Voting for the US presidential election kicked off on Tuesday with first ballots cast in Dixville Notch and Millsfield, two small towns in the state of New Hampshire.

Americans by the millions cast ballots on Tuesday at libraries, schools and arenas amid a deadly pandemic, in an orderly show of civic duty that belied deep tensions shaping one of the most polarizing presidential campaigns in US history.

The US presidential election will be decided by about a dozen states that could swing to either President Donald Trump, a Republican, or Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

These states will play a critical role in delivering the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House.

But what is the Electoral College?

In the United States, the winner of a presidential election is determined not by a national vote but through a system called the Electoral College, which allots ‘electoral votes’ to all 50 states and the District of Columbia based on their population.

How does the Electoral College work?

There are 538 electoral votes, meaning 270 are needed to win the election. In 2016, President Donald Trump lost the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton but secured 304 electoral votes to her 227.

Technically, Americans cast votes for electors, not the candidates themselves. Electors are typically party loyalists who pledge to support the candidate who gets the most votes in their state. Each elector represents one vote in the Electoral College.

The Electoral College was a compromise between the nation’s founders, who fiercely debated whether the president should be picked by Congress or through a popular vote.

All but two states use a winner-take-all approach: The candidate that wins the most votes in that state gets all of its electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska use a more complex district-based allocation system that could result in their combined nine electoral votes being split between Trump and Biden.

Since 1876, four candidates have won the popular vote but lost the election. This happened in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush won the presidency despite losing the popular vote, and in 2016, when Trump pulled off a similar victory.

Can electors go rogue?

Yes.

In 2016, seven of the 538 electors cast ballots for someone other than their state’s popular vote winner, an unusually high number.

When do the electors’ votes have to be certified?

Federal law requires that electors meet in their respective states and formally send their vote to Congress on ‘the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.’ This year that date is Decemeber 14.

Under US law, Congress will generally consider a state’s result to be ‘conclusive’ if it is finalized six days before the electors meet. This date, known as the ‘safe harbor’ deadline, falls on December 8 this year.

What could go wrong in 2020

Voting by mail

The number of people voting by mail has surged in 2020 because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Mail-in votes are processed differently across the states, and some may not finish counting all the ballots on Election Day. If the race is close, there may not be a clear winner on election night.

Electoral College tie

One flaw of the Electoral College system is that it could result in a 269-269 tie. If that occurs, a newly elected House of Representatives would decide the fate of the presidency on January 6, with each state voting as a unit, as required by the 12th Amendment of the US Constitution.

The requirement that each state votes as a unit currently favors Trump’s Republican Party. There are 26 states with more Republican members in the House than Democratic members.

The composition of the House will change on November 3, when all 435 House seats are up for grabs.

Voters on Tuesday will also decide which political party controls the US Congress for the next two years, with Democrats narrowly favored to recapture a Senate majority and retain their control of the House of Representatives.

Trump is seeking another term in office after a chaotic four years marked by the coronavirus crisis, an economy battered by pandemic shutdowns, an impeachment drama, inquiries into Russian election interference, U.S. racial tensions and contentious immigration policies.

Biden is looking to win the presidency on his third attempt after a five-decade political career including eight years as vice president under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

(With Reuters inputs)

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