Electoral College explained
As election season draws to a close, the candidates for the presidency are making their last speeches in the 11 battleground states that will decide which candidate gains the 270 votes necessary to win the election and goes on to occupy the Oval Office this January.
There are a total of 538 electoral votes at play in the presidential election. In order to be elected president, a candidate must win a majority of the votes — in other words, at least 270.
Electoral votes are allotted based on the popular vote in each state. A state has a certain number of electoral votes apportioned by population; the candidate who wins the popular vote in each state wins all of that state’s popular votes (except for the few states that allow split electoral votes). In this electoral cycle, there are a surprisingly large number of states that are considered toss-ups.
The 11 battleground states in which both President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney stand a chance of winning are New Hampshire, with four electoral votes; Iowa and Nevada, with six electoral votes each; Colorado, with nine electoral votes; Wisconsin, with 10 electoral votes; Virginia, with 13 electoral votes; North Carolina, with 15 electoral votes; Michigan, with 16 electoral votes; Ohio, with 18 electoral votes; Pennsylvania, with 20 electoral votes; and Florida, with 29 electoral votes.
The other 39 states are fairly reliable to go either Republican or Democrat, leaving Obama with a virtually guaranteed 201 electoral votes, and Romney with 191. The battle for the presidency lies in the battleground states’ collective 146 electoral votes.
Obama won the 2008 election with 365 electoral votes; he swept the battleground states, including the traditionally red Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia. This year, however, the race is much closer. Romney has seen positive poll data in the traditionally blue Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania; meanwhile, Florida and Ohio remain as important now as they have been in past years.
The political aggregator site RealClearPolitics averages poll data from many local and national political polls. According to the site’s averaged polls, Obama is up 1.5 percent in New Hampshire, 2.5 percent in Iowa, 2.8 percent in Nevada, 0.6 percent in Colorado, 5 percent in Wisconsin, 4 percent in Michigan, 2.8 percent in Ohio, and 4.1 percent in Pennsylvania; and Romney is up 0.3 percent in Virginia, 3.8 percent in North Carolina, and 1.4 percent in Florida.
If the averages given by RealClearPolitics represented actual popular vote totals, Obama would take 290 electoral votes and Romney 248, giving Obama the presidency. Even if Obama lost the two states where the poll results from RealClearPolitics has him winning — New Hampshire and Colorado — he would retain 277 electoral votes and win the election. The New York Times political blogger Nate Silver said in a post on Saturday that in order for Romney to win the electoral college, state polls would have to be systematically oversampling Obama voters.
One interesting caveat in this presidential election is the possibility of an electoral college tie. Several possible scenarios can leave both candidates with a total of 269 electoral votes. If Romney can win Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada, he’ll be one shy of 270. Similarly, Romney could lose Virginia, but win Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, and either Iowa or Nevada for the same tied scenario. Silver considered the scenario in which both Romney and Obama win 269 electoral votes to have a 0.2 percent chance of happening.
If no candidate wins a majority of the votes, the House of Representatives votes for the President from among the three highest-voted candidates, and the Senate chooses the Vice President from among the two highest-voted vice presidential candidates. Each Senator casts one vote, but the House of Representatives votes in blocs by state. Each representative casts a vote, and the most popular candidate among the delegation from each state wins that state’s vote.
If the House vote ends in a tie, the 20th Amendment specifies that the vice president-elect takes office. If both the House and the Senate votes end in ties, federal law specifies a successive list of people who should take office, starting with the Speaker of the House.
In the history of the U.S., only John Quincy Adams has ever been elected by the House of Representatives.
There is also the possibility that a “faithless elector” could shake up the count. An elector is a person who represents a state in the Electoral College. Electors cast the actual votes that determine the President. Different states appoint their electors differently, and not all states legally require electors to vote for the candidate who won the state’s popular vote. A faithless elector is an elector who votes against the will of his or her state’s popular vote.
Faithless electors are relatively rare; the most recent instance was in 2004, and in the 20th and 21st centuries, no election has ever had more than one. In addition, some states have laws that invalidate the votes of faithless electors. Unless the race is already extremely close, faithless electors are unlikely to impact the outcome.
There is the possibility of a disparity between the electoral vote and the popular vote, as in 2000. Silver places the odds of Obama winning the popular vote and losing the electoral vote at 1.1 percent, and vice-versa at 5.7 percent. If the election had been held just a few days ago, according to the RealClearPolitics averages, Romney would have won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote.
All electoral math and possible constitutional crises aside, the race will probably come down to Ohio. Silver has Ohio with a 50 percent chance of being the deciding state, far more likely than Virginia, the next highest, at 15 percent. Once Ohio’s votes are tallied, it seems likely that the U.S. will know who its next President will be.