How the U.S.A. elects its President

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Every four years, the world looks with bafflement at the United States as the country goes through its curious process of electing its President. Truth be told, the system is far from obvious, and remains misunderstood and controversial even within the U.S.A. A brief primer on how it all works.

Americans go voting

Foto: AFP

With early voting opening in some states such as Florida, ‘voting season’ has begun. Officially, Election Day is mandated by the Constitution for the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Though few probably know it, Americans do not vote directly for their President. Instead, he is elected by the Electors of each state, who pledge to vote for the candidate chosen by the majority in that state.

The most common false assumption about the President of the United States is that he is directly elected through a popular vote of the people. It’s easy to fall into this trap, given the appealing simplicity of such a democratic method.

In reality, the President is elected through a one-of-a-kind, indirect process, which places the emphasis on the inpidual state elections. The electoral system written in the Constitution of the United States was designed to preserve the autonomy and political power of the states, and this federal character of the country is preserved in the Electoral College system.

How does the Electoral College function?

American voters do not cast their ballot for President at the federal level. Rather, the votes are counted at the local level and then submitted to the electoral commissions of the states. Each state has a certain number of electors, equal to the number of U.S. representatives from that state, plus the two senators. The District of Columbia also has a number of electors equal to that of the smallest state, currently three, thanks to the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1961 (before that, residents of the District could not vote for President). The state with the largest number of electors is California, which has 55. In total, there are currently 538 electors. A candidate needs to win 270 electoral votes to become President.

Depending on which candidate receives a majority of the popular vote in a given state, the electors of that state will all cast their votes for that candidate, a winner-takes-all system. This is the case in 48 states and the District of Columbia; in two states, Maine and Nebraska, a different system is used in which it is possible for electoral votes to be split between the candidates.

In Maine, for example, two of its four electoral votes are determined by the statewide, popular vote, but the other two votes are determined by the outcome of the election in the two Congressional districts. It is possible, then, for Maine and Nebraska to cast their electoral votes for both candidates.

A three-step process

Election Day, written in the U.S. Constitution, is the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. On this day, Americans who are not voting by absentee ballot go to the polls to cast their ballot. Technically, the American voter is not electing the President, though the Presidential candidates’ names appear on the ballot. Rather, the voter is electing the members of the Electoral College, who will later elect the President.

After the outcome of the election is known at the state level, the secretaries of the respective states prepare ‘Certificates of Ascertainment’ naming the electors chosen, and send one original and two copies to the Archivist of the United States.

On December 15, the electors of each state meet to select the President and Vice President of the United States. They record their vote on six ‘Certificates of Vote’, which are sent, along with the ‘Certificates of Ascertainment’, to the President of the Senate, Archivist of the United States, and other federal bodies. These offices must have received the documents by December 24.

The final step in electing the U.S. President will take place on January 6, 2009. On this day, Congress will meet in a joint-session (both houses) to count the electoral votes. With the official numbers certified by the Congress, the path is cleared for Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009, when the new President takes his Oath of Office.

Challenges to the system

Critics of the Electoral College system have existed since it was codified in the Constitution. In fact, the question of how to select the executive of the United States has been an ongoing debate for the past 230 years, give or take. According to the National Archives and Records Administration, more than 700 proposals for reforming or abolishing the Electoral College have been introduced in Congress in that time.

In 1987, the American Bar Association reported that 69 percent of lawyers wanted to do away with the system. Popular support for this ‘archaic’ system has not fared better: between 58 and 81 percent of Americans were against the Electoral College system between 1967 and 1981.

Still, the system endures because, first of all, it would be difficult to change it, and second, because it is difficult to establish consensus around an alternative method. Changing the Electoral College system would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, as well as support from three-fourths of the states. This is not easy to achieve.

But the Electoral College system also persists because despite its shortcomings, there are several reasons to recommend it. Supporters of the system point out that the framers of the Constitution considered several other possibilities, but settled on this one for its advantages: It helps ensure political stability by making it difficult for third party candidates to become president; it gives rural areas and small states more power, better distributing political clout across the country; and it encourages a federal system of representation.

Of course, the critics will surely continue to work on alternative systems to challenge the status quo. As long as outcomes like the contested 2000 election, in which Al Gore won the popular vote of the United States as a whole by a hair over George W. Bush, but lost the election when the Supreme Court awarded Florida’s Electoral College votes to Bush, continue, there will surely be other systems proposed.

But for the 2008 election at least, McCain and Obama will win or lose the election based on the outcome of the Electoral College system.

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9 thoughts on “How the U.S.A. elects its President

  1. Larry Seltzer

    The date of election day is not mandated in the Constitution. It is set by law, both Federal and state. In fact, nothing says that the people must elect the electors. The manner of their election is up to the states to establish by law. A state legislature could simply assign the electors by passing a law. The last time this happened was in 1876 in Colorado, which had just been admitted to the union and did not have the time to organize an election, but before the 1830’s or so it was common.

    Also, another advantage of the electoral college is that it forces the candidate to form broad regional coalitions. You can’t win, for example, by getting 80% of the votes on the east and west coasts and losing everything else, even if that were a popular majority.

  2. bert zielonka

    What a “democratic” system this is for the “most” democratic country in the world. “Selection” not “election” is the word.
    Appropro: Voting:
    I have seen long line-ups already. Why can’t the U.S.A. look at the system we employ in Canada?
    I have voted numerous times; at the municipal, provincial (State) and federal level. I go to the site, go in, cast my vote on a paper ballot and I am out within 3-5 minutes; no line-ups, no waiting, no fuss, no cheating!!
    That’s it!

  3. bell

    It still amazes me that so many people use the term “democracy” and have absolutely no idea what the word means.

    The election is a fraud. Israel and the corporations decide who will further enslave us, not the slaves themselves.

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