Although November 6, 2012 is "Election Day," Election Day has increasingly become a relative term.  More than half of states conduct some form of early voting. 

Early and Absentee Voting A Growing Trend

In the November 2012 general election, 58.7% of those eligible to vote turned out and 129.1 million ballots were cast for president.  This was short of the 131.3 million votes cast in the race for president in 2008 when 62.3% of those eligible to vote turned out. 

Increasing numbers of Americans are voting before Election Day.  According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission's 2008 Survey (>), 60.2% of those voting in the general election voted in person at polling places, 16.6% voted by domestic absentee ballot, 13.0% by some form of early voting, and 1.3% by provisional ballot.  Early voting, which started in Texas in 1991 (>), has now spread to over half the states. (EVIC)  Other states allow no excuse absentee voting, and Oregon and Washington are using vote-by-mail.  Early voting has significant ramifications on campaigns' get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.  Campaigns encourage supporters to vote early (1, 2) as a way of banking votes, so that on Election Day itself they have fewer people to keep track of. 

Keeping Our Democracy Running Smoothly

In 2011-12 much attention focused on voter ID laws (+).  Generally Republicans frame voter ID requirements as a matter of fighting voter fraud, while Democrats view such laws as a means of voter suppression.  There was a lot of litigation around Voter ID laws in this election cycle.  But voter ID is one of many issues affecting elections; each year legislatures around the country consider a range of election-related legislation (>).  More than a decade after the Florida debacle and passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) (+) the possibility of incorrect election outcomes remains (>). 

Among the areas of concern are shortages of poll workers (>), worn equipment, issues with provisional and absentee ballots, military voting and overseas voting.  In July 2012 the Verified Voting Foundation, Common Cause and the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic released an in-depth survey of states' voting equipment which noted "it is highly likely that voting systems will fail in multiple places across the country (>)."  Laws themselves don't solve problems; they must be interpreted and implemented, sometimes under trying conditions as happened with Hurricane Sandy (1, 2).  Directives and rulings by secretaries of state or election officials may provoke controversy (+).  Finally, on the frontlines are the nation's election administrators (Election Center), who must work to keep their practices and technology up-to-date and to implement new ideas to improve the voting process in their jurisdictions.  The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), formed as a result of HAVA, serves as a national clearinghouse for administrators, but has been without commissioners since Dec. 2011, and some in Congress have sought to defund it. 

On Election Day itself and in the days leading up to it, partisan and independent observers, federal observers, and international observers of varying stripes mobilize to ensure that voters' rights are protected and their intentions heard (1, 2, 3, 4[PDF], 5) also see from 2008: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). 

Election Night: Unofficial Results, Exit Polls...Showtime

Election night coverage and the multi-page spreads in the newspaper the next morning are the culmination of months of preparation and planning.

One key component of election coverage is exit polls, which are based on surveys of voters in randomly selected precincts as they leave polling places.  Exit polls provide a window on the concerns of voters and useful information on variations in voting behavior by gender, race, age, education, income and other factors.  From 1988 to 2002 exit polls were overseen by Voter News Service (initially called Voter Research and Surveys), an entity formed by the networks and the Associated Press.  After poor performance in the 2000 and 2002 general elections, the partners disbanded VNS, and a new cooperative, the National Election Pool, comprised of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, FOX News, NBC News and the Associated Press, formed.  Edison Research (formerly Edison Mitofsky) has conducted all exit polling for the National Election Pool since the 2004 general election.  Edison reported in a Nov. 13, 2012 blog posting:

"The U.S. election exit polling effort is the largest single-day survey research project in the world. The national exit poll survey includes 26,565 interviews with voters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The interviews were conducted at 350 polling locations on election day, along with 4,408 telephone interviews of absentee and early voters. In addition, Edison staffers collected over 90,000 additional interviews across the country to provide election analysis of dozens of state-level elections. In total, over 3,000 Edison staff members collected nearly 120,000 interviews, all within the span of 16 hours."

