The Electoral College system remains at the heart of the American electoral system.
A general/presidential election is held in November of election year. The incumbent president, should he lose this election, stays in office until January so that he can run down his government in a controlled manner and so that the newly elected president can a) select his cabinet in an orderly manner b) allow the standing president to deal with issues such as foreign policy which a president-elect might not be in a position to fully understand all the difficulties involved and domestic issues also for the same reason. Logically a president in power for 4 years is more likely to have a more structured understanding of complex problems than a president-elect.
It is traditional for an incoming president to be joined by the outgoing president at the swearing in ceremony held at Capitol Hill as this is seen as a gesture of unity and a symbol that both have the heart of America at the forefront of their minds and that political disunity that might affect other nations does not do so in America.
A general election does not elect the president. It states in numeric terms how many people voted for each candidate but only that. The election of a president is determined by the Electoral College though their votes usually follow the popularity of the voters.
Each state has a number of delegates attached to it who are members of the state's Electoral College. It is these people who the voters in that state are in reality voting for as most of these delegates are voted for at the same time as the presidential election. The number of delegates a state gets is dependent on its population and its representation in the House of Representatives. Each state has 2 Senators but the number of Congressmen it has is dependent on its population. Therefore, California has 52 Electoral College delegates, New York 33 delegates, North Dakota 3 delegates and Maine 4 delegates.
The Electoral College is not a body that meets in one place. In fact, it is 50 bodies that meet in the state capital only during a general/presidential election in its own state.
The presidential election is done on a winner-take-all basis in a state. Therefore if a candidate has most voters voting for him in California he will get all 52 Electoral votes. This is true even if the number of people who voted against him is greater than the number he received :
Candidate A : 5 million votes
Candidate B : 4 million votes
Candidate C : 2 million votes
Therefore more people voted against Candidate A (6 million combined) but he will get all 52 Electoral College votes simply because he got most votes as a candidate.
In America most elections at presidential level are between two parties and two candidates. However, the elections can legally see independent candidates running (Ross Perot) and the above example could happen - though in the 1996 election Perot got 7.8 million votes out of about 90 million votes.
Once a candidate had got a simple majority of Electoral College support nation wide he is declared the victor. In the highly unlikely event that no candidate gains an overall majority, the decision goes to the House of Representatives where each state votes as a block and each state block has one vote. Whoever wins here is declared the president.
The Electoral College system has been criticised because of its winner-takes-all basis.
In the 1996 election Clinton got 379 Electoral College votes out of a total of 538. This represents 70% of the total possible. Yet his popular vote stood at just 49%.
Bob Dole received 159 Electoral College votes (30% of the total) but got 41% of the popular vote.
Ross Perot got 8% of the popular vote (7.8 million votes) but no Electoral College votes.
In terms of states, Clinton won 31 states out of 50 (62%)
Dole won 19 out of 50 (38%)
Perot won none.
In this instance, Dole's was nearest to his popular vote whereas there was a 13% difference in Clinton's representation. In theory, if Perot had got the number of states that his near 8 million votes represented he would have got 4 states instead of none.
In the November 2000 election, George W Bush got 271 Electoral College votes with 47.9% of the popular vote while Al Gore got 266 Electoral Colleges votes with 48.4% of the popular vote. In this election the loser got more votes nationally but the Electoral College system 'pushed' through a victory for George W Bush. This election threw into doubt the legitimacy of the system but after a few weeks of soul-searching about the whole structure of what was a messy electoral process for this particular election, the issue of electoral reform has all but died a death
In the last century, on three occasions, the person who won most votes did not win the election as their rival got more Electoral College seats. This did not happened in the C20th century.
As the number of Electoral College delegates per state is known on election night, once the votes in that state have been counted and the majority of the states decisions are in, it can be concluded with almost certainty who will be the next president and the Electoral College's post-election votes are merely a formality and a ritual gone through.