On Tuesday American will head to the polls. Well, not all Americans; voter turnout, just like in UK by-elections, tends to be smaller in the midterm elections.
These elections get their ever-so-poetic name from the fact they are midway through a presidential term of four years and are viewed as a referendum on the sitting president and his party. So, it’s expected voters will get cranky.
Some say the midterms are bellwethers for the presidential election, two years away, but you shouldn’t be too sure about that.
In 2010, President Obama lost 63 seats in the House of Representatives, giving control to the Republicans, and an additional six seats in the Senate. (Yes, if you got these results in a parliamentary system like the UK you would have to form a new government.
Obama, of course, went on to win in 2012 with a good margin.
So are these elections important? In short, yes. In a system that separates the executive branch, the judiciary and the legislative branch, it’s already hard enough for a president to round up votes from members of his own party. President Bill Clinton for example notoriously failed to pass healthcare reform his first year in office even though Democrats controlled the legislature. It’s even harder if the opposition party controls the legislature.
Right now, the Republicans control the U.S. House of Representatives (think House of Commons). The U.S. Senate (think House of Lords if you elected them and they had to vote to approve everything the House of Commons did) is controlled by the Democrats.
The Democrats, however, are likely to lose the Senate after the midterms, if you believe conventional wisdom.
Why? President Obama is unpopular at the moment and many of the Senate elections are taking place in ‘red states’, states that vote for the Republican presidential candidate.
So if you’re understandably confused, fear not. Here are five things you need to know about the 2014 elections that might make the Wednesday morning headlines make more sense.
1. Voting rights are at stake.
There are a few things to be aware of here. First, running elections, including creating Congressional districts, is the job of the state and not the federal government. You can probably see where this is going. Republicans in particular want to make sure it’s their people counting the votes.
Texas has a new voter ID law that opponents claim will disenfranchise up to 600,000 voters. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has upheld the law. The National Commission on Voting Rights has named Texas the worst state in the country for voting rights, by the way.
In Kansas and Georgia, Republican party officials have refused to accept thousands of voter registrations. Republicans claim they are fighting fraud but Democrats say they haven’t seen proof of any fraud. Into this mix add race; critics say many of these voter laws target minorities and the poor.
2. Control of the upper legislature is at stake.
Yes, I’ve said this but I’m saying it again. To spell it out, the Democrats have controlled the Senate for eight years and currently have a majority of 55 seats to the Republicans’ 45 seats. This election the Democrats have to defend 21 seats and nine of those seats are in states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.
They could still hang onto the Senate; early voting looks good for the Democrats, but it’s going to be tough going.
3. It will be the most expensive midterm election in history.
The numbers aren’t in but it’s a pretty safe bet. Every election is always the most expensive election of its kind until the next election, which will then be the most expensive election of its kind. I wish I were joking but I’m not.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that money is speech and you can’t restrict speech, and therefore corporations, non-profits, unions, and individuals can’t have their campaign donations limited. Predictably the money spent on elections, much of it going to TV advertising, keeps going up.
This year in Alaska both sides in the Senate race have ripped into the other side for taking out advertisements paid for with money they got from accepting outside contributions.
4. Watch the Governor’s race in Kansas and Wisconsin.
In Kansas, incumbent Republican Gov. Sam Brownback cut taxes to the bone to cheers until spending cuts and a rising budget deficit made him vulnerable to his Democratic challenger Paul Davis. People like tax cuts but they also quite like schools too, it seems.
In Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker broke the back of the unions, showing himself to be a bit of a Mrs Thatcher without a handbag, survived a recall vote and now faces a challenge from Democrat Mary Burke. The New Republic says the Walker race is the most important.
5. Even political journalists think this election is boring.
Note they’re not saying it’s unimportant, just that it hasn’t been the most exciting.
I’m referring to a comment made by David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, on NPR (National Public Radio, our version of BBC 4). He flat out said the election was boring and hoped that there weren’t any runoffs because he was tired of covering it.
E. J. Dionne, columnists from the Washington Post, agreed with Brooks. Also speaking on NPR, he said voters felt like they had to choose between ‘bombastic and pretentious’.
But hey, you never know, there could be some surprises.