A second important element of election night coverage is the collection, tabulation and distribution unofficial election night vote results for presidential, Senate, House and gubernatorial races.  The Associated Press fulfils this role.  As described in a 2008 press release:

"The more than 500 AP reporters, editors, videographers, technical support personnel and other staffers involved in covering the presidential, congressional and state elections and counting the votes will be joined and assisted on Nov. 4 by an army of 4,600 local reporters, known as stringers, who will fan out across the country to collect vote results from county clerks and phone them into four regional election tabulation centers -- two in Spokane, Wash., a third at AP headquarters in Manhattan and a fourth in Brooklyn."

For news organizations, when everything works, election night is as good as it gets, a chance to show what they can do.  Anchors man elaborate sets, correspondents around the country file reports, and, as the evening progresses, states are called one way or another and the map begins to fill in with red and blue. 
[News Organizations Cover Election Day 2012]

Defeat...And Victory

After last-ditch campaign swings, the candidates head to their home states.  Typically on the morning of Election Day they vote, and photos and video of those scenes go out to the world.  (This cycle President Obama voted early, on October 25, 2012, to emphasize the importance his campaign is placing on early voting) (+).  The candidate may squeeze in a few more campaign events, as Romney and Ryan did, then prepare for the last speech of the campaign, be it victory or concession.  Because the race appeared to be dead even,  there were suggestions that the outcome might not be known on Election Day; one worst case scenario posited that it might be necessary to wait for the counting of provisional ballots in Ohio.  The evening of November 6, 2012 did not drag on as long as many had expected.  NBC News was first to call Ohio and the race at 11:12 p.m. EST (after the 8 p.m. (11 p.m. EST) West Coast poll closings); CBS News, FOX News, CNN, and ABC News followed.  It was after midnight when former Gov. Romney, in Boston, called President Obama and then delivered his concession speech. Obama made his victory speech shortly thereafter in Chicago. 

The Morning After...What Does It Mean?

The days after the election are peak season for pundits as they assess, analyze, discuss and debate the meaning of the results.  Various interest groups offer their own post-election assessments, often using the opportunity to point to the impact their constituency had on the outcome and to stress their key issues. 
[Reactions 2012, 2008, 2004]  

Results

129.1 million votes were tallied in the race for president, the second most ever after 2008.  Obama garnered 65.9 million votes (51.0%) to 60.9 million (47.2%) for Romney. Libertarian Gary Johnson received 1.3 million votes (just below 1.0%), Green Jill Stein less than half a million votes (0.36%) and other candidates accounted for the remaining 0.45% of the vote.  Obama carried 26 states and the District of Columbia, winning 332 electoral votes to 206 for McCain. 
Details  [See also: David Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, Federal Election Commission, Mark Newman-cartograms]

Voter Turnout in Recent Presidential Elections
Year Voting Eligible Population Highest Office Total Turnout Highest Office
Turnout Rate
Total Ballots Counted Turnout Rate
2012
221,925,820
129,072,347
130,306,739
58.2
58.7
2008
212,720,027 131,304,731 132,588,514 61.7
62.3
2004 203,483,455 122,294,978 123,535,883
60.1 60.7
2000 194,331,436 105,375,486 107,390,107
54.2 55.3
1996 186,347,044 96,262,935 -
51.7 -
1992 179,675,523 104,405,155 -
58.1 -
1988 173,579,281 91,594,691 -
52.8 -
1984 167,701,904 92,652,680 -
55.2 -
1980 155,635,102 86,515,221 -
54.2 -

Source: United States Elections Project at George Mason University.  Use of voting eligible population is a refinement on the old measures which used voting age population.  Advanced by Dr. Michael McDonald at George Mason, the concept removes non-citizens and ineligible felons from the equation.  See also Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.

