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24 July


How the US elects its president?

Millions of Americans will cast their ballots on Nov 3

Photo: BBC

/NOVOSTIVL/ In the United States, a candidate becomes president not by winning a majority of the national popular vote but through a system called the Electoral College, which allots electoral votes to the 50 states and the District of Columbia largely based on their population.

There are a total of 538 electoral votes, or “electors”, meaning a candidate needs to secure 270 to win. The Electoral College almost always works on a winner-takes-all basis, in which the candidate with the most votes in a state wins all of that state’s electoral votes.

The system was a compromise between the nation’s founders, who debated whether the president should be picked by Congress or through a popular vote. In more than half of the world’s democracies, the head of state is elected directly by voters, according to the Pew Research Centre.

The Electoral College

Each state has as many electors as it has representatives and senators in Congress. There are two senators for each state, but the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives varies based on population. California, the most populous state, has 55 electors, while Wyoming, the least populous, has only three electoral votes.

The four million people who live in US territories, such as Puerto Rico, cannot vote in the presidential election. That is roughly equivalent to the number of people in the five least populous states combined. image

Political parties select party loyalists to cast each state’s electoral votes. The criteria for selection vary by state. There are 538 electors – one for each vote in the Electoral College.

Most voters, except those in places where there is early voting, cast their ballots on this day. Although a ballot usually has only the names of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, voters are actually voting for a group, or “slate”, of electors.

All but two states use a winner-takes-all approach: The candidate that wins the most votes in that state gets all of its electoral votes.

This means campaigns tend to focus on battleground states, rather than Democratic or Republican strongholds. Battleground states include Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The electors meet in December to officially cast their votes. The candidate who wins 270 electoral votes or more becomes president.

Uneven representation

The total number of electoral votes has stayed the same for decades despite changes in the population, which has led to a disparity in representation. One electoral vote in Wyoming, the least populous state, represents 193,000 people. One vote in Texas, the most under-represented state, represents 763,000.

With most states following a winner-takes-all approach, it is possible to win the Electoral College but lose the national popular vote.

Since 1876, four candidates have emerged victorious in the election without having the popular vote. This happened in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush won the presidency despite losing the popular vote, and in 2016, when Mr Donald Trump pulled off a similar victory.

What could go wrong in 2020

The number of people voting by mail has surged in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Mail-in votes are processed differently across the states, and some may not finish counting all the ballots on election day. If the race is close, there may not be a clear winner on election night.

One flaw of the Electoral College system is that it could result in a 269-269 tie. If that occurs, a newly elected House of Representatives will decide the fate of the presidency on Jan 6, with each state voting as a unit, as required by the 12th Amendment of the US Constitution.

The requirement that each state votes as a unit currently favours Mr Trump’s Republican Party. Out of 50 states, there are 26 with more Republican members in the House than Democratic members. While Democrats have more members in the House, they control only 23 state delegations.

The composition of the House will change on Nov 3, when all 435 House seats are up for grabs.