What is an electoral college and why is it so important?
Many people around the world, and many Americans themselves, are in the delusion that they are directly voting for the US President on November 4. This is not true: they are actually voting for the electors who would make up the Electoral College.
The electoral college system is an example of indirect elections. As per the US Constitution, while the people vote directly for members of Congress, the President is an executive elected by a federation of states. Thus, the Constitution leaves it to states to decide a system to elect the President.
Every state follows an Electoral College system. When Americans go out to vote on November 4 (or even before, if they can), they will actually be voting for the electoral college. But they are asked to state their choice of President so that the winner would be an elector who would in turn vote for that candidate.
Let's take an example to explain that. Say a particular village votes for Obama on November 4. What has actually happened is that the people there have said that they want Obama to become President and so, an elector who pledges to vote for Obama is sent to the electoral college. There are 538 electors in all: the sum total of the number of members in the House of Representatives, the Senate and some electors from the District of Columbia (DC). The winning candidate must win 270 electoral votes or more.
Is there a chance that an elector breaks his or her pledge and votes for another candidate or doesn't vote at all? Absolutely. However, in 24 states, there are laws for preventing that from happening. However, the apathy the defector would receive from parties is far greater punishment. However, it has happened before. It is also important to note that an elector cannot be a member of any legislature in the United States.
India also follows an electoral college system to elect the ceremonial President. However, the electoral college is elected by legislators from around the country, not directly by the people. This is another example of indirect election.
What happens in case nobody wins a majority of votes in the Electoral College?
According to the US Constitution, in case a President is not decided by the Electoral College, the decision is left to the House of Representatives, where members vote in blocks based on the state they represent (this has happened twice before in history). In case the House is also unable to come to a decision, the incoming Vice President becomes the Acting President.
In case no decision can be made on the next Vice President, the decision is left to the Senate, where each of the 100 members gets a vote and the winner must have more than half the members present, which has to be at least two-thirds of its membership.
In case the House cannot decide on a new President and the Senate can't decide on a Vice President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives becomes the acting President.