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    How The American Election Works, Explained For British People

    It'll be okay. It'll all be okay.

    Woooo! Yeah! It's finally time! The churning hellscape of 2016 is about to reach its terrifying climax, as America actually has its election. WHO'S EXCITED?

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    It's going to be fine. It's all going to be fine.

    But the election can be very confusing for British people. What's actually going to happen? When is it going to happen? Could Donald Trump actually become president?

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    Spoiler: yes. Yes he could.

    It's okay. We can get through this nightmare together! Grab your favourite crying pillow and we'll try to explain.

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    If you're planning to stay awake feeling anxious and slightly sick until the results are in, you'll probably need to stay up until about 5am. (And possibly not sleep until December, if something goes wrong.)

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    Because America is huge and covers lots of timezones, polls close at different times, which leads to a weird situation where results of some states in the east are known while people are still voting in the west.

    The first polls to close will be at 11pm UK time, but that's just two states (Kentucky and Indiana) and they probably won't tell us much about the outcome of the election. Midnight is when the fun really starts! And by fun, we mean "looming sense of dread".

    Midnight UK time is when the polls close in the first bunch of really important states. But when we'll actually know the results from them depends on how close it is...

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    This will be an excellent time to start pacing nervously, or going for a stress wee every ten minutes.

    But unless the election is ridiculously close, we should know who's won somewhere between 4am and 5am. Here's a helpful map of when every state got "called" in the last election – add five hours to each of these times for when they'll happen in the UK.

    A cool map that shows when every state was called by @AP in 2012 election Hat tip @eliseviebeck

    The reason for all this confusion is that the winner of the presidential election isn’t necessarily the person who gets the most votes. Hahahaha, no, that would be too simple!

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    Just ask poor sad Al Gore, who got more votes than George W. Bush in 2000, but still lost the election.

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    Instead of just counting up all the 120million (ish) votes in the country and finding out who got the most, the USA has a system called the “electoral college”.

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    The electoral college is not a proper college, because it doesn't have classes, or a cheap bar, or snazzy hoodies with the "ELECTORAL COLLEGE" written on them.

    They do have a nice wooden box that they put their votes in, though.

    What happens is five hundred and thirty eight people representing all the states get together and vote for who should be president, then write the result down on fancy paper.

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    It's a little bit like how we don't technically elect our prime minister, we elect MPs who then (sort of) elect the prime minister. The electoral college members aren't senators or congresspeople, though, they're basically just randos.

    Each state is worth a different number of electoral college votes, depending on how big it is. So for example California (which has a population of around 39 million) gets 55 electoral college votes.

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    Look at these typical Californians, celebrating their large number of electoral college votes in a typical Californian way.

    Meanwhile Wyoming (population: 7 people and a bear) gets just three.

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    Here we can see Wyoming's bear trying to find its nearest polling station.

    And the candidate who wins a state gets to claim all of that state’s electoral votes.

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    So, to pluck a completely made-up example out of thin air, you could win Florida by just 537 votes out of 5.8 million, and you’d still get all of Florida’s electoral college votes.

    (Except, obviously, it’s not that simple, because LOL it is never that simple. No, Maine and Nebraska decided they have to be weird and different, so instead they split their vote into chunks.)

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    You keep doing you, Maine and Nebraska.

    That means in order to be become president, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will need to win a majority of the electoral college – which is 270 votes.

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    You can visualise this by imagining people pouring shots into big buckets. Actually, you don't need to visualise that, we made a video of it.

    So what might actually happen in this election – bearing in mind that it is 2016, and therefore whatever happens will almost certainly be more weird and horrifying than we could possibly have imagined?

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    Well, lots of states are “safe states”. That means that, unless something completely ridiculous happens, their votes are predictable and boring and pretty much stay the same.

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    Here are a bunch of states that are definitely safe. The odds of Trump winning California, or Clinton winning Wyoming, are roughly the same as the odds of Trump apologising for something.

    That said, it is 2016, so let’s not count anything out.

    And, importantly, these safe states get Clinton much closer to victory than Trump.

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    That doesn’t mean she’s definitely going to win – but it does mean that Donald Trump’s job was always going to be a lot harder, even before you factor in additional issues, like the terrible things he says and does.

    That leaves the “swing states” – the ones where the result is likely to be close. These are the places that decide the election, so if you’re looking for someone to blame, they're pretty much your huckleberry.

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    And if (and only if) it’s going to be a really close election, Trump will probably win quite a lot of these states.

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    So which states should you look out for? Well, some of the less-swingy swing states are Wisconsin and Michigan (which lean towards Clinton) and Arizona, Alaska, and Georgia (which lean towards Trump).

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    These states probably won't cause an upset, although it's not impossible. But if any of those states do switch sides, you'll know that this election has gone weird and the polls were pretty much wrong. At this point you may start celebrating or weeping, according to your preference.

    Now, what about our old friends Ohio and Florida? They're basically the swingiest of the swing states and always decide elections, right?

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    They're both going to be very close this election – Ohio leans slightly towards Trump, while Florida leans slightly towards Clinton. The key thing is, though, that in the election they're not necessarily decisive: Donald Trump could win both of them and still not get to 270 electoral college votes.

    But if Hillary Clinton wins either or both of them, Trump's chances of getting to the White House will become much, much harder,

    Also keep an eye on North Carolina, Nevada and Iowa.

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    Iowa is a state that Barack Obama won fairly easily in 2012, but that polls suggest has gone over to Trump this year. But if the result there is close (or even if Trump loses) then it suggests he's not doing as well as he'd hoped.

    North Carolina and Nevada could both be crucial to the election – they're both states where large minority populations who are hostile to Trump could swing it. If Clinton wins Nevada and especially North Carolina, that's a sign that the election could be going her way.

    But if you want to know how the election's going, the three most telling states might be New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.

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    Along with Michigan, Wisconsin and Virginia (which are all a bit safer) they're part of what's been called Hillary Clinton's "firewall" – the swing states where Clinton has consistently led in the polls, and which are put together are just enough to get her over the 270 vote mark.

    Even if Trump takes all the other really competitive swing states – Ohio, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina and Nevada – if Clinton wins in these states (and if she doesn't suffer an unexpected catastrophe elsewhere) then she's probably going to be the president. But it would be a very, very narrow victory, so she would have no margin of error.

    But if she loses in any of those three, that could be a sign that everything's going a bit Trump.

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    And that's how the American election works. Have fun!

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