The U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8 might appear to be a nationwide contest between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat rival Hillary Clinton to win the support of 200 million registered voters, but the winner is not decided by a simple majority vote or plurality.
The U.S. uses an unusual “electoral college” system, in which whoever wins the most votes in each of the 50 states and in Washington, D.C, is awarded that state’s electoral college votes. The exceptions are Nebraska and Maine, which use a proportional system to allocate their electoral college votes.
As a result, the U.S. presidential election should be seen as 51 separate elections to select the nation’s leader, who will be inaugurated as president on Jan. 20, 2017. The magic number is 270, a majority of the total 538 electoral college votes that are up for grabs.
The number of electoral college votes per state is based on each state’s number of congressional representatives, which is in turn based on each state’s population in the 2010 U.S. census.
California, the most populous state, has 55 electoral college votes. Other heavyweights include Texas with 38, New York and Florida with 29 each and Illinois and Pennsylvania with 20. States with small populations such as Alaska and Wyoming have three electoral college votes.
A COMPROMISE SYSTEM
America’s quirky electoral college system is meant as “a compromise between election of the president by a vote in Congress and election of the president by a popular vote of qualified citizens,” according to the U.S. National Archives.
“In a global perspective, the most common format is a two-round system. This involves the public choosing between a greater range of candidates to begin with. The finalists (usually two) then go head-to-head for the presidency in a final vote,” said Toby Green, an elections expert at the University of East Anglia.
The system helps ensure the dominance of the two main parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. In 1992, although independent candidate Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote nationwide, he did not win any electoral college votes.
The overall national vote does not usually equal the electoral college vote outcome. For example, Barack Obama win 51% of the nationwide vote in 2012, but 61% of the electoral college vote. In 2008, Obama won 53% of the popular vote but 68% of the electoral college vote. In four elections since 1800, the winning president has lost the popular vote — the last time in 2000 when George W. Bush won a cliffhanger election by getting Florida’s electoral college votes.
With Clinton almost certain to win in Democrat strongholds such as California and New York and Trump strong in the America’s Midwest and southern regions, the outcome in many states is a foregone conclusion.
But several states that normally hold the key to the outcome of the election are known as swing or battleground states because their populations are often almost evenly divided between Democrat and Republican voters. The battleground states also tend to have the most ethnically diverse populations, with 31% of eligible voters this year being black, Hispanic, Asian or some other minority, according to the Pew Research Center. These battleground states include Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina, and Nevada. Ohio is described as a bellwether state as whoever has won there has become president in every election since 1964.
The opening and closing times of polling stations vary from state to state. Voting in most states starts at 7 a.m. and closes 12 or 13 hours later. Some states also allow early voting by mail, with an estimated 45 million-plus voters having already cast their ballots by election eve.
Voting methods vary state by state. In Colorado, Oregon and Washington, voting is done by mail. Elsewhere voting is done at polling stations using ballot scanning or electronic systems such as touch screens, while 18 states still use traditional paper ballots. Improperly punched paper ballots, known as “hanging chads,” proved controversial in Florida in the 2000 presidential election, when a court ruling eventually handed that state’s electoral college votes and the presidency to George W. Bush.
Turnout is likely to be decisive in the election, particularly in swing states. Despite the high stakes, U.S. elections are characterized by low turnout — from 48% in 1996 when Bill Clinton was re-elected to around 57% in recent elections. The U.S. ranks 31 out of 35 among Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries in terms of voter turnout weighed against eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
AFTER THE ELECTION
Voting and counting takes place across four time zones in continental U.S., so the announcement of results will be staggered. Election projections for each state are likely to be released almost immediately after the polls close, and the actual results are usually announced a few hours later.
The winner could be known by around 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time in the U.S. or mid-morning Tokyo time on Nov. 9.
