Waiting for results? Here's some nuts and bolts

Image: Los Angeles voters
Voters fill in their ballots at St. Jerome Parish in Los Angeles, Calif. on Tuesday.Danny Moloshok / Reuters
/ Source: msnbc.com

WASHINGTON — It's finally Election Day, but we've still got hours to go before the votes will be counted and any states are projected to fall into the Democratic or Republican column.

So for political junkies already primed for tonight's results, let’s review some nuts and bolts of the presidential election— plus a few “far-fetched what-if’s,” unlikely hypothetical events that might happen, but probably won’t.

What is an exit poll?
It is a series of thousands of interviews with voters as they leave their voting places on Election Day. The interviews are conduced by the National Election Pool, a consortium formed by the television networks and the Associated Press.

In addition to in-person interviews, the consortium will be doing telephone interviews with voters in states, such as Oregon, which have mail-in or drop-off balloting.

Such interviews can reveal patterns in the electorate.

In 2004, for instance, exit poll interviews found that 36 percent of self-identified gun owners said they voted for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, but 63 percent of gun owners said they voted for President Bush.

For more on how NBC News projects election winners, .

On election night, when can exit poll information be released by news organizations? Can it be released in an Eastern Time Zone state, such as Virginia, as soon as that state's polls close at 7 p.m. EST, or must news organizations wait until the polls in the western states close?
NBC News will be able to release some general exit poll data at 7 p.m. EST. This information could include, for instance, findings that a majority of voters said the economy is in terrible shape.

But NBC News will project the winner of a state only after the polls close in that particular state.

And NBC News will project the winner of a state only when NBC analysts, after assessing votes in selected precincts in that state, determine that one candidate is going to win it. So, for example, by 7:45 p.m. EST, NBC analysts might be able to determine that John McCain, or Barack Obama, has won Virginia’s 13 electoral votes.

Why do some news organizations’ projections differ, at least in the timing of projecting the winner in various states?
Different news organizations employ their own teams of analysts who use varying methodologies.

Please give a definitive explanation of the popular versus electoral vote. How can a candidate lose an election if he has more popular votes than his opponent?
The popular vote is the total number of votes cast for a candidate in a given state and, added together, nationwide.

In New Jersey in 2004, for instance, Kerry won 1,911,430 votes, nearly 250,000 votes more than Bush won. Accordingly, Kerry got New Jersey’s 15 electoral votes.

On Tuesday, Americans will be not voting directly for presidential candidates, but for slates of electors each state and the District of Columbia have pledged to support particular candidates.

Those electors, in turn, will cast votes on Dec. 15, 2008 for the candidates to whom they are pledged.

For instance, on the New Jersey ballot, there will be a slate of 15 Democratic electors pledged to Obama and a slate of 15 Republican electors pledged to McCain.

A voter will chose one slate or the other (or perhaps the slate of a third party such as the Green Party).

A candidate can win the nationwide popular vote and yet lose the electoral vote if he amasses huge popular vote margins in some states, while losing other states narrowly. That's what Al Gore did in 2000.

The electoral votes are divided among the 50 states roughly on the basis of population.

A state gets a number of electors equal to the number of its members of the House of Representatives (which is proportional to population), plus two — since every state has two senators. New Jersey, for example, has 13 representatives, therefore it has 15 electoral votes, but less populous North Dakota has only three electoral votes.

It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.

Can Obama win 20 of the 27 electoral votes in Florida while McCain gets seven of them — and vice versa or does the candidate with the most votes win that state?
The Constitution allows each state’s legislature to choose its own method of awarding electoral votes. Forty-eight states have laws that mandate a winner-take-all system for electoral votes: The person with the statewide plurality of the votes gets all the electoral votes.

So, no, Obama and McCain would not split up Florida’s electoral votes.

Which states don’t use winner-take-all? Maine and Nebraska. In those two states, one elector is awarded to the candidate receiving the most votes in each of the congressional districts, and the remaining two electoral votes are awarded to whoever gets the most votes statewide.

Once they are chosen, what do each state’s electors do? On Dec. 15, in each state’s capitol, the state’s electors will meet to cast separate ballots for president and for vice president.

Who counts the electoral votes to determine who won the presidency?Congress will meet in joint session on Jan. 6, 2009 to count the votes of the electors.

Here's how the Constitution puts it, "The President of the Senate (Dick Cheney) shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted."

If at least one member of the House and one member of the Senate object to any electoral votes from a state, then the House and Senate each go into separate sessions to debate and vote on the contested electoral votes. Both the House and the Senate must vote to reject the challenged electoral votes in order for them to be rejected.

What if it’s discovered there was massive vote fraud or errors in a state that tipped the balance?In all likelihood, this scenario would lead to an intense court battle. The litigation could reach the Supreme Court as the Florida election controversy did in 2000.

But Congress could also decide the validity of the electoral votes from any given state when it meets in joint session to count the electoral votes on Jan. 6.

Can the winner of the presidential election decide to change his vice presidential candidate after Nov. 4?The Constitution doesn’t seem to allow for that. The Twelfth Amendment implies that the person listed on state ballots at the vice presidential nominee would be the vice president if he or she won the most electoral votes.

Can an elector pledged to vote for a candidate cast his or her vote for someone else?Yes, but that has rarely happened. Since the first election in 1789, 11 electors out of more than 21,000 electors have decided to vote for a presidential candidate other than the one to whom they were pledged.

If a the winner of the presidential election falls gravely ill or starts exhibiting signs of madness right after Nov. 4, can the electors change their minds before they meet in each of the state capitols on Dec. 15?In theory, yes. Only five states have laws punishing electors for not casting their vote for the person to whom they were pledged. So electors could cast their vote for someone other than the winner of the Nov. 4 balloting.

What happens if the electoral vote ends up in a 269-269 tie, or in a multi-candidate field, if no candidate gets 270 electoral votes? The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution says that if no candidate gets a majority of the electors then the House of Representatives shall choose a president from among the top three vote-getters.

In these circumstances, each state’s delegation in the House would have one vote. So, for example, California’s 53 members of the House would caucus and vote as a bloc. Since there are more Democratic House members from California than Republican members, California’s one vote would go to the Democratic presidential candidate.

Has a president-elect ever died before taking the oath of office and, if so, how was that situation handled?No, that has never happened. The closest it has come to happening was on Feb. 13, 1933, when a former bricklayer and transient Giuseppe Zangara fired shots at President-elect Franklin Roosevelt just after he finished giving a speech in Miami.

Zangara missed Roosevelt, but one of his shots hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who subsequently died from his wounds.

If the president-elect died, the national committee of the president-elect’s political party would meet and choose a new nominee, and thus a new president-elect.

The electors, when they meet in the various state capitals on Dec. 15, are free to choose whomever they want, but in all likelihood would go along with the choice made by the national party committee.

If the president-elect died after Congress met on Jan. 6, 2009 to count the votes of the electors, then the vice president-elect would become president on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.