What makes the quadrennial U.S. presidential election unique? Why popular votes alone do not determine who the next President is, unlike in the parliamentary systems? Here, I briefly explain.
The United States will go to polls on November 3 to find the next POTUS (President of the United States) and the Vice-President (V-P). Perhaps, there is no other political event as keenly overlooked and observed as the US presidential election which happens once in every four years, since 1789, to decide who is going to occupy the most powerful constitutional office in the world today.
For the past one year, all media eyes are on the deeply contested polls in which the incumbent President, belonging to the Republican Party, Donald Trump will take on Joe Biden of the Democratic Party, a former vice-president.
Interestingly, both the quadrennial presidential elections and biennial general elections happen on the first Tuesday after first day of November on even-numbered years, a custom deep-rooted in America’s agricultural calendar. Coincidentally, the presidential election falls in leap years, a tradition going all the way back to1792 when George Washington was elected for the second time.
About 330 million people live in the United States. Out of which, roughly 250 million citizens are eligible to vote, amounting to 78 % of the population. But, only a little over half of the eligible voters have taken part in recent elections. If that comes true again, only about 137 million people would cast their votes this time. But, due to the pandemic, an expanded early voting could send that number higher.
Citizens elect their‘electors’, who in turn elect POTUS and V-P
The direct votes casted by eligible citizens do not actually determine who the President and V-P are, but a college of ‘electors’ known as the Electoral College does that on behalf of the people. Unlike in many parliamentary democracies, it is not the national ‘popular vote’ that decides who the next occupant of the White House is.
Rather, it is decided by this Electoral College, and the only task of this body is to choose the next President and Vice-President. It gets dissolved soon after accomplishing that task, and it won’t reappear until the next presidential election.
Once the popular votes are in and counted, it is for the ‘electors’ of the states to vote for the President. The candidate who receives an absolute majority of electoral votes, which is at least 270 out of 538, is declared the winner.
So, it is not the popular vote that directly determines who the POTUS and the V-P are, but the votes casted by these electors.
Consider the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton received the most number of popular votes. But, she couldn’t make it to the White House, as it was Donald Trump who topped in electoral votes from the states. The 2016 presidential election was the fifth one in US history wherein the winning candidate lost the popular vote. Thus, the people have an indirect role in the process of electing the POTUS and the V-P, once the polls are over.
There is a ‘winner-takes-all’ system in place. If a candidate passes the majority electoral vote mark in a state, he or she can take all the other votes too in that particular state. For instance, if Joe Biden crosses majority mark of 20 in Texas, a state with 38 electors, he can take the state’s entire electoral vote.
Composition of the Electoral College
Every U.S state has their respective number of electors to send to the Electoral College. A state’s total number of electors will be same as the number of representatives in the House and the Senate, which in turn is dependent on the respective populations of each state.
Thus, the Electoral College consists of 435 Representatives (of the House) and 100 Senators (of the Senate), and the three additional electors from the District of Columbia. Electoral candidates will be finalized by the state units of the Republican and Democratic parties.
Coming to the distribution of electors among the states, California has the most (55), followed by Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29), Illinois (20), and Pennsylvania (20).
‘Battleground states’ as key to victory
As mentioned before, the electors from the states play a decisive role in deciding who wins the presidency. Now, looking at the predictability of outcomes in the 51 states of the Union, including District of Columbia, many are perceived as historically aligned to either of the two major political parties – Democratic or Republican. But there are a few swing states, often referred to as ‘battleground states’, that are yet to make up whether to go Democratic or Republican.
A major chunk of campaign activities of all political parties are centred on these states to influence fresh votes or to manipulate voter preferences in their favour. Opinion polls every year can give a vague picture on the swing states, based on which campaign strategies of parties can be formulated.
A US media group, Politico, has identified eight states this time that could be potentially be the battlegrounds, namely Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Joe Biden is poised to lead in seven of these states, as research indicates. Final results, however, are beyond all reasonable predictions.
These swing states are identified based on different variables such as polling dynamics, past and recent election history, demographic composition of the electorate, voter registration, interviews with party officials and strategists and so on. Those locations prioritized for campaigns can be understood by looking at the staffing, resource allocation, state visits, television and radio advertising employed by different parties and their respective candidates.
Thus, instead of focusing on all states equally, candidates campaign heavily in just a handful of decisive states. This comes at the cost of disregarding smaller states, having only the election victories in mind.
Due to these reasons, critics accuse the U.S. Electoral College system of lacking internal democracy, by not giving each vote the same weight or by inflating the influence of some regions over others or due to the ‘winner-takes-all’ system. Despite all its shortcomings, it is here to stay, as it requires hectic legislative maneuverings through the Congress that are rarely undertaken.
What if no candidate cross the majority electoral votes mark?
If no candidate gets majority in the Electoral College, i.e., if they fell short of the 270 votes mark, consequentially the task of choosing the President is passed on to the House of Representatives, the lower house of the U.S. Congress (the apex legislature in the United States like the Parliament).
Similarly, if no vice-presidential candidate gets majority, the task will be passed on to the Senate, the upper house. They do it by holding what is known as Contingent Election, as it occurred in 1800 and 1824.
Road to the Inauguration Day
After the November 3 election results are out, a new Electoral College comes into being. This body of electors then meet in their respective state capitals and will officially vote for the presidential candidate. And, there is no legal requirement that electors should vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states.
The counting of these votes takes place in the presence of joint session of the House of Representatives and the Senate. A majority votes in the Electoral College determines who the next POTUS is. As a candidate cross the threshold of 270 votes, the POTUS emerges from the shadows of the process.
Later, the new President and the Vice-President will be sworn-in (inaugurated) to their respective offices on the Inauguration Day, which usually falls on January 20, as in 2021. And, the White House will be ready to welcome its new occupant for the next four years.