Tens of millions of Americans are voting Tuesday in an election to decide whether President Barack Obama keeps his job for another four years or turns the keys to the White House over to his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
Polls in some states on the East Coast opened at 6 a.m. (1100 GMT) and were to close in the westernmost states of Alaska and Hawaii at midnight (0500 GMT Wednesday) for a contest that most pre-election surveys have indicated will be very close.
Major US media outlets were expected to begin “calling” the race on a state-by-state basis as polls on the East Coast close Tuesday evening but said they would be taking extra precautions to avoid a fiasco like that in 2000 when television networks made numerous mistakes and announced incorrect winners.
With many of the pivotal “battleground” states situated in the eastern half of the country, it was hoped that a winner of the presidential race could become clear sometime around midnight Eastern Standard Time (0500 GMT Wednesday).
But the reported closeness of the race and the potential for vote disruption and procedural violations due to everything from the hurricane that hit the East Coast last week to long lines and confusion about voting rules meant disputes could arise and it could be much later before a clear winner emerged.
International observers affiliated with the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and various other organizations were positioned across the country to try to keep an eye on the vote despite threats from several state governments to arrest them if they tried to get too close to polling stations.
The presidential election has been portrayed by US media as a contest between two candidates with starkly differing views on how best to steer a country that remains rich and strong on the outside but that is increasingly plagued by colossal debt, national self-doubt and deep social division under the surface.
But in practical terms, the sum of differences between Obama and Romney is not large – or, more accurately, the ability of each man to implement his plans is equally constrained by a system that encourages centrism. They are not the only two candidates in the race and the United States can be expected to stay the same general course in foreign and domestic policy regardless of which man wins.
Both candidates, however, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and campaigned relentlessly for much of the past year on a platform of change from the US status-quo, with Obama saying his vision is one of badly-needed reform that must go forward and Romney claiming that “real change” starts with him.
And while the Democratic Party remains solidly behind Obama, the wonder, optimism and the contagious enthusiasm at the prospect of the United States electing its first-ever black president who would lead the country in a truly new direction, manifest in viral internet works like those of Obama Girl and the Corrigan Brothers, has been replaced this time around by a more routine general interest.
Despite the turbulent situation in a world where the United States still plays a leading role and where resentment of Washington often runs high, foreign policy has played almost no role in the election – with the exception of Romney’s effort to blame Obama for the attack last month on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya in which the US ambassador was killed.
“When it comes to drone strikes, the war in Afghanistan, relations with Pakistan, the intervention in Libya, support for Israel or for ‘crippling sanctions’ on Iran, there is little difference between the two parties,” the foreign policy reporter for The Huffington Post website wrote after an Obama-Romney encounter last month touted as a foreign policy debate.
In contrast to elections in many countries where a full “day of silence” devoid of any political campaigning is observed on the eve of the ballot, Obama and Romney spent Monday and even election day Tuesday working to squeeze out every last possible vote in key states.
After making his last public campaign appearance late Monday, Obama was spending Tuesday in his hometown of Chicago where he was scheduled to give around a dozen interviews to various media outlets – and to play a game of basketball, something his campaign says is an election tradition for him.
Romney voted early Tuesday in his home state of Massachusetts and was scheduled to hold final campaign rallies in the “battleground” states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, whose 18 electoral votes could be decisive in determining who the next occupant of the White House will be.
US presidents are not chosen by the direct, popular vote but rather by an Electoral College whose 538 members, or “electors,” are determined as a result of the popular vote in each state. Most states use a “winner-take-all” system whereby the winner of the popular vote – even by the narrowest of margins – receives all of that state’s electors. The number of electors is determined by the state’s population.
In addition to the presidential election, US voters were also being asked to express their views on numerous other contests ranging from federal congressional races (33 of the 100 seats in the US Senate are being contested, along with all 435 seats in the House of Representatives) to ballot initiatives in a few states, like whether to legalize marijuana and same-sex marriage.
Turnout is traditionally low in the United States by comparison with other developed democracies. In 2008, for example, just over 60 percent of eligible voters, or around 132 million people, actually cast ballots. In 1996, when former President Bill Clinton was reelected to a second term, turnout was below 50 percent.