President Election Process in the U.S Explained

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Context: 59th quadrennial presidential election of the United States of America is scheduled for Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Relevance: G.S Paper 2- Comparison of the Indian Constitutional Scheme with that of Other Countries.

The 2020 United States presidential election is  It will be the An election for president of the United States happens every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The next presidential election will be November 3, 2020.

In other U.S. elections, candidates are elected directly by popular vote. But the president and vice president are not elected directly by citizens. Instead, they’re chosen by “electors” through a process called the Electoral College.

Primaries, Caucuses, and Political Conventions
  • The election process begins with primary elections and caucuses. These are two methods that states use to select a potential presidential nominee. In general, primaries use secret ballots for voting.
  • Caucuses are local gatherings of voters who vote at the end of the meeting for a particular candidate. Then it moves to nominating conventions, during which political parties each select a nominee to unite behind.
  • During a political party convention, each presidential nominee also announces a vice presidential running mate. The candidates then campaign across the country to explain their views and plans to voters. They may also participate in debates with candidates from other parties.



Electoral College

  • The process of using electors comes from the Constitution. It was a compromise between a popular vote by citizens and a vote in Congress. 

What is the Role of the Electoral College?

  • During the general election. Americans go to their polling place to cast their vote for president.
  • But the tally of those votes- the popular vote- does not determine the winner. Instead, presidential elections use the Electoral College.
  • To win the election, a candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes. In the event no candidate receives a majority, the House of Representatives chooses the president and the Senate chooses the vice president.

What is a Typical Presidential Election Cycle?

The presidential election process follows a typical cycle:

  • Spring of the year before an election – Candidates announce their intentions to run. 
  • Summer of the year before an election through spring of the election year – Primary and caucus debates take place. 
  • January to June of the election year – States and parties hold primaries and caucuses. 
  • July to early September – Parties hold nominating conventions to choose their candidates. 
  • September and October – Candidates participate in presidential debates. 
  • Early November – Election Day 
  • December – Electors cast their votes in the Electoral College. 
  • Early January of the next calendar year – Congress counts the electoral votes. 
  • January 20 – Inauguration Day



The Electors

  • Each state gets as many electors as it has members of Congress (House and Senate). Including Washington, D.C.’s three electors, there are currently 538 electors in all.
  • Each state’s political parties choose their own slate of potential electors. 

How Does the Electoral College Process Work?

  • After casting of votes is complete for president, the vote goes to a statewide tally. In 48 states and Washington, D.C., the winner gets all the electoral votes for that state. Maine and Nebraska assign their electors using a proportional system.
  • A candidate needs the vote of at least 270 electors– more than half of all electors- to win the presidential election.
  • In most cases, a projected winner is announced on election night in November after voting. But the actual Electoral College vote takes place in mid-December when the electors meet in their states. 

Special Situations

  • Winning the Popular Vote but Losing the Election
  • It is possible to win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote.  This happened in 2016, in 2000, and three times in the 1800s.

What Happens if No Candidate Wins the Majority of Electoral Votes?

  • If no candidate receives the majority of electoral votes, the vote goes to the House of Representatives. House members choose the new president from among the top three candidates. The Senate elects the vice president from the remaining top two candidates.
  • This has only happened once. In 1824, the House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams as president.
Presidential Primaries and Caucuses
  • Before the general election, most candidates for president go through a series of state primaries and caucuses.
  • Though primaries and caucuses are run differently, they both serve the same purpose. They let the states choose the major political parties’ nominees for the general election.

State Primaries and Caucuses for the Presidential Elections

  • State primaries are run by state and local governments. Voting happens through a secret ballot. 
  • Caucuses are private meetings run by political parties. They’re held at the county, district, or precinct level. In most, participants divide themselves into groups according to the candidate they support. Undecided voters form their own group. Each group gives speeches supporting its candidate and tries to get others to join its group. In the end, the number of voters in each group determines how many delegates each candidate has won. 
  • Both primaries and caucuses can be “open,” “closed,” or some hybrid of the two. 
  • During an open primary or caucus, people can vote for a candidate of any political party. 
  • During a closed primary or caucus, only voters registered with that party can take part and vote. 
  • “Semi-open” and “semi-closed” primaries and caucuses are variations of the two main types.

Awarding Delegates from the Primaries and Caucuses

  • At stake in each primary or caucus is a certain number of delegates. These are individuals who represent their state at national party conventions. The candidate who receives a majority of the party’s delegates wins the nomination. The parties have different numbers of delegates due to the rules involved in awarding them. Each party also has some unpledged delegates or superdelegates. These delegates are not bound to a specific candidate heading into the national convention.
  • When the primaries and caucuses are over, most political parties hold a national convention. This is when the winning candidates receive their nomination.

U.S. Constitutional Requirements for Presidential Candidates

The president must:

  • Be a natural-born citizen of the United States.
  • Be at least 35 years old.
  • Have been a resident of the United States for 14 years.
National Conventions

After the primaries and caucuses, most political parties hold national conventions.

What Happens at a National Political Convention?

  • Conventions finalize a party’s choice for presidential and vice-presidential nominees.
  • To become the presidential nominee, a candidate typically has to win a majority of delegates. This usually happens through the party’s primaries and caucuses. It’s then confirmed through a vote of the delegates at the national convention.
  • But if no candidate gets the majority of a party’s delegates during the primaries and caucuses, convention delegates choose the nominee. This happens through additional rounds of voting.

Types of Delegates at a National Convention

There are two main types of delegates:

  • Pledged, or bound delegates must support the candidate they were awarded to through the primary or caucus process. 
  • Unpledged delegates or superdelegates can support any presidential candidate they choose. 

Contested and Brokered Conventions

  • In rare cases, none of the party’s candidates has a majority of delegates going into the convention. The convention is considered “contested.” Delegates will then pick their presidential nominee through one or more rounds of voting. 
  • In the first round of voting, pledged delegates usually have to vote for the candidate they were awarded to at the start of the convention. Unpledged delegates don't. 
  • Superdelegates can't vote in the first round unless a candidate already has enough delegates through primaries and caucuses to get the nomination. 
  • If no nominee wins in the first round, the convention is considered “brokered.” The pledged delegates may choose any candidate in later rounds of voting. Superdelegates can vote in these later rounds. 
  • Balloting continues until one candidate receives the required majority to win the nomination. 
  • At the convention, the presidential nominee officially announces their selection of a vice presidential running mate.

How is their voter turnout?

  • Voter turnout has been historically low in America when compared to other democracies.
  • The turnout in the last presidential election was 61.8 % (compared to India’s 66.8 %). With low registration, this effectively means that less than 45 % of eligible Americans voted.
  • Voting demographics show that older people- 65 plus- tend to vote more than 18-24 year-olds by as much as 25 %age points.
  • In contradiction to India, people with more education and income vote more than the less endowed. Similarly, women vote in larger numbers.
  • Blacks and Hispanics vote less because of lack of interest.

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