Analysis: The complex system that elects a US President
In most democratic countries, the people vote and either through first past the post or a form of proportional representation, a government or leader is elected.
The United States has an Electoral College, established by the founding fathers as a compromise between election of the President by Congress and election by popular vote.
Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to the number of its US Senators (always 2) plus the number of its US Representatives.
A state’s Congressional delegation is determined by the state’s population.
So California, the most populous state, has 55 electors; Wyoming, the least populous, has the minimum of three (two Senators and one US Representative).
The number of people in each state is determined by the Federal census, which is taken every ten years and includes a count of every state’s population.
The 2000 Federal census determined the number of electors allocated per state in the 2008 Presidential Election.
The people of the United States vote for the electors who then vote for the President.
The electors are chosen by the states and the District of Columbia on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November (November 4, 2008).
The process for selecting electors varies throughout the United States.
Generally, the political parties nominate electors at their state party conventions or by a vote of the party’s central committee in each state.
Electors are often selected to recognise their service and dedication to their political party.
They may be state-elected officials, party leaders, or persons who have a personal or political affiliation with the Presidential candidate.
The electors’ names may or may not appear on the ballot below the name of the candidates running for President, depending on the procedure in each state.
The Office of the Federal Register coordinates the functions of the Electoral College and operates as an intermediary between the governors and secretaries of state of the various states and the Congress.
It also acts as a trusted agent of the Congress in the sense that it is responsible for reviewing the legal sufficiency of the certificates before the House and Senate accept them as evidence of official state action.
The Electoral College consists of 538 electors (one for each of 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 Senators; and 3 for the District of Columbia by virtue of the 23rd Amendment).
The decennial census is used to reapportion the number of electors allocated among the states.
If a state gains or loses a Congressional district, it will also gain or lose an electoral vote.
As a result of the Census conducted in 2000, the number of electoral votes allotted to certain states changed for the 2004 election.
In all states except for Maine and Nebraska, the Presidential candidate who wins a state takes all the electoral college votes for that state.
This accumulation of states can lead to electoral wipeouts such as Ronald Reagan’s election in 1984, when he won every state bar Minnesota and DC, or Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win in 1964, when he took all but six states and won 486 electoral college votes.
1984 Presidential election – image: Wikipedia
1964 Presidential election – image: Wikipedia
It can also mean that one state can swing the election either way, as happened in 2000 when the disputed Florida result ultimately decided who would sit in the White House.
Another aspect of the system is that a candidate, such as Al Gore in 2000, can win the popular vote (50,999,897 or 48.4%) but lose the election.
Although George W Bush won 50,456,002 or 47.9% of the vote, when he took Florida’s 25 electoral college votes his total of 271 beat Gore’s 266.
2000 Presidential election – image: Wikipedia
Other elections in which the losing candidate actually won the popular vote occured in 1824, 1876 and 1888
On Election Day this year, November 4th, voters in each state choose electors to serve in the Electoral College.
The states prepare a list of the slate of electors for the candidate who receives the most popular votes on a Certificate of Ascertainment.
The Governor of each state prepares seven original Certificates of Ascertainment.
As soon as election results are final, the states prepare seven or nine original “Certificates of Ascertainment” of the electors chosen, and send one original along with two certified copies to the Archivist of the United States.
A majority of 270 electoral votes is required to elect the President and Vice President.
No Constitutional provision or federal law requires electors to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state.
Some states, however, require electors to cast their votes according to the popular vote. These pledges fall into two categories – electors bound by state law and those bound by pledges to political parties.
Today, it is rare for electors to disregard the popular vote by casting their electoral vote for someone other than their party’s candidate.
Electors generally hold a leadership position in their party or were chosen to recognise years of loyal service to the party. Throughout US history, more than 99% of electors have voted as pledged.
On December 15th 2008 the electors in each state will meet to select the President and Vice President of the United States.
The electors record their votes on six “Certificates of Vote,” which are paired with the six remaining original “Certificates of Ascertainment.”
