US mid-terms – lessons for Australia?

Or: Lessons for democracy?

With so much going on in the US, it is hard to keep track. Following last week’s mid-term elections the Democrats have kept the Senate. Republicans are likely to win the House of Representatives. Why should we care? We take a look at some things that have caught our eye, and possible lessons for Australia…

1. Did people vote for democracy?

As has been well reported, many candidates who campaigned to overturn the 2020 US presidential election lost. (The poor showing of Trump-backed candidates even inspired this cover from the usually Trump-sympathetic New York Post). 

Take for example the contrasting fortunes of two Republican candidates for Governor: Doug Mastriano lost his campaign in Pennsylvania after claiming the 2020 election was stolen; while Brian Kemp in Georgia (who famously supported his Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger when he pushed back on Trump’s bid to ‘find more votes’) safely won re-election. Similar results for Tim Michels in Wisconsin, as well as Lee Zeldin in the Senate in New York and Kari Lake in Arizona (who described 2020 election as a “laughing-stock”).

Democracy seemed to matter the most in decisive races (along with voters rejecting candidates who took a particularly hard-line on abortion following the Dobbs decision – see an excellent analysis on this New York Times podcast).

Positive signs that where it mattered, voters turned out (or turned their vote) to support democracy. For more see this fantastic graphic and article by the New York Times.

However, as this summary by FiveThirtyEight, points out that, there is a little more to the story: 

Of the 199 Republican candidates for the House, Senate, governor, secretary of state, and attorney general who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election, so far 134 are projected to win their races.

This is 67% of the election deniers that stood for these positions. That remains concerning, and a challenge for the future Congress.

Lesson for Australia? Well, as I say to my kids: it is just as important to be a good loser as a good winner (see also my thanks to Scomo for conceding in May 2022 here).

2. State level results, or: be thankful for independent electoral commissions

While the Senate and House of Reps get the most attention in the US, it is the State level results that mean the most for the future of American democracy.

In the US the electoral laws are set by the State legislatures, not by an independent body. In Australia we have the Australian Electoral Commission and various state electoral commissions. When one party takes control of all three branches in any US State (State House, State Senate and Governor) there is almost nothing stopping them amending the election laws to suit their side. Gerrymandering (adjusting boundaries to increase the chances of your side winning) is a common strategy, particularly by Republicans (see this excellent graphic from The Guardian), but also increasingly, by Democrats. The Supreme Court has even declined to overturn clearly partisan gerrymandering in recent decisions.

Meanwhile, since 2020, 19 states have passed laws to restrict voting, or to make it harder to vote. The aforementioned Brian Kemp, for example, while protecting the 2020 election from Trump on the one hand, did plenty to make it hard for voters in Georgia on the other. This included restricting drop boxes, limiting absentee ballots and making it illegal to pass out water to people standing in line to vote.

But as the Washington Post reports, “voters in allsix major battlegrounds where Donald Trump tried to reverse his defeat in 2020 rejected election-denying candidates”. Three candidates for Secretary of State (Michigan, Arizona and Nevada) and at least two for Governor (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) who promised to put election administration under partisan control (some even pledged to “de-certify” the 2020 results), all lost.

In a rather weird system it is the US states who send the delegates to the Electoral College, and the Electoral College which ultimately selects the President. These State results bode well for the 2024 Presidential election, making it harder for rouge state legislatures to send alternate delegates to vote for a Presidential candidate of their choosing, rather than the one for whom their citizens voted.

One thing to watch, however: where the Democrats have taken majorities in all three State branches (e.g. Minnesota) – will they be able to resist adjusting rules to suit their side? Let’s wait and see.

Lesson for Australia? Thank God for the AEC.

3. Such a thing as too much democracy?

Too much democracy? Unlike Australia, in the US voters to select the person who will stand as a candidate for their party in ‘primaries’. On the surface this sounds democratic. However, it has unforeseen consequences. As Pew Research points out the most engaged tend to turn out to vote in primaries, and these tend to be the most extreme of both sides of politics. The result is more crazy, partisan candidates than the ‘average voter’ might want. Thankfully, this time, many of them like Dr Oz in Pennsylvania, lost.

4. Is political polarisation changing?

For a couple of decades, the prevailing view has been that as America becomes more ethnically diverse, more people will vote Democrat. Since the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, most non-white voters have voted Democrat. However, at the 2020 election a growing number of Hispanic Americans and Black Americans (especially black men) voted Republican. This has continued in 2022. Education, not race, seems to be the strongest indicator of partisan leaning.


I firmly recommend this Substack from Rob Richie on the growth of preferential voting in the US (or what they call ‘ranked choice voting’).

Probably the electoral reform with the greatest momentum in the US right now.

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