<i>Popular vote, electoral vote</i>
As The Daily Star goes to press, Americans have begun voting in what by all projections appears to be one of the most contested US presidential elections in history. The last time a tough contest took place was in 1960, when Democratic Senator John F Kennedy narrowly defeated Republican Vice President Richard M Nixon.
At this year's election, it is hard to predict which of the two candidates will come by the mandatory 270 electoral votes needed to claim victory. A curious feature of US presidential elections has been the electoral vote alongside the popular vote. The popular vote refers to the votes cast by citizens in all the constituent states of the United States of America. If that were the only measure by which the results of elections could be arrived at, any candidate winning more votes than his rivals would be declared elected.
The American political system, however, has devised somewhat a check and balance system. It is this: each state, on the basis of its population, gets a certain number of electoral votes. By that measure, California will have a much larger number of electoral votes than Rhode Island.
And how do electoral votes become a decisive factor at the election? In 48 of the 50 states, the system is a winner-take all, even if the margin of victory by popular voter is extremely narrow. The candidate who gets a majority of votes in these 48 states gets all its electoral votes, which means that even if nationwide Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wins a majority of the popular vote, his performance will be counted on the basis of how many states he has won or what his tally of the combined electoral vote of the states is.
At this election, as in some earlier ones, the total number of electoral votes is 538. To win the White House, a candidate must collect at least 270 of those votes. Now, what happens if the improbable happens in America today? What happens if Obama and Romney each acquire 269 electoral votes? Unlike the French system, there is no second round of elections. So who will be president? Or can both lay claim to the presidency?
The answer to that last question is simple: yes, they can, and so cause a crisis. And yet a decision must be made. And this is how a solution will be found, assuming that there is a 269-each tie between Obama and Romney: the House of Representatives will vote for the man it thinks should be president; the Senate will decide who will be vice president.
By present calculations, with Republicans looking to hold on to their majority in the House, Mitt Romney will be president. In the Senate, where Democrats are on course to keeping their majority, Joe Biden will continue to be vice president.
It is a hypothetical situation, an improbable idea. But, who knows? It just might happen. Or Obama could manage to squeak through. Or Romney could cause an upset.