College holds final key to White House

The Voting System
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The Independent US

Americans spent yesterday electing their 43rd President. But the next occupant of the White House will actually be chosen by the 538 members of the electoral college, who meet in the 50 state capitals and the District of Columbia on 19 December to cast their votes.

Americans spent yesterday electing their 43rd President. But the next occupant of the White House will actually be chosen by the 538 members of the electoral college, who meet in the 50 state capitals and the District of Columbia on 19 December to cast their votes.

This indirect method of election is as old as the Constitution, adopted by the founding fathers for two principal reasons: to make it harder for an out-and-out populist to win the White House, and to ensure that small states had a say in the electoral process.

As a result, the Presidential election is in reality not one, but 51 separate elections. In each state and the District of Columbia, the winner of the popular vote is allocated all that state's electoral votes - equal to the number of Senators and Representatives it sends to Congress - no matter how small his margin of victory. The only exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where electoral votes are awarded by congressional district.

Candidates obviously concentrate on the biggest prizes, particularly California which, with 54 electoral votes alone, accounts for a fifth of the majority of 270 required to win. But in as close a year as this, they have had to pay attention to less populous states, including West Virginia, New Mexico and Maine, with just 12 votes among them.

It is possible, though extremely unlikely, that a President is elected even though he loses the popular vote to his opponent. This has not happened since 1888, when Benjamin Harrison was elected, though incumbent President Grover Cleveland won a majority of the popular vote. Conceivably, if the result is still too close to call this morning, the anomaly could re-occur.

One scenario has George W Bush winning a popular majority by piling up big wins in Republican states, but Vice-president Al Gore carrying the electoral college by scraping through in vital vote-rich swing states. In which case, calls for a reform of the system may become deafening.

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