The US Electoral System; No Simple Process

By Dinouk Colombage

While the whole world prepares for the United States’ presidential election, many, both inside and outside America, are still unsure how the system works.
The 2000 presidential election debacle involving George W. Bush and Al Gore fueled this confusion with Gore winning the popular vote but still failing to win the election.
In the US, despite a candidate winning the most number of votes he or she can still fail to win the election.
This is due to the use of the electoral votes, which was designed to give all 51 states an opportunity in having an impact on the outcome of the election.
To understand how the US election system works, it is essential to understand the Electoral College system.
In order for a candidate to win the Presidential election, he or she must obtain 270 votes out of a total of 538 electoral votes.
Each state in the US is assigned a certain number of electoral votes depending on the number of Representatives and Senators in the House of Congress. While each state has two Senators, the number of their Representatives is dependent on the number of districts in the state.
Each state has one Representative for every district in the region. This means that those states with a larger population have a higher number of electoral votes as they would have a larger number of districts.
For example the state of Wyoming has a population of 568,000 and so has only a single district. This means that it has a total of 3 electoral votes (two Senators and a Representative).
The largest state in terms of electoral votes is California, which currently has 55 Electoral College votes (2 Senators and 53 district Representatives).
Each state is based on a winner takes all system. So if a candidate wins 51% of the vote in that state he will take all the electoral votes from that state.
It is this process that allows a candidate to win an election but still fail to win the popular vote.
All of the states a candidate wins could be by a small margin, while those states that he loses could be by a large amount.
If this was to happen, provided the candidate wins the required 270 electoral votes, he can win the election but not win the most number of votes.
This is happened in the 2000 election between Bush and Gore.
The electoral voting system sees candidates campaign a lot more in states with a higher number of electoral votes than those with a smaller number.
In the unlikely event that at the end of the election the candidates are tied on 269 electoral votes each, then a second vote will be taken from the electors in the state.
This means that each state has a single vote, and whoever gets the majority will win.
In this scenario each state has equal say and the candidate who has won the most number of states during the election would win this tie-breaker.
If this was to occur in this election, judging by the polling maps Republican candidate Mitt Romney would win as there are currently more states supporting the Republicans.
This complicated method adopted by the Americans has left both political commentators and its voters highly critical of the process.
Neal Carruth, Supervising Editor of the National Public Radio, described the electoral system as being flawed and not truly representing democracy.
He said that the disregard of the popular vote in the US is in contradiction to the idea of Democracy.
“You could have a situation where the President is not the popular choice, yet is able to win enough electoral votes to win the election. This was seen in 2000, and led to some very serious questions about the system,” he explained.
Carruth did admit, however, that the likelihood of the system being changed was very slim. In 2000 the final decision on the victor was sent to the Supreme Court. If that was to happen again only will serious discussion begin regarding the process.
Carruth explained that electoral votes were designed to ensure the smaller states were not ignored in the process, however, “it is unacceptable for a President to be elected even if his opponent is the popular choice”.
Criticism extends to the voters who, unlike the political analysts, cannot understand the process. Mark Duggan, a shop owner in Washington DC, explained that he supported Romney and could not understand how the possibility existed that the Republican could lose.
“When you watch the news and talk to people it is obvious that there is a larger support base for him than there is for Obama. Yet our system somehow could allow the unpopular candidate to become President,” he said.
If Obama is be re-elected but loses the popular vote he will be the first ever President to do so.
Duggan admitted that he did not fully understand the electoral process here. “The idea of electoral votes is too confusing.
It should be a simple situation of the candidate with the most number of votes wins,” he said.
With the election only two days away it is very difficult to decide which way the result will go.
With several key states still undecided (swing states), both Romney and Obama are in with a chance to win. On election night both candidates will be keeping an eye on the all important 270 electoral votes, knowing that will be all they need to secure victory.

Dinouk Colombage is currently attending the “US 2012 Election Tour” that was organized by the US State Department and the International Center for Journalists. He is based in Toledo, Ohio USA.

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