Because by the time the October New England leaves lie buried under fresh January snows, the new course of our free world will have been decided.
And after months of Primaries, Conventions and Rallies — the millions of words from Hillary, Barack and McCain, and thousands of column inches on Sarah, Joe and even Joe the Plumber — how, exactly, will America elect her new President?
We’ve heard about the battleground states — the races for Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. But surely, every vote counts, right across the country?
And this is how it works.
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On November 4, we Americans will be voting for a new president in no less than 51 separate elections — one in each state and the District of Columbia.
On that day we won’t elect the new president, though; that won’t happen until December 15, when the electors, chosen in the primaries and by state party meetings, gather in their respective state capitals to cast their votes.
And the president won’t count as duly elected until those electoral votes are counted in Congress on January 6.
In a nutshell, those three stages define how our Electoral College works.
There are 538 electoral votes, representing the 435 congressional districts that give us our House of Representatives, the 100 Senators and three electoral votes for the District, which is allocated a number no greater than the least populous state, Wyoming. 270 are needed for victory.
To make a confusing system — even for many Americans — even more confusing, not all states allocate them the same way.
Forty-eight states and the District, which has the unique status of “federal enclave”, award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Whichever candidate wins a simple statewide majority gets all the votes.
Maine and Nebraska, however, have chosen — as is their right — to award their electoral votes by majorities in each congressional district.
The Founding Fathers intended the Legislative branch to elect the president. We are represented in the Legislative branch two ways, by state and by population. Senators represent us in the first instance: each state has two. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is apportioned by population, and not by area, so that Alaska, the largest state (587,878 square miles), has one Representative, the same as tiny Vermont (#43 in area with 9,615 square miles).
The number of votes assigned to each state in the Electoral College is equal to the number of senators and representatives. So Alaska and Vermont each have three votes, whilst the most populous state, California, has fifty five (2 + 53).
For point of reference, wales.co.uk measures Wales at just over 8,000 square miles, and statistics at wikipedia.org show the entire UK has 93,800 square miles. England at 50,346 square miles is only about 1,000 square miles larger than New York state, which ranks only #30 for area.
As Ikea says in its American ads, It’s a big country. Somebody has to furnish it.
That’s one reason, albeit simplistic, why we have the staggered voting schedule of the Electoral College. In the 18th Century, travelling on horseback, it took time for the electors to deliver the results of their states’ votes, which were cast by white male landowners.
And so by law, the general election is held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and the Electoral College votes on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.
In the 21st Century, it is politically correct in some circles to portray the Fathers as paternalistic elites whose system was devised to save us from ourselves.
While there is an element of truth to that, the history of the Electoral College and its mechanics is vast — see The Electoral College, US Congressional Apportionment and especially Electoral College history for more detail. I’d also strongly recommend David McCullough’s biography John Adams.
Most Americans think of the Electoral College only once every four years, in the national gnashing of teeth over whether it should continue. I think it should.
Critics point to the fact that the system favors small states, but without it, candidates would focus only on the most populous states, campaigning in others via television ads, email and YouTube.
I believe we have a right to see our candidates up close and they have an obligation to see and meet us. Even with the Electoral College it is possible to win a majority there by winning only 11 states, and anyone who thinks candidates would travel to the other 39 for a national popular vote is idealistic and naive.
This year is a perfect example of why it should be retained. It’s rare to have, as we did with the Democrats, a nomination so closely contested that every state’s primary election matters. Even Puerto Rico was a campaign stop this year. In fact, though, Puerto Rico, in common with Guam and the Virgin Islands, sends delegates to the conventions but their citizens do not vote in November.
Whilst national polls are interesting snapshots of the electorate, the state polls matter more, enabling sites such as FiveThirtyEight to project the Electoral College. Today that site projects Obama with 351.2 electoral votes, a landslide to be sure, but with only 52.3% of the popular vote.
To compare, George HW Bush won 426 electoral votes in his wipeout of Michael Dukakis in 1988. ABC News, one of our respected networks, has just reported the possibility of an electoral disaster for the Republicans, a result which would be reflective of the dynamic estimate shown above.
There is another reason I like the Electoral College: history. Compared with many European countries, America is very young. We haven’t had time to establish many traditions, so it’s good to cherish the positive ones we have.
And as real proof of electoral history in the making, this year I relish the prospect of electing to the presidency an African American — a man who would not even have been allowed to vote under the Fathers’ traditions of 1776.
From Scratch: A letter from London
What history looks like
190. Conventions and rallies – Sarah Palin and the US Open
110. The hands that built America – Houston skylines
173. Lines from the New Hampshire primary
174. The hidden history of Texas – on Buffalo Bayou, Houston, USA