Ask a Very Confused American

Being something of a FAQ for all of my unAmerican friends who might be looking upon the current, bizarre state of affairs with more than a few questions.

First of all, let me assure you all that I have no special insight that’s unavailable elsewhere, but, like all white men, that’s not going to stop me from attempting to gratuitously explain the whole thing to anyone who might be confused as to the current, mind-boggling state of affairs in America.

Q: So, what the hell just happened in your country?
A: To make a long story short, we had a general election back in early November for a variety of offices ranging from “county comptroller” all the way to “President,” and, because our democracy offers a range of ways and times to cast your ballot (these are all legal, vote early, vote by mail, or vote in-person (the traditional method)(all of these different voting methods lead to the sort-of chaos the news channels are delightfully describing, because the in-person voters tended to vote for different folks than the mail-in voters, and the lag-time in processing those votes confused us)), we weren’t totally certain of the outcome on voting day, but now, we’re reasonably certain who won and who lost various offices.

Q: Who won?
A: Definitely not the American people. Also, definitely not Dear Leader Donald, who is, based on current data, some sort of poorly-designed killer robot from Russia. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris snagged the presidency (and; full admission, even though I’m a big fan of K. Harris, I’m not wild about Biden, although the thought of a likely-sane, sober president who appreciates the importance and magnitude of the office is an enticing one); the Republicans seem to have retained control of the Senate (but their margins shrunk, and ultimate control of the higher legislative body in American politics will be decided by run-off elections to be held in Georgia in December and January)(I will let everyone know exactly what’s happening in those Georgia Senate races the minute I do, but, given the impressive ground work on part of the Democrats and the GOP now openly discouraging supporters from participating in the race, I’d say there’s an even chance John Cena will climb into the ring, body-slam all the candidates, and claim both seats for himself)(it would still be more-likely than Georgia going Democratic for a presidential candidate); the Democrats seem to have retained control of Congress (but their margins shrunk).

Q: So why is there so much chaos and division on television?
: Because we’re not good at maths, on a national level, and certain unnamed parties thrive in chaos and disorder. I’m not going to name names, but any self-labeling political party is like a straight man giving themselves a nickname; it’s frequently inaccurate, misleading, and unearned — the anti-corruption party is rarely against corruption, the pro-life party supports the death penalty, the pro-choice party doesn’t really support the sort of radical social programs like universal healthcare, education, and pre-Kindergarten education that would empower women enough to actually choose much, the anti-war party is rarely either; and one party calls itself the “law and order party.” You can reason this out. But, on a more basic level, the pollsters and statisticians were still wildly inaccurate (like in 2016), and, although their predictions were, broadly speaking, accurate, they were accurate in the way of ancient Greek prophecies; only through the most-generous of interpretations with a lot of hindsight. And some states are still in the process of counting ballots and certifying them. In broad, readily-digested strokes; the vast majority of Americans go to in-person voting booths on election day, but, thanks to raging disease, a lot of us (a majority, in some places) used our alternative, legal voting methods (mail; we voted by mail).

Q: But it’s just counting boxes ticked off on a ballot! How hard can this be?
: Harder than you’d think. As a lot of more-experienced commentators than myself pointed out; there is no universal, federal election law, so how and when votes are tabulated can vary wildly from state to state. Florida, for instance, allows poll workers to start counting mail-in and absentee ballots three weeks before the election, whereas other, saner states actually prohibit counting votes until election day, itself. For my EU friends, the closest equivalent would be if Italy suddenly developed a fair, comprehensive, efficient tax system while Germany and Belgium decided income brackets based on chess-boxing. But, if you really are interested; what this means is that we saw rare blue or red mirages. Remember that thing that thing about loads of us not voting in-person this year? That meant that in-person voters showed up, voted one way, and got those ballots processed (creating the initial “Pennsylvania’s going red,” and an early, “Arizona’s going blue.” because the in-person voters got there early and tended to vote GOP, the Pennsylvania initially appeared to be red, but, after counting the mail-in ballots, the number of mailed-in votes outnumbered the in-person votes, and favored Biden. This is why you saw angry crowds shouting, “Stop the Vote” in Pennsylvania. Conversely, in Arizona; in-person voting slightly favored Biden (and the mail-in vote also helped him), but it also helped Donald, which is why we had another group chanting, “Count the Vote.” So, the process is further delayed by having to explain that, just this once, we’re going to try and count every single person’s vote. Naturally the process of double-checking all of these votes delays things even further (this is “officiating” a vote, and obscure, frequently-GOP officials have gotten death threats for counting votes, in a democratic system)(there’s an off-beat post-apocalyptic dystopian satire novel in that concept). So, it might be a little longer before we’re fully done.

