TODAY, November 6, is the day our friends across the Pacific head to the polls for one of the most important and heated midterm elections in living memory.
You may have heard rumblings on social media or, if you ever tune into American news networks, you will have noticed the round-the-clock reporting on this landmark vote.
Any other midterm year and the news would barely have made its way out to us here in Asia. In all honesty, the news wouldn’t have made much of a ripple for most Americans either, as voters historically turn out in dismally low numbers to cast their ballot.
But this one is different. This one is grabbing national attention and stoking a sense of civic duty unlike any other.
The US political system can be tricky to pick apart – seeming more like soap opera than government these days. So here’s a breakdown of what’s happening and why it’s so important.
What are they voting for?
Midterms happen every four years, when Americans are asked to choose members of Congress.
There are a variety of other elected positions being decided today, but the main focus for voters and politicians are the House of Representatives (the lower chamber) and the Senate (the upper chamber), which make up Congress.
As Representatives in the House serve only two-year terms, there are a whopping 435 seats up for election today. They each represent one congressional district, the number of which varies across states depending on population.
The House oversees the passing of federal legislation, or Bills. The speaker of the House – currently Republican Paul Ryan – is elected by members of the House and is, therefore, usually the leader of the party holding a House majority.
There are also 35 Senate seats up for grabs today. These guys represent an entire state. There are two designated to each state, regardless of population. This is a particular gripe of those living in densely populated states such as California.
The Sunshine state has almost 40 million people but gets the same representation in the Senate as Wyoming with a population of only 574,000.
On top of all that, there’s also governor races in 26 states. And individual issues on the ballot in different states. For example, in Florida they will be deciding if convicted felons are able to vote once they’ve served their sentence.
Why is it such a big deal?
While President Donald Trump is not on the ballot, the midterms are seen as a referendum on the current administration.
Trump himself has told supporters to vote as if he were on the ballot, hoping his seemingly unwavering base will be enough to get Republicans into key seats and maintain their current majority in Congress.
And that’s the major reason this is such a big deal for America.
Trump’s Republicans currently hold a slim majority in the House with 235 seats – only 218 are needed to take control. They have an even narrower majority in the Senate – just 51 to Democrats’ 49.
With such small margins, this gives Democrats the chance to win back both the House and the Senate if this voting cycle goes their way.
If successful, this will clip the wings of Trump and the Republican party, potentially halting major legislative changes the Democrats view as harmful to America. And there are some big-ticket items up for discussion, including healthcare, reproductive rights, and social security.
A majority will give the Democrats a much stronger negotiating position and keep an often power-hungry Trump in check.
One reason the world is more aware of this year’s midterms is the sheer star-power that has been thrown behind the campaign to vote.
Comedian Billy Eichner, with the help of many celebrity friends, spearheaded the “Glam up the midterms” campaign in a bid to get younger voters interested in a ballot usually consigned to the retired and over 60s.
Big names such as Michelle Obama, actor Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Olympic skater Adam Rippon, actor Tom Hanks, and musicians Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae, and Lin Manuel-Miranda, took to social media to urge people to get their #VotingSquad ready for polling day.
Residents in the state of Georgia had superstars Will Ferrell and Oprah Winfrey knocking on their doors canvassing for Democrat governor hopeful Stacey Abrams.
Rarely has there been such a considerable mobilisation behind exercising your democratic rights. Even the famously apolitical Taylor Swift urged her 112 million Instagram followers to “make their vote count.”
And it seems to be working. More than 30 million Americans have cast early ballots ahead of today’s election – far more than during the 2014 midterms.
What do the polls say?
The latest poll from CNN has the Democrats in the lead and likely to win the House with a 226-seat majority. But this is still very tight, and it is well within the margin of error for it to swing the other way in favour of the Republicans.
In the Senate, Republicans are forecast to maintain a slight majority with 52 seats to Democrats’ 48. But, once again, it is too close to call with any certainty.
It is the close nature of the race that is, in part, drawing people to the polls.
Like most things in the Trump presidency, the midterms have been riddled with controversy.
Cases of voter suppression have been widespread and usually directed at preventing minorities – who tend to favour Democrats – from casting their ballot. A number of new pieces of legislation have been enacted to crackdown on voter fraud, despite there being very little evidence that this happens.
Racism has taken centre stage in this election cycle. Trump has used a caravan of migrants coming through Central America to stoke fear among his base. He has called those seeking asylum “criminals” and said there are “Middle Easterners” and violent gang members in the crowds slowly making their way to the US border.
Trump has pounced on immigration as a central pillar of the Republican agenda, releasing a racist campaign ad just five days before polls open, blaming Democrats for allowing in Mexican cop-killer Luis Bracamontes despite him entering the country illegally.
A spate of attempted bombings also rocked the campaign season when a number of pipe bombs were mailed to prominent Trump critics – including the Clintons, news network CNN, philanthropist George Soros, and actor Robert De Niro, among others.
In spite of – or perhaps because of – Trump’s fearmongering and race-baiting, this midterm election features the most diverse set of candidates ever.
Many of them, if victorious, will mark historic firsts. Stacey Abrams could become the first black woman governor in the country. In Michigan and Minnesota, two candidates could be the first Muslim women elected to Congress. And in Vermont, the first openly transgender governor could take office.
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