To become president, the Constitution specifies that a candidate must win a majority of the Electoral College votes. There are a total of 538 electoral votes, so the fat lady sings when one of the candidates reaches 270.
Sometimes the outcome is not close, as was the case in 2008 when Barack Obama beat John McCain 365 to 173. Other elections are very close, such as in 2000, where a controversial recount in Florida gave George W. Bush 271 electoral votes.
The "safe" Republican states include Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. Whereas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, and others, as well as the District of Columbia, tend to vote Democratic.
So, on Election Day in November, if the red states stay red and the blue states again go blue, it will be a close race, but Obama will have a slight edge in the Electoral College vote. However, the election will be decided by who wins the remaining "purple" states.
This year, these states include Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and North Carolina as well as New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. If the candidates split these eight states - the first four going Republican, the latter four going Democratic, the outcome is a mathematical tie: 269 to 269. Neither nominee gets a majority.
The Constitution specifies the House of Representatives breaks the tie by selecting the president among the three leading vote-getters. The Senate picks the vice president among the top two candidates. If this were to have occurred in 2008, the House, then run by Democrats, would have picked Obama. The Senate was split 50-50 at the time, which means the vice president, Dick Cheney, would have cast the tie-breaker. A Republican, Cheney would have voted for Sarah Palin and the U.S. would have had an Obama-Palin White House.
If the 2012 vote ends in a 269-269 tie, the House, which is now in Republican control, would pick the Republican nominee. But the Senate, with a slim Democratic majority, would vote for Joe Biden to continue as vice president. The result would be another split White House.
But it is unclear as to whether the present Congress or the Congress elected after Nov. 6 would get to vote. The Constitution states the House tie-breaker should occur "immediately." This suggests the current Congress would pick the president. But, Federal Code in 1934 attempted to clarify the matter by stating that Congress would convene at 1 p.m. on Jan. 6 to certify the election. That leaves open the possibility the new Congress would pick the president.
Moreover, the House does not vote by a straight role-call. Rather, each state is given one vote and a majority of the states are needed to win. The House has until the inauguration - Jan. 20 - to resolve this matter (although the Supreme Court would likely intervene), but there is no time stipulation for the Senate to pick a vice president.
There is also the matter of "faithless" electors. The electors themselves, designed to be "free agents," do not necessarily have to vote the way the state they represent votes. Since the founding, 156 electors have voted against how their state voted.
Thoroughly confused? So were the Framers.
When they met in 1787 in Philadelphia, they were uncertain about how to pick a president. At the end of the summer, they arrived at a compromise - something of the best of the worst options: The Electoral College.
It is high time we replace this antiquated, convoluted, and undemocratic system, which has not worked well in 1800, 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 with a popular vote, the way every other office is elected.
Robert Watson, Ph.D., is a professor and coordinator of American studies at Lynn University.