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British commentator Jonathan Freedland
on questions surounding the electoral college system in the US
 real 28k

Wednesday, 8 November, 2000, 20:27 GMT
How Bush could lose, but win
Bush and Cheney
Bush and Cheney are counting on the electoral college vote
By Gordon Corera and Steven Cviic in Washington

How can George W Bush lose the popular vote nationwide and win the US presidential election at the same time?

It may sound like a trick question, but with a race this close and a lot of "what ifs" buzzing around, there is one scenario that is causing a lot of excitement and apprehension in political circles.

Al Gore
Al Gore could win the popular vote but lose the White House
Typically, the workings of the electoral college are left to the real obsessives - but this time round people have been paying particularly close attention to it.

Under the US system, each state counts for a certain number of electoral college votes, out of total of 538, and it is these votes which will determine who wins the presidency.

Number crunching

By 1830 GMT, on Wednesday, Mr Bush had 246 electoral votes to Vice President Gore's 260, out of the 270 needed to secure a majority in the electoral college.

The electoral college vote does not reflect the popular vote, which at 1830 GMT on Wednesday was slightly in favour of Mr Gore.

A recount is underway in Florida - a key state because of the 25 electoral college votes it has to offer.

Bush and Cheney
The media had problems keeping up with the voting drama
The number of votes per state corresponds roughly to its population. Huge California for example has 54 votes, tiny Delaware has just three, and whoever comes out on top in each state gets all its votes.

Whichever candidate wins the most votes in each state wins all of that state's electoral college members. The other candidates get none.

A scenario in which a candidate wins the popular vote but loses the White House, would not be unprecedented. Twice before a candidate has won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college.

Unconvincing win?

In 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden beat Republican Governor Rutherford Hayes by 51-48 %.

But thanks to fraud and a special commission, three key states Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana were given to Hayes, giving him a 85-184 electoral college majority.

And in the 1888 election, Republican Benjamin Harrison trailed President Grover Cleveland by 95,713 votes nationally, but won enough big states to give him a 233-168 majority in the electoral college.

But such a scenario would deprive a winner of much of his legitimacy and there may be pressure on the members of the electoral college to switch their vote to the popular winner when they meet in their state capitals in mid-December.

Nothing in the constitution requires these electors to vote the same way as their population did on 7 November - and seven times in the last 52 years so-called "faithless electors" have indeed made the switch.

But since most electors are local party activists a switch would be very unlikely.

The most likely outcome of the scenario would be that the college victory would stand, but the new president would have a battle on his hands in convincing people that he deserved to be the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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