How the US will elect its President

Political editor Graham Dines looks at the mechanics of tomorrow's United States presidential election between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama.

Graham Dines

Political editor Graham Dines looks at the mechanics of tomorrow's United States presidential election between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama.

THE next president of the United States should be known in the early hours of Wednesday. But the winner will not be officially elected until mid-December, and he will not take office until after an inauguration ceremony on January 20 next year.

The Electoral College process that is used to elect the president stretches back to the very beginnings of the US, when the country won independence from Britain, but it has been widely criticised for enabling a candidate who loses the popular vote to win overall, as happened in 2000.


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Under the American system, rather than directly voting for the President and Vice President, citizens vote for electors. These electors are technically free to vote for anyone eligible to be President, but in practice pledge to vote for specific candidates.

In most states voters to choose between statewide slates of electors pledged to vote for the presidential and vice presidential tickets of the various parties. The ticket that receives the most votes statewide 'wins' all of the votes to be cast by electors from that state.

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The number of electors for each state is linked to its number of members of congress - senators and representatives - and reflects its population.

Each state has two senators, no matter what its size, to ensure the interests of agriculture and rural affairs are not swamped by the cities. All states are guaranteed at least one member in the House, which fluctuates according to population growth and movement.

Take California, the most populous state in the union. It has two senators and 53 representatives, giving it 55 votes in the Electoral College. The least populated states, Montana, Vermont and Alaska, for example, have just three votes - equivalent to one representative and two senators.

A presidential candidate needs 270 Electoral College votes - a majority of the 538 available - to win. With just two minor exceptions, states adopt the “winner takes all” rule. The two which don't are Maine and Nebraska, which use a tiered system where a single elector is chosen within each congressional district and two electors are chosen by state-wide popular vote.

The Electoral College system was originally established to ensure individual states could maintain control over who was allowed to vote.

The formal process to elect the president will not take place tomorrow. After Americans cast their votes for their choice of president and vice president by voting for correspondingly-pledged electors, they then have to wait for the Electoral College to meet and formally elect the president on December 15.

But the College can distort the vote. In 1876, 1888 and 2000, the winning candidate failed to get the most votes in the nationwide popular vote but still won the presidency by winning a majority in the Electoral College.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore had 48.4% of the popular vote compared with George Bush's 47.9% but as the Republican had won more of the Electoral College votes ­-­ 271 to 266 - he took the election.

If Gore had been able to carry his home state of Tennessee, he would have been president with no need to worry about the close result in Florida.

As a consequence of the close vote in Florida eight years' ago, a movement has started campaigning to get rid of the Electoral College and to award the presidency to the winner of the nationwide popular vote.

States are being asked to change their laws to award their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationally - which brings up another US oddity. There is no federal control over the election - each state is responsible for how the election is conducted within its own borders, even controlling the opening and closing hours of polling stations.

John Koza, a Stanford University professor who is advocating change, said the plan would help bring a national focus to presidential campaigns. He said the current system encouraged parties to focus on a few contested battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, and has exaggerated the significance of issues important to those states.

There have been other attempts to change the Electoral College system, but all of them foundered. They were aimed at amending the Constitution, an often drawn-out process that requires approval by Congress and ratification by at least 38 states, as opposed to introducing a Bill state-by-state.

But Robert Hardaway, a University of Denver law professor and an expert on the Electoral College system, said it was a terrible idea. In a close presidential election, recounts would be demanded “in every precinct, every hamlet in the United States”.

He added: “The practical problems are absolutely enormous.”

The proposal would also reduce the influence of small states and lead candidates to spend more time campaigning in voter-rich California, New York and Texas.

Another peculiarity of the US system is that eastern seaboard states such as New York and Maine finish voting five hours before California and even further ahead of Hawaii. Thus, the voters of the Pacific coastal areas know the results back east before they turn out to vote.

Once America has voted, the president-elect doesn't wait for Electoral College confirmation. He will prepare his administration and appoint officials and ambassadors as he gets ready to take control of the Oval Office after being sworn in, traditionally by the Chief Justice, at the inauguration ceremony on January 20.

His address that day is a key event in US politics, where the president sets out a vision and tone for the first four years of his administration.

Incidentally, people who live in Washington DC are disenfranchised in congressional elections - no senator or member of the House of Representatives looks after the interests of the capital territory on the assumption that the national government will - but they do have a vote in the presidential election.

Here is a list of the states and their Electoral College votes:

Alabama 9, Alaska 3, Arizona 10, Arkansas 6, California 55, Colorado 9, Connecticut 7, Delaware 3,

District of Columbia 3, Florida 27, Georgia 15, Hawaii 4, Idaho 4, Illinois 21, Indiana 11, Iowa 7,

Kansas 6, Kentucky 8, Louisiana 9, Maine 4, Maryland 10, Massachusetts 12, Michigan 17, Minnesota 10, Mississippi 6, Missouri 11, Montana 3, Nebraska 5, Nevada 5, New Hampshire 4, New Jersey 15, New Mexico 5, New York 31, North Carolina 15, North Dakota 3, Ohio 20, Oklahoma 7, Oregon 7,

Pennsylvania 21, Rhode Island 4, South Carolina 8, South Dakota 3, Tennessee 11, Texas 34, Utah 5, Vermont 3, Virginia 13, Washington 11, West Virginia 5, Wisconsin 10, Wyoming 3

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