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How the US Elections Really Work

In less than one month, Americans will choose between President Obama and former Governor Romney.

In less than one month, Americans will choose between President Obama and former Governor Romney

The US election system is more complex than a simple popular vote, but in the end there is one clear winner. The winner doesn’t owe anyone (besides the voters) anything. Unlike Europe, there is no coalition. Here’s how it works.

Every state is allocated a number of electoral votes. This is based on the number of the state’s Congressional delegation – the House of Representatives plus the Senate.

Florida, for example, has 27 members in the House of Representatives and 2 Senators. Therefore, Florida gets 29 votes in the Electoral College.

This seemingly strange system is the result of a grand compromise between the big states and the smaller states.

The large states prefer, of course, a popular vote. If this were the case, what candidate would waste their time campaigning in a small state like Iowa? By giving Iowa a “few more points”, the smaller states matter more.

Even with this “bonus” for the small states, you can’t compare California’s 55 electoral votes to Iowa’s 6. It balances things out a bit without giving the small states the kind of power that small political parties have in coalition governments in Europe.

In the US, it is possible for a candidate to win the election but lose the popular vote. This has happened 3 times. In 1876, Republican Rutherford Hayes beat Democrat Samuel Tilden with a 185-184 electoral vote count while losing the popular vote by almost 300,000 votes.

In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison won the electoral vote while losing the popular vote. More recently, President Bush beat Al Gore while losing the electoral vote by about 500,000 votes.

“It isn’t fair”, you may say (especially if you supported Gore). Those are the rules of the game and candidates are well aware of them ahead of time.

In our next article, we’ll discuss why some states matter more.

OCA News Editor