How the U.S. electoral college works

2012-11-06 00:00

TECHNICALLY speaking, the United States president will not be elected tomorrow, but only in early January, when the 538 members of the electoral college meet in order to elect him.

This curious method by which the Americans appoint their head of state dates back to the earliest days of the American republic, when the authors of country’s constitution decided that a pure democracy, where the majority wins, might not be such a good idea.

The electoral college comprises representatives of all 50 of the federal states, plus three from the District of Columbia, in proportion to the number of delegates they have in the House of Representatives (Congress).

For example, California has 55 votes in the electoral college, Texas 38, Florida 29 and New York 29.

States with fewer people (but massive in terms of surface area) have fewer votes, such as Montana and Wyoming, with three each.

Some states’ votes in the electoral college are cast in proportion to the general support, while other states — such as California — cast all their votes in favour of the candidate with the most support.

So it could happen that a candidate may win the popular vote — as Al Gore did in 2000 — but lose on the voting in the electoral college.

Compared with previous years, this year’s election is much closer and there are far fewer states in the balance since some of them, like California and Texas, are firmly in the stable of either the Democrats or the Republicans.

So for President Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney it will come down to the electoral college votes in smaller states like Iowa (six) and medium-sized ones like Virginia and Ohio (18).

The electoral college meets in Washington DC, where they will officially cast their votes for the candidates on behalf of their states, after which the results will be sent to Congress for ratification. However, by the time that happens, the die will most probably long have been cast.

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