How America's electoral college system operates


US PRESIDENTS and vice- presidents are not elected directly by the people but by an electoral college made up of representatives directly elected in each state. This indirect system reflects the federal underpinning of the US constitution in which the states remain the key building blocks and sources of authority of the federal government.

With all but two states (Maine and Nebraska) allocating electoral votes on a winner-take- all basis, it is mathematically possible for a president to be elected by the college who does not in fact represent a majority of voters. It happened three times, in 1876, 1888 and in the unforgettable 2000 contest between George Bush and Al Gore.

The electoral college consists of 538 delegates, with each state allocated the same number of seats it has in both houses of Congress (with Washington DC getting three). In the Senate all states are equally represented by two members, and in the House of Representatives by a number that is proportionate to their relative populations. So California has 55 electors (two plus 53), while New Hampshire has four (two plus two).

The electors will meet separately in state capitals on December 15th and forward their decision to Congress. A majority is 270 votes. Should that not be forthcoming, the presidency is decided in the incoming House of Representatives while the vice- president is elected by the Senate over which he/she will preside as chairman.

The system, which has been the subject of numerous unsuccessful reform attempts, tends to over- represent rural states with smaller populations. It also encourages candidates to focus their efforts on swing states where a small shift in votes can bring rich rewards by tipping the state's full weight behind a candidate. Ohio, with its 20 electoral votes, is a classic case in point.

Ohio was a deciding state in the 2004 presidential election between George Bush and John Kerry. Bush narrowly won the state's 20 electoral votes by a margin of two percentage points and 50.8 per cent of the vote. The state supported Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, but supported George Bush in 2000 and 2004.

It is currently leaning by some seven percentage points in Barack Obama's direction.

A Republican candidate can expect to win many of the conservative southern states such as Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina and Democrats can be confident of liberal states such as California, Vermont, Hawaii, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York.

It is theoretically possible to win the election by winning only 11 states with a minority of the popular vote. If one candidate were to take California (55 votes), Texas (34), New York (31), Florida (27), Illinois (21), Pennsylvania (21), Ohio (20), Michigan (17), Georgia (15), New Jersey (15) and North Carolina (15), that ticket would have 271 votes, enough to win.

It has never happened.