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Tuesday, November 02, 2004

US Elections - demystified

US Elections - demystified

The last time Presidential elections were held in the US, I had just arrived. I was still naive and ignorant of the difference between the popular vote and the electoral vote. This time around am a lot wiser.

In the 2000 elections, when it finally came down to Florida, most networks handed Florida to Al Gore until Fox News came along and said Bush was the winner in Florida and hence the 43rd US President. What followed was quite a circus. Eventually the US had a President with more electoral votes and less popular votes. Now how can that be? If the electoral votes are based on the popular votes and the popular votes go to one candidate, how can the electoral votes go to the other candidate? A few websites and long conversations later, I have better clarity - I think! Thanks to Surabh, Sudhi and Manu for the long conversations that helped in resolving some of this.

Fundamentals - let me lay the groundwork before we go into the details:

  • Popular Vote: The vote of the people is called the Popular vote. It is the sum total of all the votes cast by the people for the candidates. Example: Of a total of 125 million people who cast the vote, 75 million may vote for Candidate A and 50 million may vote for Candidate B. If the popular vote was the vote used to elect the President, then by virtue of the majority votes, Candidate A would be the elected President. This is followed in countries such as India to elect their leaders.

  • Electoral Vote: Instead of taking the popular vote into consideration, each region may nominate one or more persons called Electors to represent the region in the selection of the President. This will help, among other issues, remove any regional bias in the election of the leader. Example: If Candidate A is very popular in the Western part of the country and if that region has a bigger population, then based on the popular vote, it is most likely that Candidate A will be the elected leader. The regional bias gives Candidate A an unfair advantage. As a result, interests of the people in the Western region will dominate the leader's policies. People who follow Cricket in India, will be able to easily relate to this. On numerous occassions, players from a specific region made it to the national team because the selectors had a regional bias. In order to make it a more even play-field, each region is allocated a fixed number of electoral votes based on the population size (this may be updated whenever a census is carried out). This system applies to the USA in the Presidential elections. In my estimate, in this Presidential elections each electoral vote maps to 0.5 million people. Because, California has a population of about 27.5 million, the state has 55 electoral votes. The electoral votes are cast by the Electors to elect the President.

  • Selection of the electors: Each state has its own rules to how Electors are nominated. Electors are often selected to recognize their service and dedication to their political party. They may be State elected officials, party leaders, or persons who have a personal or political affiliation with the Presidential candidate. In some states, the political parties nominate electors at their State party conventions or by a vote of the party's central committee in each State. In some others, the voters in the State choose the electors on the day of the general election. Electors are essentially figureheads. They cast their votes based on the popular vote. So if California votes for Candidate A, then the electors for California will all cast their votes for Candidate A. This is the expectation, but it is really upto the electors. Personally, I see that as a big loophole. Because, a candidate can essentially buy out the electors and get them to vote in his/her favour irrespective of the popular vote. Statistically, I believe 99% of the times, the electors have voted in accordance to the traditions; i.e., they have cast their votes to the candidate who has secured the popular vote.

Now that the fundamentals have been established, let us look at how the electoral votes come into play and how a President who loses the popular vote can still become the President.

US Presidential Elections - Electoral Votes Demystified

In the 2000 elections, Al Gore won the popular vote, but the electoral vote went in George Bush's favour. Some folks believe another recount in Florida would have given Al Gore the state, but the Supreme Court thought otherwise. So the circus in 2000 gave the US George Bush as its 43rd President. Will the 2004 elections be as close and lead on to another circus or would we have a straight winner? We will know shortly as the US goes to vote its President for the next 4 years.

Related links

  • A nice primer to the electoral college.

  • A good FAQ on the electoral college.


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