|U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney shake hands at the conclusion of the final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida Oct. 22, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
On Nov. 6 Americans will vote and elect a president, right? Wrong.
The Electoral College chooses the president on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.
And while roughly 40% of eligible voters can't be bothered, more than a quarter are so keen they vote early.
American elections are more like plebiscites than in Canada, where we do not elect prime ministers or premiers at all. But they are not simply nationwide votes. Rather, every state has as many electors as congressmen plus senators, and in practice it's winner-take-all in every state except Maine and Nebraska, which choose two by state-wide and two or three respectively by Congressional district winner-take-all vote.
Because of the Electoral College, candidates sprinting to Nov. 6 must ignore national polls and focus on states still up for grabs. This year, those seem to be mostly Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada and Colorado.
It's puzzling the first three aren't solid for Romney and the next two for Obama. And the scramble for the 6 and 9 electoral votes of the last two shows how close this election is ... unless polls dramatically overestimate turnout in key Democratic constituencies.
Ah yes, turnout.
In the home stretch parties focus on their 'ground games', elaborate systems for identifying supporters, pestering them to vote and, traditionally, driving them to the polls on election day. But the home stretch ain't what it used to be.
According to the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP), 28% of Americans voted ahead of time in 2008, 15% by mail and 13% in person.
Thirty-one states now allow 'no-excuse' early voting in person and three others with an excuse, while 28 allow 'no-excuse' mail voting and 22 with an excuse. Indeed Washington and Oregon only allow mail ballots.
And while Washington just requires Nov. 6 postmarks, Oregon voters' ballots must arrive by the 6th so everyone there votes early.
Early voting helps parties logistically, because they can spread their get-out-the-vote efforts over several weeks. But as the VTP folks note, it's bad for electoral integrity. Significant improvements in automated voting machines since the 2000 Florida debacle are more than offset by the spread of fraud-friendly mail voting. Who knows what pressure is put on someone at the kitchen table, or if they even filled out their own ballot?
Including in swing states. The VTP says: "Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, Texas, New Mexico, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia saw more than half of voters cast ballots before election day, and in another three -- Florida, Arizona, and California -- between 40% and 50%" did.
These 12 states include four of my seven swing states above. So it could all be over before the polls open.
Or not. We leave as we entered, by the Electoral College.
Results there tend not to be close even when elections are (in 1976 Carter's popular-vote win by 2% produced a 57-vote electoral triumph), but John Adams nipped Jefferson by three in 1796 and "Rutherfraud" Hayes squeezed out a single-vote triumph in the rigged 1876 election.
That couldn't happen today, of course. With 538 Electoral votes since 1964, an even number, you win by at least two ... uh, unless you tie.
On Oct. 18 NBC's Chuck Todd produced three 269-269 scenarios, two implausible and the third a bit scary because it exactly matched my pessimistic best-guess back in March except it gave Romney Virginia and Obama all five Maine votes.
Sure, it's unlikely. But it would send the election to the House of Representatives, which already broke an 1800 tie between Jefferson and his appalling running mate Aaron Burr, and in 1824 settled a four-way contest without a clear winner by choosing 2nd-place finisher John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson.
Oh, one more thing. In six elections since 1960 an elector has gone "rogue," preferring the libertarian to Nixon in 1972 or Michael Dukakis's running mate Lloyd Bentsen to his boss in 1988. Technically, 24 states legally require electors to respect the popular vote, but it has never been determined whether their vote would be overturned if they did not.
There you go. To the White House, through the Electoral College, in an envelope.