Electoral College means winning most votes may not win US presidency

A compromise more than 220 years ago means the popular vote does not elect the president - and that could cause a crisis

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2012, 12:07pm

The United States is yet again staring down the barrel of a potential constitutional crisis as the race for the White House enters its closing stages.

With the Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's post-debate momentum now bumping-up against President Barack Obama's formidable street-by-street strategies across key states, the risks of Romney winning the popular vote but not the White House were all too clear at the weekend.

Despite his lead across national polls Romney has yet to topple estimates that give Obama the edge in the so-called battleground states.

Those swing states, including Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, are the key to the White House, providing the path to the 270 votes needed to win the majority of the 538-vote Electoral College.

The political calculus of both campaigns is now so acutely tuned that both candidates are targeting statements not to the nation, but the interests of individual states, and specific counties with those states. Some estimates suggest that just 5 million voters in those counties could carry the election in a nation of 311 million.

In the vaunted US democracy, the race for the White House is actually an indirect election. To become president, it is not the popular vote that counts, but the Electoral College. And while whoever wins on November 6 will style themselves leader of the free world as head of its most powerful democracy, it is worth noting that the Electoral College has never been widely copied.

A constitutional compromise by the founding fathers of the United States more than 220 years ago, the Electoral College was geared to reflecting popular sentiment while limiting the role of the US Congress, populist manipulation and the clout of the biggest states.

The college's votes are apportioned by state, reflecting the make-up of the US Congress, and therefore the essentially the population spread, with a slight advantage to the smallest states. The biggest state, for example, California, has 55 votes while the smallest, such as Delaware and Alaska, have just three.

Those votes are awarded to the winner of the popular vote in each state, apart from two, Nebraska and Maine, on a winner-takes-all basis.

Not surprisingly, the college remains controversial but it can be changed only by a constitutional amendment.

As a young state senator in Illinois, Obama was one of its critics. Yesterday, however, his spokesmen were fudging his current thoughts, saying that as president he followed the law that was "on the books".

In just four out of 56 presidential elections has the victorious president not won the popular vote. But as the last was in 2000, when the Supreme Court intervened to stop re-counts in Florida and give the Republican George W. Bush the White House over Vice-President Al Gore, wounds remain raw.

That election went to court as just 537 votes separated the two men in Florida, which is again a swing state this year. In the event of a straight tie of votes in the college, the House of Representatives would decide the president, and the Senate his deputy. As the Republicans hold the house and the Democrats the senate, that would mean President Romney and Vice-President Joe Biden.

Analysts and activists on both sides warn, however, that the US political scene has become even more polarised and hyper-partisan since 2000. And coupled with a slew of fresh polls that suggest a more distinct racial/political divide between whites and non-whites after four years of Obama, the first black president of the United States, the stakes are running high.

Essentially, nearly two out of three whites say they will vote for Romney while four out of five non-whites will vote for Obama - including about 75 per cent of Hispanics, the biggest immigrant group.

As government specialist Thomas Neale said in a Congressional Research Service study last week: "In the highly charged political atmosphere of contemporary presidential elections, a tie vote in the college, the failure of any candidate to receive a majority of electoral votes, or an extremely close election … could lead to an acrimonious and protracted political struggle, or even a constitutional crisis."

Ultimately such fears remain speculation at this point. Better, perhaps, then to finish with the electoral certainties expressed by President George HW Bush, unusually apeing the malapropisms of his son. "It is no exaggeration to say the undecided could go one way or another."