewers and pub-goers alike about my opinion on political issues affecting both the US and the UK. More than anything else, I am asked about my views on the US President and, near an election time, about my take on the candidates and the process. And I usually give the following answer: that it really doesn't much matter who the US President is, except maybe as regards foreign perceptions of the US. This response always seems to strike people in Europe as strange or evasive, but I'd like to explain my reasoning below.

Let me start by saying that very many people, Americans and Europeans alike, seem to believe that the President has much more legislative power than he actually does have. For example, I would observe that in actual practice, the Prime Minister of the UK has far greater power to influence laws and policy and to set the agenda than the our president does because the Prime Minister is always, by definition, the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons, in this case the main legislative body.

That is to say, because the Prime Minister is a Member Of Parliament and is chosen from amongst their ranks by whichever party holds the majority of seats in parliament, in theory he always has the majority vote on any given issue on his side. On the other hand, the US president, being completely separate from the Congress, can and often does face a hostile Senate and House Of Representatives, made up of a majority from an opposing party to his own - which generally results in more or less complete gridlock. This has certainly been the case for Obama for the past two years.

Such gridlock can be either a good or a bad thing depending on one's perspective on the role of government, but it certainly means that big change tends to be very slow in coming in the US government, with endless compromise and watering down of proposed new laws being absolutely necessary in order to get any law actually passed. In contrast, the UK can and often does turn very quickly in sharp and stark legislative ways; this makes for a government that is more immediately "responsive" but which can also swing widely in more extreme ways. So, to be sure, the President is a very visible public figure, but he is often just an empty suit of clothes in regard to his actual power. The real trousers are worn by the Congress and the Senate, both of which are bodies from which he is entirely separate.

Furthermore, and perhaps even more importantly, it seems that very few people are aware of the realities of the process by which the US President is elected, namely that the President is "elected" by something called the Electoral College and not by the total popular vote of the American people. As an example of this lack of understanding, I have had several exchanges on Facebook and Twitter recently with people in America who are fiercely advocating either Obama or Romney. I have asked them all quite sincerely: Unless you live in Ohio, Michigan, or Florida, why are you wasting your breath? This is a bona fide sincere question because the aforementioned three states will - I repeat, will - decide who the next president will be. The election is already decided in every other state that matters from an Electoral College perspective, which effectively means that the votes of very many people do not actually count.

At the risk of being boring and putting everyone still reading into a very deep sleep indeed, let me explain how the Electoral College works (just please bear with me here as this is honestly very essential stuff). In the US Presidential Election, one person does not equal one vote. Rather, each state has a certain number of "Electoral votes." The number of such votes each state has is dependent upon the population of the state. So, for example, my home state of Tennessee, with a population of roughly seven million, has 11 Electoral votes for President. California, with 38 million people and thus the largest population of any state, has 55 Electoral votes. The smallest states in terms of population, like Delaware and Vermont, have three Electoral votes each. So it takes many Vermonts (specifically 18) to make one California in terms of influence in the Presidential race.

This system of Electoral votes essentially forces the individual states to vote in blocks for the president, as the winner of the vote for president in a given state takes all of that state's Electoral votes. Whether Obama wins California (and he certainly will) with 51 per-cent of the votes there or 98 per-cent is irrelevant - he will still get the same number of Electoral votes. Whether Romney wins Texas (and he certainly will) by 56 per-cent or 100 per-cent... you get the idea, the end result is exactly the same. And this is why I say that the election will be decided by Ohio, Michigan and Florida - because all of the other states, as collective blocks, are already firmly sided with one candidate or the other, and only these three states are both rather equally divided, therefore not yet decided, and also have enough electoral votes to actually matter in the final outcome. And the candidates are all too aware of this, which is demonstrated by how their campaign money is spent: 93 per-cent of all advertising money in this election will be spent in just nine states, though those nine states collectively contain less than 25 percent of all US voters.

Make sense to you? Me neither. But this is the way it has been done since 1787 and, despite it being absolutely absurd and inherently undemocratic, nobody seems to be talking about it.

At any rate, mainly because I think he's a better frontman to the larger world outside America, I dutifully filled out my absentee ballot a few days ago and voted for Obama. But filling out and mailing in this ballot was nothing more for me than a knowing act of self-deception; my home state of Tennessee will certainly give its Electoral votes to whomever is the most conservative candidate on offer (in this case, Romney). That much is already definitively decided, and thus my vote won't count for anything other than as a statistic.

So does it actually matter? While the US Presidential Election certainly makes for lively pub discussions and countless impassioned Facebook postings, until the Electoral College is abolished in favour of a system wherein one person simply equals one vote and therefore every vote is equally counted, the American electorate is being compelled to engage in collective self-delusion, trapped in an archaic and dis-empowering system to elect a figurehead who doesn't have much actual legislative power anyway.

Cheers, Mate! I'll see you at the bar. John Wheeler @barleyscotch

For more, including up coming live dates, head to Johnwheelermusic.com.