US election: Who, What, When
Fri, 12 Oct 2012 1:43a.m.
By Will Pollard
There are less than four weeks left in the 2012 US presidential election campaign, and the candidates are organising their last ditch attempts to sway the voting public in a number of key states.
While the race to the White House is always the subject of international media attention, those looking on from overseas find themselves observing an electoral process and a political system that may be very different to their own.
This is the case for us here in New Zealand, so 3 News has put together this brief guide to the US presidential election, to help make sense of the political drama as it unfolds.
The front-runners in the 2012 United States presidential election are Barack Obama, incumbent president and Democratic Party nominee, and Mitt Romney, Republican Party nominee and former Governor of Massachusetts.
Obama is running on a re-election ticket with his current vice president Joe Biden, a former senator for Delaware. Romney’s pick for vice president is Paul Ryan, a member of the House of Representatives for Wisconsin’s 1st District.
Despite the fact that there are a range of independent candidates and nominees from minor political parties who are also standing for election, US politics are almost always seen as a bipartisan, or two-party affair. This aspect of the US political system has long been the target of criticisms, including those outlined in a recent op-ed in The Guardian newspaper.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on the campaign trail (Reuters/Larry Downing/Shannon Stapleton)
Before the first debate of the election campaign, Obama might have been considered the more likely candidate – enjoying the advantage of incumbency and running against a ‘gaffe-prone’ rival.
However since Romney’s performance in the first debate – where he was perceived by some pundits to have beaten Obama on style, if not substance – even the Democrat camp is conceding that the race might be tighter than previously thought.
US presidential elections are held every four years, and coincide with the biennial elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives – the two law-making bodies which make up Congress.
Limits introduced by the 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution dictate that no president can serve more than two four-year terms.
Neither Obama nor Romney has confirmed where they will be on election night, but it is expected that Obama will return to Chicago, where he celebrated his election victory in 2008.
US President-elect Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks to the crowd on stage during his election night rally in Chicago November 4, 2008 (Reuters/John Gress)
Not as simple as it seems
Although ballot papers show the names of presidential and vice presidential candidates, the US president is not directly elected by the voting public. When they go to the polling booth, US voters are actually electing a group of secondary ‘electors’ who form a group known collectively as the Electoral College. It is the votes cast by the Electoral College that, in the end, decide the next president.
Forming the Electoral College
Each state is allowed to elect a certain number of electors, equal to the number of representatives and senators from that state in Congress. The states with the largest populations have the most representatives in Congress, and consequently these states are allocated the most electors. The electors award their electoral votes to the presidential candidates once the popular vote has been collected within each state.
The people who become electors themselves are selected by different methods in different states – usually they are nominated by the political parties during conventions – but however they are decided, the electors are generally relied upon to cast votes in line with the party’s candidate, to whom they are pledged (although there are cases where electors have voted differently to how they have pledged, or have been appointed without committing themselves to a particular candidate).
Win the state, win the electoral votes (for the most part)
All of the states except for Nebraska and Maine use a ‘winner-takes-all’ rule for awarding Electoral College votes – meaning that whichever candidate wins the popular vote in the state receives all of the state’s electoral votes. Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that allow for their electoral votes to be allocated proportionally among candidates.
The magic number: 270
There are currently 538 electors in the Electoral College – equal to the total of the 535 representatives and senators in Congress plus three electors for Washington, DC. A majority of 270 electoral votes is required by a presidential candidate to win the election.
If no candidate manages to collect a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives will then vote to elect a president from the three candidates with the most electoral votes and the Senate will vote to elect a vice president.
An imperfect system
The use of the Electoral College system means that it’s possible for a candidate to receive the majority of the national popular vote but to still lose the election by having fewer electoral votes than their opponent. This has happened on a number of occasions – most recently in 2000 when George W Bush won the election with a majority of Electoral College votes, despite collecting less of the popular vote than his opponent Al Gore.
Vice President Al Gore (R) stands with President-elect George W Bush after Bush arrived at his residence for a meeting, December 19, 2000 (Reuters/Gary Hershorn)
Because of scenarios like this, the Electoral College process has been challenged on numerous occasions. There have been more proposed constitutional amendments submitted to Congress for changing the Electoral College than for any other part of the US constitution.
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