Q: But if you have a good idea of who’s going to be president next year, why are we hearing about “electors” and “certification processes?”
Sadly, when America’s founders, in their God-given wisdom, decided women and black people could not vote, chattel slavery would be based upon geography, and that massacring indigenous tribes was quite alright if they were squatting on land you wanted, they also decided that direct democracy would go to the heads of the peasants. So, in most cases, much like a parliamentary system, voters decide which party will cast their local (state-level) votes, and that will decide various elections, instead of directly voting for who we want to lead us. Even though there are a bunch of safeguards in place to keep elections from being stolen outright; most of them are based on the honor system and goodwill of the participants. Prior to 2020, this has allowed the system a certain flexibility and adaptability that we could probably use in the middle of a plague. Also, because we are the Most Christian Nation in the World (suck it, Vatican City and/or Jerusalem), we do no labor during the entire month of December, which, understandably, slows down any processes that started a month before the birth of Our Lord and Savior, Jimmy Buffett (or Jesus, in lesser religions).

Q: Where are they finding all of these votes?
: I’m so glad you asked! We’re just pulling them out of the ears of toddlers at family reunions! No, the verb “find” is wildly misleading in this case. If you searched your house for all the loose change, you’d probably have 40–60 more Euros to your name, but it’s not like it suddenly appeared there, or is magically deposited into your account; that money was always in your house, and always available for you to use; you’ve simply gathered it together in one location at the same time, and sorted and counted it. Similarly, it’s not like people are still voting or ballots are magically appearing; in most cases, it’s just poll workers thanklessly tracking down mail-in ballots, absentee ballots, ballots cast via early voting, and similar measures. And — this is the critical aspect here — even if you collect all the loose change from your manor in the Swiss alps, it’s unlikely you’re going to wrangle enough to make a payment on your Saab or manor. You might have enough for a decent bottle of wine (or two cases of sangria, depending upon your tastes), but it’s not likely to be enough to retire upon. Similarly and crucially, Dear Leader is trailing by too many votes in too many places to make a difference. He will likely be repossessed by anyone who will take him (our next national project will be rehoming a near-strongman; 70-odd years old, in terrible condition, not to be trusted with children or animals, no art in his soul or valor in his heart; homes with yards preferred).

Q: How does the Supreme Court come into it?
: In 2000, there were similar issues with mail-in votes, absentee ballots, & Co. The American media grew tired of all this bothersome democracy and requested the Supreme Court give the country to Bush 2.

Q: Really?
: No; they ruled that there are strict deadlines and a limited number of times folks could request a recount. At the time, given that one candidate trailed by less than a thousand votes, that inadvertently gave one candidate a clear advantage. Even though I think that was definitely a politically-informed decision, I can also see the value in limiting the scope and length of time in a federal election so that society isn’t just one endless series of recounts and court battles with actual governance being a minor byproduct of the process.

Q: Can we expect a similarly heated, dramatic, made-for-television conclusion to this thrilling election, delivered by nine white men in dark robes (and a few token minorities who are sophisticated puppets controlled by white men in dark robes)?
: Realistically, no. Historically, although there may have been some issues with who was and was not allowed to vote (and the where and when), once your vote was cast and tallied, that was it. There has never been a successful attempt to retroactively disenfranchise people post-election (in broad strokes; we can discuss finer historical details and occasional exceptions the minute R. Giuliani learns what an “opacity” is). So, what the Trump Legal Team (composed of hapless interns who didn’t scream, “Not it!” fast enough) is trying to do is not only distinctly anti-democratic, it’s anti-American. Let me state that again for anyone not clear on the issue: if you support one group’s right to vote in lieu of another’s, you are going to burn in a very special level of deep-fried, diabetes-laden, sugar-coated, bacon-and-monster-truck eagle hell.

Q: So, all of Trump’s bigly legal wins…?
Have been on issues regarding increased observation of polling, increased transparency in the process, and decreased partisanship in the process of ballot-counting. Which, really, are wins for fans of free, fair, and transparent elections in general.

Q: What about Georgia?
Honestly, we’re as surprised about that as you are. But it’s been a long, strange, unpredictable, and, frankly, terrible four years.

Q: No, isn’t that state going to flip red based on recent court rulings?
: At this point, the odds of that happening are roughly the same as Dear Leader announcing he’s going to quietly retire from public life to start a fully-funded orphanage in El Paso. “Unlikely” doesn’t adequately summarize the situation. Historically, recounts have only ever changed the outcome by a few thousand votes; Dear Leader is trailing by a few million nationally, and by over 10000 in the closest races. There is an intact Twinkie’s chance in the White House of… well, of aforementioned Twinkie remaining in the White House.

Q: So, if the presidential race is decided, why is Dear Leader still “inspecting the White House bunker?”
: Again, there is a transition phase in American government between outgoing political administrations and incoming ones. Traditionally, I believe this was to give the new folks time to hire staff members, make high level political appointments, set legislative agendas with other folks, and rent office space. Previously, it was not to give the former administration time to steal the silverware and more-expensive flatware, but there is a first for everything.

Q: If the president refuses to concede…?
: Concessions are not actually required for the peaceful transfer of power; they’re mostly traditional, and used to signal to the existing administration’s staff that they’re to offer complete and total cooperation with the incoming administration. Fortunately, because America is not a monarchy, and there are only nine political appointments that are for life, there is a complex set of obscure processes used to transfer power between feuding administrations, and the presidency is not decided by who screams “uncle” first. Most of the current chaos in American government is because we had to go and dust off the agencies and groups responsible for that power-transfer-via-obscure-legal-processes because we haven’t used most of them since 1860. Don’t worry, we’ll get it figured out before long.

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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