An American’s first time voting for a president is a special moment in their civic life. To view this from afar has been a strange experience for Americans abroad. We Americans at Tra i Leoni would like to share some insights on the US Election with our fellow Bocconi students.
An American’s first time voting for a president is a special moment in their civic life. It represents their contribution to selecting the highest executive office of the US and their representative to the rest of the world. However, the elections of 2016 and 2020 have been a rather turbulent induction into the democratic lifestream for newly registered voters. After the relative stability of the Obama administration, the successive administration has brought forward many fears and frustrations that have been bubbling under the American society’s surface for decades. Reactions to the 2016 election from across the political spectrum have varied in terms of intensity, disgust, and pride, but at the center of this tempest is the man who has occupied the world’s attention for the past four years: Donald Trump.
The 2020 US Election has been termed by some a referendum of the US’s path forward in the 21st century. For many, a Republican victory means a return to a normalcy typical of an America long past. For others, a Democratic victory would be a restoration of a moral republic that Trump has broken down during his term. For a growing population of young discontent, the election is yet another cycle that shows the flaws of the neoliberal capitalist system.
To view this from afar has been a strange experience for Americans abroad. We Americans at Tra i Leoni would like to share some insights with our fellow Bocconi students.
How does the US Election work?
It may be helpful for our fellow students to first understand how the federal election works. The President of the United States is not actually voted directly by the people; the true selectors of this position are the members of the Electoral College, a group of non-politicians chosen by state legislatures. The number of electors a state receives is equal to the sum of House Representatives and Senators it has; so, for example, California has 53 Representatives and 2 Senators, giving it an electoral vote of 55. There are 538 total electoral votes (including the District of Columbia), and the candidate who receives at least 270 (a simple majority) becomes the next President.
Though the popular vote doesn’t necessarily choose the President, there are few cases of “faithless electors,” or electors who choose differently from whom the state popular vote decides on. At times, electors from the same state even choose different candidates! The Electoral College is at the center of many debates, particularly over its undemocratic nature, and may someday be revised.
This election also has the people voting directly on representatives to both chambers of Congress on the ballots, a selection process that is just as important as the presidential election. The US legislature is divided between the small, deliberate Senate and the large, speedy House of Representatives; both chambers are responsible for creating domestic laws in line with the Constitution and establishing foreign relations, both of which the President enforces. Whenever Congress writes a new law, both chambers have to approve it for the bill to go to the President, who then signs the approved bill into effect or vetoes it. Congress is also able to veto presidential decrees or override the President’s veto. Since the US is currently polarized between the Democratic and Republican Parties, whichever party has a majority within either chamber will hold influence over the ability of the other chamber or the President to change laws.
The 2020 election is seeing the highest submission of mail-in ballots, due to the pandemic. Voting by mail has been practiced for decades, especially by people who are studying or working away from their home state and Americans who live abroad. The biggest obstacle posed by mail-in ballots is the amount of time it takes to process them, sometimes days after Election Day. The likelihood of fraudulent votes, as indicated by several studies, is extremely low and nearly never a contributor to changing election outcomes.
Why are Americans so polarized? And what is your personal experience with polarization?
Daniela Castro: There are many ways to answer this question. In the United States, like in many other countries, there is a wide range of issues on which people can disagree on. In my opinion, one of the reasons as to why the two parties have become so polarized is the fact that people on one side do not trust the people on the other. It is especially obvious in media and news networks, the idea of “fake news” has been thrown around so much, especially by the Republican Party and Trump when referring to “leftist” news networks, that some people have started questioning each other’s beliefs at a completely different level. When you have one group of people watching CNN claim that Trump said “this”, and another group of people watching Fox News claim “no Trump didn’t say this”, both groups are bound to disagree, precisely because they are both arguing with completely different perspectives of what the “truth” is. This is of course simplifying it, there are a gazillion if (not more) issues that come into play when talking about the polarization of politics in the United States, and each person can have a different experience depending on those in their community. I live in New York, one of the bluest states of America, and almost everyone I know voted Democrat. That experience is nowhere near the same to the experience of those who live in more heterogeneous or red districts.
Cecilia Gadina: While I recognize that polarization and extremism exist, I don’t think that is all there is. I admit that I come from an overwhelmingly liberal area, and so my perspective is certainly colored by my experiences growing up in a “blue bubble.” However, I do believe that the lens of news and social media can distort our perceptions of our own country and make it look like, on a whole, we are just two big blue-and-red-colored groups of people throwing insults and accusations at each other. Unfortunately, I think that the characterization of extreme partisanship can actually help reinforce this fact. It may be that stark divisions exist only to a small degree, but the moment we believe that it exists, then it becomes that much stronger. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t people who yell and agitate and spew hate (and I am certainly not making the infamous “both sides” argument), but it seems to me sometimes that we have convinced ourselves that politics is a mortal combat with the opposing team.
