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Democratic process?

A look at the ‘Electoral College’ process, and how it works or indeed, doesn't work, depending on who you talk to.
Last modified: 10 Nov 2012 21:05

I'm writing this blog nearly four days after Barack Obama was re-elected as US President.

To be honest I'm only just coming back to reality.

Not because I'm starry-eyed at Obama’s victory – but because I was part of Al Jazeera's US2012 Election Night Special which ran from midnight until 10am Doha time.

It was an incredibly enjoyable but grueling broadcast; one which has left the body-clocks of the dozens of us who worked on the show in a pretty wretched way.

But as the dust settles and the tiredness fades, I'm still left with a nagging feeling about the whole democratic process in the United States.

If you didn't see our broadcast, my job was to crunch the numbers and polling figures as they came in and to make sense of how they fitted into the process known as the ‘Electoral College’.

If you're not familiar with that, have a watch of this. It's how we explained it on the night:

So basically it's more important to only win certain states in what is still a nationwide election, because under the Electoral College certain states have more weighting or influence.

It's something that has been going on for centuries. It's part of the U.S. Constitution. It’s just the way Presidents are elected.

Only it just doesn't make sense.

For example, at the point on November 6th when Barack Obama went past 270 Electoral College votes (the magic number which gives a candidate a winning majority out of the 538 votes on offer) about 1,500,000 more people had actually voted for the Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Now that's not the way it ended up eventually, but just a cursory glance at the 2000 election debacle reminds us that when all the votes were finally counted, half a million more people had voted for Al Gore, but it was George W. Bush who became President because he'd won more Electoral College votes.

When you study it, it's in many ways not a fair system.

Think about California – the biggest state population in the United States, and therefore the biggest number of Electoral College votes with 55. But it's a solid Democrat state. It doesn't even factor into our thinking in an election cycle because we know – barring a major boil-over – that the Democrat candidate will get all of those 55 Electoral College votes. Just like we know the Republican will get Texas' 38 votes, the Democrat will get New York's 29, and so on and so on. These states have a voting history that takes a lot of changing.

In fact, in this 2012 election there were only ever around eight so-called "swing states" which were ever in play. The election was won and lost in those eight states and no-one would have argued the toss, even in the months leading up to the vote. It was no surprise that the swing-state Ohio – the one which has picked the winner in the last 12 elections – was the one that took Obama over 270.

See what I mean about it not being fair?

The nationwide vote – the popular vote as it's known – is almost irrelevant. But it's arguably a truer indication of what the people want. Often US elections are closer affairs than we might think, simply because of how the Electoral College works or indeed doesn't work.

Is the whole electoral system in the United States going to be overhauled? No. Not a chance. It's been around since 1787 and has resisted numerous attempts at amending it in that time.

Those in favour of the Electoral College say it protects the rights of the smaller states, and upholds the fact that the country is in fact a group of states – united yes, but still individual states.

Those against will trot out the same arguments I have.

The status quo will remain.

Perhaps it's just after so many months of preparation and a live continuous 10-hour broadcast that revolved around the Electoral College, its peculiarities and foibles have just struck more of a chord with me this time.