Figuring Out the U.S. Electoral Process

Observers outside the U.S., including Filipinos, always ask about the Electoral College system in the U.S. presidential elections. What is this “Electoral College” system?

As approved by the 1787 Constitutional Convention, voters in each state select a certain number of electors. After the election on November 6, 2012, these state electors will meet in an “Electoral College” on December 17, 2012 to “elect” the president and vice-president. Since the 1964 elections, there have always been 538 electors. This number is equal to the number of US Senators (100, 2 for each state), plus US Representatives (435), plus 3 from the District of Columbia. Since the number of Representatives are divided proportionally among the states, the big states have more electors. So, for example, the four most populous states have the most electors: California (55), Texas (38), Florida and New York (29 each), but tiny Alaska (population, not area) has only 3.

The idea for this system was not only to ensure that a few big states do not control the elections, but also to make sure that the one who wins the popular (or national) vote becomes the president. It is a mechanism to balance the power between the people and Congress.

(click picture to enlarge)

(click picture to enlarge)

Almost all states (except two) have a winner-takes-all rule: whoever wins the popular vote wins all the electors. In almost all states, the electors are required to be “faithful” to vote for the state winner during the Electoral College vote.

So to be elected president, a candidate has to win a combination of states for a minimum of 270 electoral votes to get the majority, because then the other candidate would get only 268 max. In this system, there is always a possibility of a tie at 269-269, but this has never happened. However, in US history, there were three elections in which the candidate who lost the popular vote won the electoral vote, the last one in 2000 when George Bush squeaked by Albert Gore, 271-266 with 1 abstention, even when he lost the popular vote by over 500,000.

Note: The president and vice-president are also elected together on a “ticket.” The presidential candidates handpick their vice-presidential running mates. So, unlike the Philippines, the president and vice-president can’t be enemies. Unless …

there is a tie at 269-all. In this unlikely scenario, a most unusual process would be set in motion, which will most likely end in a historic nightmare. The House of Representatives will vote for the President, and Romney will be elected President because the House majority is Republican. Meanwhile, the Senate would vote for the Vice-President, so Biden would be elected Vice-President because the Senate majority is Democratic. President Romney and Vice-President Biden will head America. This will be a scenario of apocalyptic proportions.

So if the race is very close, a tiny state with only a few electors could swing the election. The states where the polls show that the race is a toss-up are called “battleground” or “swing” states. It is in these states where the candidates concentrate their campaign, because if the polls show that the candidate is ahead by much, there is little chance of him losing that state (and vice versa).

The map below illustrates this strategy. The dark blue (Obama) and dark red (Romney) states are safe for either candidate, since the polls indicate a wide margin. The light blue and light red states are leaning towards a candidate (just a few points ahead of the other). But the most important states are the yellow ones, where polls indicate a toss-up. For example, New Hampshire, which has only 4 electoral votes, is a “battleground” state (yellow), so this tiny state could swing the race one way or the other if the race is very close such as it is now. This is why Obama and Romney have been campaigning almost exclusively in CO, FL, IA, NV, NH, OH, VA and WI—the yellow states.

Most of the states’ polling places close at 8-9 pm East Coast time (9-10 am Wednesday Manila time), and the counting begins shortly after polls close. In the dark blue (Obama) and dark red (Romney) states, the news networks usually project the winners almost as soon as the polls close based on exit interviews. But the battleground states are the ones to watch (all times Wednesday Manila time):

Most of Florida, Virginia 8 am
Ohio 8:30 am
Parts of Florida, New Hampshire 9 am
Colorado, Wisconsin 10 am
Iowa, Nevada 11 am

Since FL, OH, and VA are the biggest of these states, it could take several hours to determine the winner in each of them if the race is tight. The counting for these close races can go on until the wee hours of the morning. It could be a long night (or a long day in Manila).

CNN.com’s US Electoral College Project as of November 5, 2012 (click picture to enlarge)

Assuming the above mapping is close to accurate, if Obama wins Florida, it will be almost impossible for Romney to overcome his lead.

About Nollie

Associate Pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Walnut Creek, CA. Assigned as missionary to the Philippines. Lives just outside Metro Manila with wife and daughter. Three older boys live and work in CA.