The electors sign, seal and certify the packages of electoral votes and immediately send them to the President of the Senate, the Archivist of the United States and other designated federal and state officials.
By December 24th 2008 the President of the Senate, the Archivist of the United States, and other designated federal and state officials must have the electoral votes in hand.
On January 6th 2009 the Congress meets in joint session to count the electoral votes (unless Congress passes a law to change the date).
The new President will be inaugurated in Washington DC on January 20th.
If no Presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution provides for the Presidential election to be decided by the House of Representatives.
The House would select the President by majority vote, choosing from the three candidates who received the greatest number of electoral votes.
The vote would be taken by state, with each state delegation having one vote.
If the House of Representatives fails to elect a President by Inauguration Day, the Vice-President Elect serves as acting President until the deadlock is resolved in the House.
If no Vice Presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the Senate would select the Vice President by majority vote, with each Senator choosing from the two candidates who received the greatest number of electoral votes.
Each Senator would cast one vote for Vice President.
This happened once, in the Presidential election of 1836.
Martin Van Buren’s running mate, Richard M Johnson, fell one vote short of a majority in the Electoral College.
Vice Presidential candidates Francis Granger and Johnson had a “run-off” in the Senate under the 12th Amendment, where Johnson was elected 33 votes to 17.
There are 48 states that have a winner-takes-all rule for the Electoral College.
In these states, whichever candidate receives a majority of the vote, or a plurality of the popular vote (less than 50 percent but more than any other candidate) takes all of the state’s electoral votes.
Only two states, Nebraska and Maine, do not follow the winner-takes-all rule.
In those states, there could be a split of electoral votes among candidates through the state’s system for proportional allocation of votes.
For example, Maine has four electoral votes and two Congressional districts. It awards one electoral vote per Congressional district and two by the state-wide, “at-large” vote.
It is possible for Candidate A to win the first district and receive one electoral vote, Candidate B to win the second district and receive one electoral vote, and Candidate C, who finished a close second in both the first and second districts, to win the two at-large electoral votes.
Although this is a possible scenario, it has not actually occurred in recent elections.
If a state’s popular vote were to come out as a tie between candidates, state law would govern as to what procedure would be followed in breaking the tie.
A tie would not be known of until late November or early December, after a recount and after the Secretary of State had certified the election results.
Federal law would allow a state to hold a run-off election.
A very close finish could also result in a run-off election or legal action to decide the winner.
Under Federal law (3 U.S.C. section 5), state law governs on this issue, and would be conclusive in determining the selection of Electors.
The law provides that if states have laws to determine controversies or contests as to the selection of Electors, those determinations must be completed six days prior to the day the Electors meet.
The Electoral College system does not provide for residents of US Territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands and American Samoa to vote for President.
The system has never been popular.
Reference sources indicate that over the past 200 years, more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College.
There have been more proposals for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject.
The American Bar Association has criticised the Electoral College as “archaic” and “ambiguous” and its polling showed 69 percent of lawyers favoured abolishing it in 1987.
But surveys of political scientists have supported continuation of the Electoral College.
Public opinion polls have shown Americans favoured abolishing it by majorities of 58 percent in 1967; 81 percent in 1968; and 75 percent in 1981.
Opinions on the viability of the Electoral College system may be affected by attitudes toward third parties.
Third parties have not fared well in the Electoral College system.
Candidates with regional appeal such as Governor Thurmond in 1948 and Governor Wallace in 1968 won blocs of electoral votes in the South, which may have affected the outcome, but did not come close to seriously challenging the major party winner.
1968 Presidential election – image: Wikipedia
More from PinkNews
The last third party or splinter party candidate to make a strong showing was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 (Progressive, also known as the Bull Moose Party).
He finished a distant second in electoral and popular votes (taking 88 of the 266 electoral votes needed to win).
Although Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote nationwide in 1992, he did not win any electoral votes since he was not particularly strong in any one or several states.
Total Electoral Vote: 538; Majority Needed to Elect: 270