Beto, ballots and bombs: The US midterms explained
Share this on

Beto, ballots and bombs: The US midterms explained

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.

SEE ALSO: ‘Not a baby’: Key takeaways from Trump’s 60 Minutes interview

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.


Democratic candidate for the US Senate Beto O’Rourke addresses his last public event in Austin before election night at the Pan American Neighborhood Park on November 4, 2018 in Austin, Texas. Source: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP

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.

SEE ALSO: Explosive Trump book could spell disaster for US foreign policy

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.

Voter mobilisation

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.”

View this post on Instagram

I’m writing this post about the upcoming midterm elections on November 6th, in which I’ll be voting in the state of Tennessee. In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now. I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country. I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG. I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent. I cannot vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love. Running for Senate in the state of Tennessee is a woman named Marsha Blackburn. As much as I have in the past and would like to continue voting for women in office, I cannot support Marsha Blackburn. Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me. She voted against equal pay for women. She voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which attempts to protect women from domestic violence, stalking, and date rape. She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples. She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not MY Tennessee values. I will be voting for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives. Please, please educate yourself on the candidates running in your state and vote based on who most closely represents your values. For a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway. So many intelligent, thoughtful, self-possessed people have turned 18 in the past two years and now have the right and privilege to make their vote count. But first you need to register, which is quick and easy to do. October 9th is the LAST DAY to register to vote in the state of TN. Go to and you can find all the info. Happy Voting! 🗳😃🌈

A post shared by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on

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.

An ambitious, rallying underdog campaign from Senate hopeful, Beto O-Rourke, has seen early voting in Texas exceed 4.5 million, eclipsing the entire total number of votes cast last time around.

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.

The controversies

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.

Trump blames the bomb incident, along with a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, for ruining Republicans’ momentum in the lead up to the elections.


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.