Bush could win the vote but lose the presidency

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The Independent US

A 112-year-old constitutional spectre haunts this American presidential year - that for the first time since Benjamin Harrison defeated the incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland, the man who wins the majority of popular votes could lose the election.

A 112-year-old constitutional spectre haunts this American presidential year - that for the first time since Benjamin Harrison defeated the incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland, the man who wins the majority of popular votes could lose the election.

The aberration would be due to a simple but often unremarked fact, that Americans do not vote directly for their presidential and vice-presidential preferences. Instead the candidates are competing to win electors in 51 separate ballots, one for each state and the District of Columbia, held on 18 December in various state capitals.

Taken together, these ballots produce a body called the electoral college, to which each state sends the same number of electors as it does Senators and Representatives to Washington. The delegations reflect population: the most populous state, California, with its two Senators and 52 US Representatives, has the most votes, 54 in all, while the least populous - among them North Dakota, Delaware and Montana - have just three, two Senators and one representative.

Thus the electoral college numbers 538, equal to 100 Senators plus 435 Congressmen, plus three votes allotted to DC. It is the electoral college which directly chooses the president, not the ordinary individual who goes to the voting booth next Tuesday. To win, George W Bush or Al Gore require a simple majority of 270 electoral votes.

This is the magic number at the heart of every pundit's permutation in what is the closest contest for four decades. With two exceptions, Nebraska and Maine, the candidate who wins a plurality of the popular vote in each state receives its total allocation of electoral votes.

At this point, the fascinating mathematics of how Mr Gore or Mr Bush will assemble the required 270 votes begin.

A few days before the election, most projections give Mr Bush around 220 electoral college votes, and Mr Gore 200 or slightly less. That leaves 120 or so up for grabs.

Unsurprisingly, these are from the states where the two have been campaigning most vigorously: Michigan with 18 electoral votes, Florida with 25, Pennsylvania with 23, Missouri, Washington state and Wisconsin with 11 apiece, as well as a few tiddlers.

Officially, the ritual ends on 6 January when Congress will formally tally the electoral college votes that have been sent in by the states. A fortnight later, on 20 January, the new President will be formally inaugurated.

But even that may not settle the argument. An increasingly common, if still improbable scenario has Mr Bush piling up huge margins of victory in some states, notably his own of Texas, but Mr Gore squeaking home in enough separate big states to give him an electoral college victory, though he loses the popular vote. At that point, demands for a change in the constitution would be overwhelming.

And there is one last possibility, that equally tantalises: a tie where both Bush and Gore each win 269 electoral votes. In that case the winner would be picked by the House of Representatives.

And if Democrats and Republicans are tied in the House, with the balance held by an independent or two ...

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