And you thought QMV was complicated…

Voting systems in the European Union often attract criticism and/or debate. Complex voting systems are not the sole prerogative of the EU however. The US system for electing its President also has its complications, as both the campaign and past election results have shown.

Nobody will count electoral chickens before they hatch in the present tightly-fought US Presidential election campaign. Nevertheless, as Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has put it, “unless the polls are systematically wrong, or they undergo a change unlike any we’ve yet seen in the race”, Barack Obama will win next Tuesday’s vote. Given that the national-level polls have tended to show more or less a dead heat, and in some cases a slight Romney advantage, it is worth reflecting on why the Democrats have reason to feel confident.

Perhaps the most crucial reason for focusing attention on Obama-favourable state-level opinion polls rather than Romney-leaning national polls is that, contrary to popular perception, the US President – unlike, for example, the Russian President – is not actually directly elected by a majority of voters. Instead, under the US Constitution’s Twelfth Amendment, the US President is elected by an electoral college whose members are chosen by the 50 US states plus the District of Columbia. The result normally coincides with what the popular majority wants, but it doesn’t have to. The electoral college system sometimes prevents this outcome. Moreover, it also radically affects the manner of campaigning in Presidential elections.

In reality, Election 2012 is less one gigantic race for the Presidency than the added-together result of 51 separate races – with the added twist that some of these 51 races count for more than others, since the various states share the 538 electors unequally. Each state (plus the District of Columbia) gets a number of electors equivalent to (a) the between-one-and-fifty-three members it sends to the House of Representatives plus (b) the number of Senators it also sends to Washington (which is  two for everyone except the District of Columbia). Even though element (b) gives a slight voting boost to low-population rural states, the big-population states are clearly the kingmakers. Obama-voting California, with 38 million residents, has a full 55 electors. Romney-voting Texas, with 26 million residents, has 38. New York and Florida have 29 each. In contrast, the seven smallest-population states– including Wyoming, with less than 600,000 residents – choose only 3 electors each.

The electoral college system (which means that US citizens, even though they nominally choose between Obama and Romney at the polls, actually elect their state’s members of that electoral college) is an eighteenth-century compromise between those who distrusted handing to the US Congress the task of electing a President and those who feared nationwide direct popular elections. (Among the worthier supposed reasons for objecting to direct elections were fears that in a multi-candidate race a purely regional candidate might win). Whatever the justification for its existence, the electoral college system means that the winner on Tuesday, Obama or Romney will be the candidate who gets a majority – 270 – of these electoral college votes.

The non-direct system certainly has its peculiarities. The biggest is that it can throw up a winner who has not won the popular vote. Indeed, for a variety of reasons, no less than four of America’s 44 Presidents have been elected despite having lost the popular vote to an opponent. In 2000, famously, the victorious George W. Bush received over half a million fewer popular votes than Al Gore, demonstrating the superior value of a tiny winning margin (a mere 537 popular votes) in a swing state with numerous electoral college votes – Florida – above many more popular votes for Gore in states in which they merely added to his already-extant popular majority). An earlier election with an Irish angle saw the more popular candidate lose for another reason. In 1824 Andrew Jackson, whose parents were from Co. Antrim, outpolled John Quincy Adams by 38,000 popular votes, but still lost – because the large number of candidates meant none got a majority. The House of Representatives (which decided – and still decides – the election in this event) then voted for Adams.

Rutherford Hayes won in 1876, despite getting over a quarter of a million votes less than Samuel Tilden. The reason why was that Hayes got the crucial ‘small state bounce’ (described above) by virtue of winning nearly unanimous support from the small states. Twelve years later, the popular majority lost yet again. Benjamin Harrison triumphed in 1888 with almost a hundred thousand popular votes less than Grover Cleveland – this time, because Cleveland’s votes were simply too concentrated in one region (six southern US states) and thus counted for less in electoral college votes.

The fact that popular losers can be electoral college winners is one anomaly produced by America’s electoral system. Another anomaly stems from the fact that nearly all of the states allocate their electors on a winner-takes-all basis. The result: there is little to gain by campaigning in any state which clearly favours one or other candidate to win. Boosting Voter turnout matters little to candidates since it cannot boost the number of electoral votes the state gets. Campaigning there is thus wasted energy for winner and loser alike. This is why gigantic (but safely Democratic) California and New York as well as (safely Republican) Texas have received remarkably little attention from either Obama or Romney. The same goes for a full twelve of the 13 smaller states (six of which safely lean one way, six the other). Instead, the candidates have focused their efforts on states where the result is uncertain. These are the ‘swing’ states on which this election will turn. Obama and Romney alike have concentrated their efforts on eight such states: Ohio (likely to be key), Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire and Florida. In most, Obama holds at least a slender poll lead, which is why he must be favourite for Tuesday. Romney leads in Florida. As the 2000 election showed, Florida is a mighty prize – but the indications are that this time, unless state-level polls have been consistently wrong, it will not be enough to hand the Republicans a victory in the Presidential election. Barack Obama looks set for another four years in the White House.


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