Fabio Di Fabbrizio: Americans have always been polarized; the simple majority victory is conducive to a two-poled political landscape in any place. I, like most Americans, grew up around people with opposite political affiliations, which usually led to pretty intense arguments. People usually associate your party affiliation with who you are as a person. I think the split in the US is noticed more today because of social media allowing people to discuss (argue) anytime, anywhere. Additionally, a lot of social issues that have been neglected for several decades, including racism, homophobia, transphobia, lack of support for rural regions, healthcare, student debt, etc., are all coming to a head, made worse by the pandemic. The current president definitely has not been prioritizing a sense of unity, either.
What was the voting process for you?
C: In August, I registered as an absentee voter with the board of elections of my state and requested a mail-in ballot. In early October, I received my paper ballot to fill out and the envelope stamped with the voter oath in which to return it. What non-Americans may not realize is that our ballot actually includes much more than just the election of the president. Along with the choice of congressional representatives (for both the house and senate) and state governors (depending on the year), voters have a whole slew of local candidates to elect and referendum-style questions to answer. Casting my presidential vote was the easy part — the real manifestation of the “democratic process” for me was having to look into and really examine the implications of something like the legalization of sports betting or the restructuring of property tax brackets in my state (both actual questions that were on my ballot this year). These are the issues that really impact my community and whose ramifications I will be able to see firsthand.
After filling in the bubbles and signing my name everywhere I possibly could, I dropped off my envelope at the U.S. Consulate in Milan. They gave me an “I voted” sticker, which I appreciated.
F: I followed a standard procedure for Americans living abroad; I filled out a form called the FWAB, emailed it to my town clerk, who in turn emailed me an absentee ballot that I filled out to then scan it back to them. What surprised me was how easy this was, and made me wonder why we’re still relying so heavily on the postal service for slowly processing millions of mail-in ballots.
Are you satisfied with an A vs B race?
D: Nope. I feel that by pitting two candidates against each other all the time what ends up happening is that parties villainize each other, further polarizing the country and leaving those who don’t agree with either of the candidates without a voice. During the past few months, my Instagram feed has been flooded with messages of “a third-party vote is a vote for Trump” or “voting third-party is throwing away your vote,” which is just a constant reminder that every four years it always seems to end up being an election where one has to compromise and vote for the “lesser of two evils” rather than the candidate each individual most agrees with.
C: The honest answer is no. Especially as a young voter, it is frustrating to see complex and nuanced issues such as abortion rights or immigration policy painted with such a broad black-and-white brush. Our system doesn’t feel truly representative – I think it is rare that any one individual feels entirely in accordance with the policies of a single party. The result is not only the formation of a polarized electorate, but the stark BLUE or RED partition also foments division and disenfranchisement within the parties themselves.
That said, the implication of this question, particularly when it comes from Italians, is often to suggest that surely a multi-party system of government would be better. So I usually flip it around: Are you satisfied by an A vs B vs C vs potentially A+C race? I don’t think one system is inherently better than the other, but I also don’t believe that creating more parties to reflect the varied interests of the electorate really is a fix-all solution. In the end, I don’t think the problem is so much whether I am happy with A vs B, but rather if A and B really do represent the individuals who vote for them or follow the interests of the PACs, corporations, and lobbyists who fund them.
F: Nope. I think this “first past the post” method of selecting politicians has slowed down the US’s progress for too long. I’d much rather see how we fare with a more parliamentary system based on preference voting rather than choosing the candidate whose party is slightly more appealing. This A vs B race stokes the “us vs them” mentality that we see right now among Americans; I’m wondering how that would change if we gave another system a shot.
How does it feel to be witnessing the election at a distance?
D: It has been really stressful. I stayed up the night of November 3rd watching live updates with some of my friends and family. I also joined the Facebook Live Bocconi TV and Radio Bocconi organized. It was at least interesting to see what people outside of the US think of the election and the presumptions people have of each candidate. Now I am just impatiently waiting for the final ballots to be counted and the last electoral votes to be tossed around.
C: It’s definitely strange. I get asked a lot of questions from other students — mostly about my predictions for the final outcome, as if I really know more than anyone else.
In general, I think living abroad has numbed me to the ups and downs of U.S. politics — it’s partly because I don’t keep up with the news as much as I used to (or as much as I should), but also because it is no longer the reality in which I live. I don’t think I experienced the election cycle as palpably as my parents or my friends back at home – it wasn’t part of the background chatter in the supermarket or on the street, and it wasn’t the first news story I heard on the television every evening. Living in Italy, far from the center of the action, I can sometimes feel detached or distant from the political reality of the U.S., and it can trick me into pretending that all of the chaos and repercussions of partisan politics doesn’t actually have an effect on my daily life here.
F: It feels frustrating, to say the least. I’d much rather be there with my friends and family, voting in person to make sure my ballot is accepted. I’d like to help agitate for a fair election alongside my peers; being abroad makes it seem far away. However, it is definitely interesting to see how non-Americans are reacting to this election. Many people I met here usually ask about or mention this election (and usually then give their opinion). It reminded me how impactful this election can be for people outside the US.
We hoped this helped clarify some confusion on your end about our election. We are only three Americans out of the many at this school. If you have the time, we recommend you to reach out to support your American classmates and ask them how they are doing. It’d be a nice break from looking at a red and blue map all day.