Column: A backgrounder for the US Presidential elections

With just three days to go, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are making one final push for the election

Written by: Vappala Balachandran
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Prima facie, the US system of Presidential elections will appear to be labyrinthine. Why did they have to have a peculiar system for electing their President when they could have had a simpler way of choosing him or her through direct universal suffrage or indirectly through their 51 states? Why did they have to choose their President through an intermediary called "Electoral College"? Why should there be "Popular votes" and "Electoral Votes"?

The answer to this lies in the history of the evolution of their federal union of States at the 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. The participating 13 Colonies wanted to preserve their own independent decision making powers in all aspects including the Elections.

US Prez elections- a backgrounder

Thus Article II of the US Constitution lays down the process of the Presidential Election: "Each State shall appoint in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of Electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress".

The emphasis is on the words "as the Legislature thereof may direct". A "Committee of Eleven" appointed by the Constitutional Convention to devise means of upholding the independence of the President recommended a system of election by some "most knowledgeable and most informed" group of "Electors" to be appointed by the States.

This is the Electoral College.

In the beginning there was no stipulation that these "Electors" should be political persons or that they should be elected. However over a period of time all the States decided to get political parties to nominate their "Electors" and have them elected directly by the public to have a semblance of direct election at least during the first stage of Presidential Election.

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Not many people in India would thus realize that on November 8 the US voters will not be voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump but only to the "Presidential Electors" belonging to the Democratic or Republican Parties.

The second stage of this election will be on December 19 when the "Presidential Electors" will meet at their state capitals to officially elect the President. The polling on November 8 is the "Popular Vote", while the one on December 19 is the "Electoral Vote".

The winning candidate has to get 270 electoral votes. Rules stipulate that he or she should get "majority" of the present 538 electors, which is the total number of Senators and House Representatives.

However, surprises can happen on December 19, through the "Winner Takes All" system, which is totally unknown to us. The party getting the majority of popular votes in a State is given all the Electoral votes of that State by the Governor.

The only exceptions are 2 States-Maine and Nebraska. For example if the Republican Party gets 15 of the 29 seats in New York State, they will be given all the 29 seats of that State.

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The "Winner Takes All" practice started in 1824 although there is no specific constitutional sanction. However this is legal since the states are empowered to choose any method to "Appoint" their "Presidential Electors". Maine and later Nebraska feel that the "Winner Takes All" system does not satisfy the "Fair Vote" criterion.

The third stage in the Presidential Election is on January 6, 2017 when a Joint Session of the Congress chaired by the Vice-President, who is the Chairman of the Senate, formally receives the Governors' reports on allocation of Electoral votes and legally certifies the Presidential Election.

In case none gets majority, the House of Representatives elects the President while the Senate elects the Vice President.

Some interesting incidents had occurred in the past. One was on January 6, 2001 when Vice-President Al Gore, himself a candidate for the President, had to certify (as Chairman of the Senate) George W. Bush as the President despite a very acrimonious campaign and controversial counting method in Miami.

In fact he even over ruled objections raised by Democrats in the Joint Session and certified Bush as the winner. The other, more interesting incident was in 1961 when Richard Nixon as Vice President was contesting against John.F Kennedy.

At first the Hawaii Governor gave all his state Electors to Nixon and sent the report to the Congress. However there was a recount, which determined Democrat candidate Kennedy as the victor.

The Governor sent a second list to Vice President Nixon allotting all Electoral votes to Kennedy which reached the Capitol Hill on the day of the Joint Session. Nixon, without any hesitation, accepted this and certified Kennedy as the final victor!

Sometimes the differences in popular votes and Electoral votes between candidates are very convincing. In 2012 Obama received 51.1% of popular votes and 332 electoral votes against Mitt Romney's 47.25% popular votes and 206 electoral votes.

But that was not so in 2001 when Al Gore won more popular votes (48.4%) than George W.Bush (47.9%). Still Bush was narrowly elected by the Electoral College as President with 271 electoral votes against Gore's 266. In 1960-61 it was wafer thin for popular votes: 49.72% for John F. Kennedy and 49.55% for Richard Nixon. Yet the difference in "Electoral Votes" was substantial: Kennedy 303; Nixon 219.

Admittedly the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is very tight. There have been some speculative reports in Indian media based on our Washington based correspondents that the gap is so narrow that only the US Supreme Court could decide the outcome. This is not strictly correct.

Every stage including the timing of the Presidential election is mentioned in their constitution and subsequent laws. Firstly, the term of President Obama and Vice President Biden has to end on 20th of January 2017 under the 20th Amendment.

The electoral process cannot go beyond that. Several laws have been passed by the Congress fixing the days for the elections of thePresidential Electors, their meetings at State capitals and for the final Joint Session of the Congress to put a final seal on the election of the new President and Vice President.

These dates must be adhered to, so that there will be no constitutional deadlock preventing the new president taking over from President Obama who has to demit his office on 20th January.

In fact this was the crux of Supreme Court ruling in Bush v.Gore 531US 98(2000) ending the Florida Recount controversy. The Court ruled by 5-4 that no constitutionally valid recount could be completed by a December 12 "safe harbor" deadline as the Electoral College was scheduled to meet on December 18, 2000, to decide the election.

[The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat and author of "National Security & Intelligence Management-A New Paradigm]

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