US Presidential Election: Counting Electoral Votes

The US presidential election is not straightly based on national popular vote. The Constitution stipulates that the president must win the majority of the electoral votes rather than the national popular votes. It has happened four times in the past that a president won the electoral vote but lost the national popular vote. The two latest cases are: Bush versus Gore in 2000, and Harrison versus Cleveland in 1888.

What is the electoral vote? The US Constitution recognizes the differences in population and voting rules among the 50 different states, besides culture and politics. Basically, the electoral vote is determined by two factors: state population and the rule of winner takes all. That is, if a candidate wins the majority of the popular votes within a state, he/she wins all the electoral votes of that state. Only two relatively small states, Maine and Nebraska, do not follow the winner-takes-all rule but apportion the votes instead. This means that the states with big populations are pivotal for winning the presidency due to their large numbers of electoral votes.

How is the number of electoral votes determined? It is strictly based on the national population Census taken every ten years. Each Representative sent by the state to the US Congress is to represent 650,000 people. The state’s population according to the latest Census determines how many Representatives to be sent, plus two Senators. Thus, California, being most populous, sends 53 plus 2, making a total of 55 electoral votes. Texas comes next with 38. New York and Florida rank third, each with 29 electoral votes. Due to their sparse populations, the following states have the smallest electoral votes: Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware and Vermont, each carrying 3 electoral votes.

For the whole country, the electoral votes add up to a total of 538. It takes at least 270 electoral votes to win the presidency with a clear majority. So the presidential election strategy is to campaign vigorously in all the populous states to gain the big electoral votes. If losing a big state, the candidate must win the electoral votes of some smaller states to compensate.

As the situation now stands, some states are already predisposed to favor one political party. For instance, California, New York and Massachusetts are considered “blue”, the majority of whose populations used to vote for the Democratic candidate. That is, all the electoral votes for those three states tend to go to the Democratic candidate due to the winner-take-all rule. On the other hand, Texas and most other southern states are “red” tending to send their votes to the Republican candidate.

Between red and blue, the rest are considered “swing” states that may go either way. In view of their large populations, the important swing states are: Florida (29 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20), Illinois (20), Ohio (18), North Carolina (15), and Virginia (13). These are also known as “battleground” states where the final result of the next presidential election will be determined according to which way these states swing.

Please note that the above describes the presidential election that takes place in November every four years. Prior to November, each political party must nominate a presidential candidate to represent the party. Right now a big fight has been going on in the Republican nomination process called the primary election. On the other hand, the Democratic party already has a nominee, who is President Obama seeking a second term. If somebody else wants to challenge him to be the party nominee, there will be a primary election for the Democratic Party, too. The primary election is governed by separate rules and is held at different dates between the individual states. After all the states have chosen their party nominees, a national convention for each party will be held in the summer when the nominee will be formally anointed for the presidential election.

The US presidential election is a long process that takes up a whole year’s time once every four years. The reason is that the Constitution allows each state to express its popular will and go through its own process of selecting the candidates. The long process requires a lot of money and stamina from the candidates because they have to campaign in each of the 50 states, especially the populous ones to gain the most electoral votes.

(March 2012)

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One Response to US Presidential Election: Counting Electoral Votes

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