Lessons

Each election is unique and produces a set of lessons and areas that need improvement.  Long lines at polling place in some jurisdictions emerged as a signature problem of the 2012 general election.  In his Inaugural Address, President Obama declared, "Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote."  Obama announced on March 28, 2013 the establishment of a Presidential Commission on Election Administration [PDF], +; it is due to issue a report six months after its first meeting.  Individual states and localities are moving to make improvements as well (examples 1, 2, 3).  The Election Assistance Commission, although hampered by a lack of commissioners, is preparing a 2012 Election Administration and Voting Survey which should offer useful insights as well.

Election Day: Take 2...The Electoral College

As you will recall from high school, the president is not selected by direct popular vote, but by intermediaries known as electors.  The electoral system is outlined in the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1804 (this significantly modified the original provisions contained in Article II).  Each state has a number of electors equal to its number of congressmen and Senators.  The District of Columbia has three electors, bringing the total to 538.  Most states use a winner-take-all rule; all the state's electors go to the winner of the popular vote in the state.  The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, which distribute the electors by congressional district. 

Electors are generally party activists.  Some months before the election each party puts together a slate of electors, chosen by congressional district with the exception of the two at-large Senate slots.  If the party's presidential candidate wins the popular vote in the state on Election Day, the members of his or her slate are officially appointed as electors; if not they stay home. 

The law governing electors and the counting of the electoral votes is 3 U.S.C.§§1-21.  Electors meet in ceremonies in each of the state capitols and in the District of Columbia on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December (December 17, 2012).  The electors sign the certificates of vote--actually they sign six copies of the document so there are back-ups.  There are separate votes for president and for vice president.  Each state sends one copy of the certificate of vote to the Office of the President of the United States Senate.  

On January 4, 2013 in a special joint session of Congress these envelopes were opened and tallied and the re-election of Barack Obama and Joe Biden certified.  (The designated day, January 6, fell on a Sunday so on January 3 Congress passed a resolution changing the date >). 

Normally this is a pro forma exercise, but there have been exceptions.  In 2001 members of the Congressional Black Caucus tried to get Congress to reject Florida's electors, but they could not find a Senator to support their effort.  In 2005 certification of the state results proceeded alphabetically until the Ohio votes were announced.  At that point Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (D-OH), supported by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), announced a challenge.  Debate followed, but the election of President Bush and Vice President Cheney was finally and officially certified. 

Despite Critics Electoral College Likely to Endure for Years to Come

Over the years there have been many efforts to abolish the Electoral College and establish direct popular vote; each Congress several resolutions are introduced, but none of them has made headway.  Additionally there have been attempts in a number of states to move away from winner-take-all distribution of electors.  In 2004 Colorado voters rejected an initiative which would have distributed electors proportionally according to popular vote in the state. 

More recently Republicans have sought to alter allocation of electors in several big states that typically have supported the Democratic candidate for president.  In Sept. 2011 Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R) introduced SB 1282, a proposal to allocate electors by congressional district (+).  A similar bill was introduced in Wisconsin.  Following the 2012 election, Virginia State Sen. Charles “Bill” Carrico Sr. (R) introduced a bill which would have awarded electors to the winner in each of the commonwealth's congressional districts and awarded the remaining two to the winner of the most congressional districts; this died in committee. In Pennsylvania, Pillegi introduced a new bill on Feb. 21, 2013, this time proposing to allocate electors proportionately according to the popular vote (SB 538) (+), and there has been activity in several other states.

In 2006 a group called National Popular Vote launched an effort to bring about change through the state legislatures.  The premise is a compact or "Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote" which would take effect once states totalling 270 electoral votes have enacted it.  In August 2010 Massachusetts became the sixth state to enact the measure, and in October 2010 the District of Columbia approved the bill taking the agreement to 28% of the needed amount.  The National Popular Vote effort is ongoing, but at its current pace it is clear that the Electoral College system will still be in place for the forseeable future.