But if the result is too close to call, which can depend on the outcome in particular states, a winner might not be known for 24 hours or even longer, as happened in 2000. Trump has threatened not to accept the results and mount a legal challenge, saying the election outcome might be “rigged” if disputes emerge about vote-counting similar to events in 2000.
“As with all presidential contests they are ‘winner takes all’. There is one winner, and no runner up prize. This can be a problem for electoral democracy when the contests are so heated and support is so divided as this year’s contest has been,” said Green.
DECIDING THE WINNER
The electoral college is due to meet on Nov. 19 to formally determine the winning candidate. But if no candidate gets the required 270 electoral votes, the House of Representatives would vote on a state-by-state basis for one of the two candidates. Since Republicans control the lower chamber, that would likely mean a victory for Trump.
Once a winner is announced, the new president will begin preparing to take office by announcing cabinet appointments in December.
Just as important as the presidential election are the congressional elections, which also take place on Nov. 8, since they could determine how effective the next president will be in implementing his or her agenda. With 34 U.S. Senate seats being contested this year, the election could provide an opportunity for the Democrats to recapture the upper chamber. There are currently 54 Republican Senators and 44 Democrat ones, along with two independents who normally vote with the Democrats. The Senate elections involve 24 Republican-held seats and 10 Democrat-held ones.
The vice president can cast the deciding vote in case of a tie vote in the Senate in his role as president of the Senate. As a result of this rule, if Clinton wins the presidency, the Democrats will need to win four more seats than the Republicans in the Senate elections to gain control. If Trump wins, the Democrats would need to win five more seats.
All 435 districts in the House of Representatives will be contested, although it is expected that the Republicans will retain their majority, which now amounts to 246 seats against 186 held by Democrats, with three seats vacant.
The U.S. Senate elections are considered as particularly crucial this year because the outcome could determine whether conservative or liberal judges will dominate the U.S. Supreme Court, since the Senate must vote on nominees. There is now one absent seat among the nine Supreme Court judges following the death of Antonin Scalia in early 2016, and several other judges could also depart in the next four years because of age or health issues. If Clinton wins the presidency, the Republicans could block her nominee to replace Scalia, as they have done so far with Barack Obama’s nominee. Similarly, if Trump wins the presidency, but the Democrats win back control of the senate, Democrats could block Trump’s nominee to the court.
SHAPE OF A NEW CONGRESS
Republicans currently control both houses of Congress, but the Democrats are seen to have a good chance of winning control of the senate. There, Republicans hold 54 seats, Democrats 44, with 2 held by independents. On election day, 24 Republican-held seats and 10 Democrat-held are being contested.
The vice president is allocated one senate seat, so If Clinton wins the presidency, giving running mate Tim Kaine the vice presidency, the Democrats will need to win four more seats than the Republicans in the senate elections to gain control. If Trump wins, in turn handing running mate Mike Pence the vice-presidency, Democrats will hope to win five more seats than the Republicans out of the 34 up for grabs. In recent years, Democrats have fared well in senate elections held alongside Barack Obama’s two presidential election wins — only to lose seats in mid-term elections held two years later.
Turnout is likely also to be key to deciding the congressional elections. “The presidential election has an enormous effect on turnout. We basically have two different electorates turning out; one during the presidential races, and a different one during the off-year congressional races. That’s why we often see wild swings. Voters’ views haven’t changed, but different people are voting,” said Heather Gerkin, law professor at Yale University.
Some high profile candidates on both sides are contesting congressional seats. After failing to win the Republican nomination, Marco Rubio is fighting to hold his Florida senate seat, while Kelly Ayotte, a prominent Republican who has criticized Trump, hopes to retain her seat in New Hampshire. Bangkok-born Democratic candidate Tammy Duckworth is contesting a senate seat in Illinois.
Republicans hold 246 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, with the Democrats holding 186. Three seats are vacant. A substantial swing in favor of the Democrats would need to materialize for the Republicans to cede dominance. House elections are held every two years for all 435 seats.Show