AMERICA uses an indirect election system to elect its president. Voters are voting for delegates to the Electoral College, which elects the president in January. But in practice, because the delegates are tied to their state’s choice, the outcome will be decided by who gets 270 votes or more today.

The number of electoral votes reflects the population in the state and, with the exception of Nebraska, the state’s winner takes all votes. The largest state is California with 55 votes; the smaller states such as Vermont and Alaska have three each.

The US television networks and newspapers conduct exit polling during the day and if these polls show a clear lead – of 10 to 15 points – they will call the result immediately after the polls close.

The first polls – in Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, Indiana, and Kentucky – close at 11am Sydney time.

The states to watch among the early closers are Virginia, which Barack Obama hopes to win, and Indiana, which was a strong Bush state in 2004 but is now a toss-up. If Senator Obama won both of these, he would be well on his way to winning the presidency.

Two more states – Ohio and West Virginia – will close at 11.30am. These are both toss-up states. A word of warning on the bellwether state of Ohio: Senator Obama’s vote will come from the big cities such as Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and Cleveland. John McCain’s vote will come from the rural areas and the suburbs around the cities, so commentators will be reluctant to call it until a wide spread of results is in.

At noon, the vast majority of east-coast states close, including Florida and Pennsylvania. If Senator McCain is hanging on in Virginia, Indiana and Ohio – all Republican states in 2004 – and is competitive in Pennsylvania, a Democrat state, this would be a very good sign for him. But if Pennsylvania is called for Obama early, this would be very bad news for McCain as he needs to win Pennsylvania to compensate for likely losses in the Midwest.

A formal declaration would probably only come after 3pm when California closes, unless either candidate has reached 270 before then.

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