The American Electoral System Explained

For Canadians watching the United States presidential election can be confusing – after all, major factors like registration drives, Electoral College and swing states don’t exist here.
Americans don’t vote directly for their president. Instead they vote for “electors,” who have pledged to vote for a specific candidate in the Electoral College.
Each of the 538 members in the college is elected on a state-by-state basis. The number of electors from each state is equal to the number of members it sends to the Senate and to the House of Representatives. Since each state elects two senators and has at least one representative (the number is based on population, California’s 53 is the most), all states have at least three electors.
With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, all states have a winner-take-all system – if a candidate wins a simple majority in a state, he or she gets all of its electoral votes; the other two give two votes to the statewide winner and one vote to the winners of the popular votes in each of their congressional districts.
In order to win, a candidate needs 270 electoral votes. Because of the winner-take-all system, candidates tend to focus their resources on “swing states,” which can go either way. Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania make up a large part of the Electoral College and frequently switch between parties.
Unlike Canada, where most voters are registered by the government, Americans have to register themselves to vote. On Election Day American voters who aren’t on the list are too late.
“What makes it even more confusing is that each state has completely different rules,” said John Parisella, professor of American politics at Concordia and author of Elections: Made in USA.
“Not only does registration process vary from state to state, but the voting mechanisms are different as well,” he said. The American election system is done by individual states. This lack of a centralized system is one of the American elections’ biggest flaws, according to Parisella.
And while most eyes will be on the presidential elections, Americans will also be electing members of Congress, 11 state governors, judges, voting in referendums, and in many places voting for local officials – down to dog-catchers.
Because of the large number of races, Americans vote by machine. While some states use punch-card machines (like the ones used in Florida during the disputed 2000 election), most states have switched to touch-screen voting. However, there has been criticism of these machines as well, since each state has different regulations. While some require that machines have a paper backup, others don’t, creating the possibility of lost votes if a machine has technical problems.
Tuesday’s congressional elections could also have a big impact on the United States’ direction over the next two years. While representatives serve two-year terms, senators are elected to six-year terms. A staggered vote means one-third of the senate is put to a vote in each election.
“It’s looking like the big state this year will be Pennsylvania . . . if you see Pennsylvania and Virginia go to Obama early in the night that could be enough to call it,” said Parisella. “If Obama wins, look for a concession speech from McCain that night, but if McCain wins, as an underdog, be ready for some scrutiny, maybe not all the way to the Supreme Court like in 2000, but they’ll definitely give the results a second look.”


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