(usembassy.gov) — It is likely that more than 100 million voters will cast ballots in the general election to be held in the U.S. on November 6, 2012 throughout the country. However, only 538 men and women will elect the new U.S. president in elections to be held on December 17 in the capitals of the 50 states and Washington, DC
This indirect voting system, devised in 1787 by the authors of the Constitution and known as the Electoral College, reflects the federal system of government, which assigns the power not only to the government and people of the entire nation, but also to the states.
The Electoral College requires that the presidential candidate is someone of national relevance and has the preference of different regions: “One consequence of the Electoral College has been to set things up so that third parties, regional factions or minor characters find it more difficult to reach the presidency,” says John C. Fortier, author of After the People Vote.
The presidential electors nearly always vote in December, according to how their state’s voters did in November. The candidate who wins the Electoral College is usually the one that has attracted the largest number of popular votes nationwide. However, as the rule of “all for the winner” applies in all states but two, sometimes the candidate who wins the Electoral College lags behind another candidate in the popular vote, as was the case in 2000.
A strategy arises from the Electoral College system. In their campaigns, presidential candidates pay less attention to states that usually are Democrats or Republicans. Instead, they focus their attention and resources on a relatively small number of states where preferences are very divided, Florida and Ohio are well-known examples in this regard, that decide elections.
In 1787, the authors of the Constitution of the United States reached a negotiated solution and created a two-house Congress with a House of Representatives, where the number of seats each state has is based on its population, and a Senate, where each state has two seats.
Next, the authors sought to ensure that the president would have sufficient powers and authority to be independent of Congress. The authors believed in the separation of powers.
Similarly, the authors did not allow states to directly elect the president. Instead, they devised a system, the Electoral College, whereby electors would be appointed by each state. The state legislatures would decide how to choose electors; by the 1830s, all the electors were chosen by popular election.
It is worth noting another feature of the electors. The electors in each state meet to cast their vote for president, but voters of all states never meet as a single national body.
Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to the sum of its two senators plus the number of national representatives, which is based on a population census conducted every 10 years. In 2012, the populous state of California has 55 electors, while states like Alaska and Delaware have only three.
The Electoral College consists of 538 electors today, one for each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 senators, plus three for Washington DC, the nation’s capital. To elect the president and vice president a majority of 270 electoral votes is required.
A two-party system
The authors of the Constitution did not conceive the political party system, and certainly did not design the Electoral College to promote it. But over time, the Electoral College has strengthened the two-party system: Democratic and Republican.
First, states proposed making of their elections ones where the winner takes all. In this type of system, a party must be strong enough to win the popular vote in a state, not only achieve a significant percentage.
Second, the Electoral College makes it necessary for parties to win states in various regions of the country. A candidate could not win a majority by winning only in the South or the Northeast. And actually, almost every recent presidential candidate who has succeeded has won a majority of states.
In the event of a tie in the Electoral College, under Amendment 12 of the Constitution, the House of Representatives would choose the president. The delegation of each state would have one vote to choose between the three candidates who received the greatest number of electoral votes.
Many Americans want to change this system in favor of the direct popular vote to elect the president, but the change is not imminent. Amending the Constitution requires enormous political will: in over 220 years only 27 amendments have been approved. Furthermore, these changes are opposed both in small states (whose representation in the Electoral College is disproportionate), as the supporters of the party system and the supporters of a federal system of government.
Whatever its merits, the Electoral College provides, at least, decision making capability. The House of Representatives has only had to decide two presidential elections because no candidate won a majority in the Electoral College, this happened the last time in 1824.