How America Elects Its President A really simple guide
The race for the White House is on and the United States of America is going to elect its 46th President on November 03. This time the contest is primarily between Republican Party’s Donald Trump, who is hoping to secure another four years in power, and Democratic Party’s nominee Joe Biden. It must be noted here that US political system is dominated by just two parties, and the president always belongs to one of them. While presidential elections there are held every four years, the process is long and consists of multiple stages; it can take candidates more than a year of campaigning even to win the nomination of their party, let alone the presidency itself. So, from caucuses to conventions, here’s what you need to know about the US presidential election.
- How it starts?
The presidential election in the United States starts with a primary process for two major political parties to pick their nominees. Unlike many other countries, in the US, there are only two parties considered by most voters—the Democrats (the liberal, left-of-centre party) and the Republicans (the conservative, right-of-centre party).
- Republican Party
It is a conservative political party and is also known as the GOP, or the Grand Old Party. Traditionally, it stands for lower taxes, gun rights and tighter restrictions on immigration. Support for the party tends to be stronger in more rural parts of America.
- Democratic Party
The Democrats are a liberal political party that is best defined by its liberal stances on issues like civil rights, immigration and climate change. It believes government should play a bigger role in people’s lives, like providing health insurance. Support for the party tends to be stronger in urban parts of America.
Note: Other “third-party” candidates sometimes participate, with the Libertarian, Green and Independent parties occasionally putting forth a nominee.
- Required Qualifications
The US Constitution requires that a presidential candidate must be:
- at least 35 years old;
- a natural-born citizen of the United States; and
- a resident of the United States for 14 years
Note: A Natural Born Citizen is someone born with US citizenship. This includes any child born “in” the United States, the children of US citizens born abroad, and those born abroad of one citizen parent.
An election for president of the United States happens every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The President serves for a 4-year term and barring the first election in 1789, the US presidential elections coincide with the leap year.
- When does it start?
The activities for the election of the US president start with the announcement of the intention to run for the election. The hopefuls generally announce their candidacy for president a year and a half before the general election. Thus, although presidential candidates may establish the groundwork several years in advance, formal presidential campaigns typically begin in the spring of the year before the presidential election.
- Election Process
The election process of US President can be consolidated into five steps:
- Primaries and Caucuses
- National Conventions
- General Election
- Electoral College
Following is a brief description of these steps:
Step 1: Primaries and Caucuses
The election process starts with the primaries and caucuses in January or February of the election year. These are two methods that states use to select a potential presidential nominee. Before political party nominees square off in the general election, candidates compete for their party’s nomination in these caucuses and primaries that are held across the country.
Step 2: National Conventions
After primaries and caucuses, come nominating conventions, during which each political party selects a nominee to unite behind. During these conventions, delegates cast their votes and the parties officially announce their presidential and vice-presidential nominees. A candidate must win a majority of the party’s delegates to secure the nomination. If no candidate has achieved a majority of the delegate vote, candidates usually pursue each other’s delegates, hoping to garner enough support to win the majority—this may occur even before the national convention itself. If there’s still no majority at the national convention, you’ll see additional delegate vote trading and rounds of voting (what’s known as a brokered or contested convention). In addition, superdelegates will participate if no candidate wins the majority after the first round of voting.
Step 3: Campaigning
General election campaigning begins after a single nominee is chosen from each political party, via primaries, caucuses and national conventions. These candidates travel throughout the country, explaining their views and plans to the general population and trying to win the support of potential voters. Rallies, debates and advertising are a big part of general election campaigning. They may also participate in debates with candidates from other parties.
Step 4: General Election
As mentioned above, presidential election in the United States is held on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November, meaning the day can fall anywhere from November 2nd to 8th in an election year. On the Election Day, American voters cast ballots for president, but they’re still choosing electors who will ultimately pick the president. This means voters decide state-level contests rather than the national one, which is why it’s possible for a candidate to win the most votes nationally—like Hillary Clinton did in 2016—but still be defeated by the Electoral College.
Also important: There are a lot of other important elections going on at the same time as the presidential race. Voters will pick all 435 members of the US House of Representatives, who are in office for two-year terms. Voters in some states will also vote for US senators, who serve six-year terms. The party that controls those two houses of Congress has a lot of power in Washington, so they’re important in terms of what the newly elected (or re-elected) president can accomplish.
Step 5: Electoral College
The number of electors has been set at 538 since 1964, and it requires 270 to win. Each state gets a certain number of Electoral College votes partly based on its population. Each state gets a number of electors equal to its representation in Congress (House of Representatives plus two Senators). So Wyoming gets three electors, while California, the most populous state, gets 55.
All but two states have a winner-takes-all rule, so whichever candidate wins the highest number of votes is awarded all of the state’s Electoral College votes.
Most states lean heavily towards one party or the other, so the focus is usually on a dozen or so states where either of them could win. These are known as the battleground states. The process of using electors comes from the Constitution. It was a compromise between a popular vote by citizens and a vote in Congress.
Note: While the Constitution doesn’t require electors to follow their state’s popular vote, many states’ laws do. Though it’s rare, electors have challenged those laws and voted for someone else. But, in July 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that those state laws are constitutional. Electors must follow their state’s popular vote, if the state has passed such a law.
When is the result announced?
The states’ electors meet in the state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December (this year, that’s December 14) and cast their ballots for president and vice president. In ways that vary state by state, each state’s electors then prepares six Certificates of Vote, which are sent by registered mail to the President of the US Senate and the Archivist of the United States. The remaining four certificates are sent to state officials. That fulfils the Electoral College’s duties until the next presidential election.
Then, Congress convenes on January 6 to count the electoral votes and certify the winner of the election. Each state, called upon in alphabetical order, files its votes. This process is in some respects ceremonial, because by January the media has declared a winner and usually a concession speech has been given. But, officially, it is the moment of truth. At the end of the Senate’s electoral vote count, the vice president announces the results and asks if there are any objections.
In the extraordinary event that no candidate wins in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives meets to elect the next president. This is how John Quincy Adams became president in 1824.
When does the winner take office?
The new president is officially sworn into office on 20 January in a ceremony known as the inauguration, which is held on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington DC. After the ceremony, the new president makes their way to the White House to begin their four-year term in office.
The writer is a member of staff.