A Guide to US Elections
The road to becoming president in America is long, expensive and exhausting. It involves campaigning for votes and persuading voters that you deserve their vote in the Electoral College.
This guide will help you understand how elections work. It also explains why it is possible for one candidate to win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College.
How Elections Work
Americans elect their government officials at the federal, state and local levels. The nation’s head of state, the President, is indirectly elected by the people through the Electoral College process. Citizens vote for a slate of people called electors, who pledge to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state. The candidate with the majority of electoral votes becomes the President.
Those who wish to run for President must meet certain basic requirements and then compete in primary elections and caucuses. Political parties also hold national conventions where they choose their presidential nominees.
State law and constitutions regulate the election process at the state level. Various officials are elected in each state including Governors and Lieutenant Governors, Senators and Members of Congress and Representatives for districts and U.S. Territories such as American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico. The United States has a decentralized system of administering elections, and election procedures vary significantly among the states.
The Presidential General Election
The general election for President is held every four years. It is the main event in the presidential electoral process.
People with different ideas about how to govern form political parties. These political parties compete in a series of events called primaries and caucuses to choose their final Presidential nominees who will then go on to the national conventions where the party members select the actual Presidential candidates.
Once a candidate is chosen for each party they will start campaigning for votes from voters all over the country. They will also participate in televised debates where they are asked to discuss their policies and defend their stance on issues facing America.
Most States have a winner take all system where the Presidential candidate who receives the most votes in a State wins its electoral votes. There are two States (Maine and Nebraska) that use a proportional voting system. Voting ends on November 8 and the Electoral College meets to vote for their slate of electors for President and Vice President.
State and Local Elections
While federal elections get the most attention, many states and localities have their own elections. At the state level, citizens elect government officials including governors and legislatures. The nation’s head of state, the president, is indirectly elected by voters across the country through an Electoral College, where individual states’ votes are cast by electors who commit to vote for a particular candidate in advance. Historically, electors sometimes voted against their state’s popular choice (a practice known as faithless voting) but today such occurrences are very rare.
State laws and constitutions regulate the times, places and manner of state and local elections. State-level offices include the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State, State Supreme Court Justices and Comptroller, as well as State Senators and State Legislators. State ballots also may contain a variety of other legislative matters such as bond initiatives and proposals to amend the state constitution.
In general, state and local elections are held at various times throughout the year. To see if there’s an election in your area, check with your county or city elections office.
The Electoral College
When Americans go to the polls for a presidential election, they’re actually voting for people called electors. They are chosen by their state and national political parties for the specific task of picking a president every four years.
Basically, each state gets its number of electors based on its population (two senators and one representative). Then those elected voters meet in December to vote for president and vice president. The candidate that receives 270 electoral votes becomes president.
In most states – and all but two – the winner of the popular vote in each district gets an electoral vote. Maine and Nebraska use a different system that allows their electors to cast votes for anyone they choose.
The Electoral College is not perfect and some people argue it should be abolished. But that would require a constitutional amendment and approval by a majority of states. And in a time of political turmoil, the old-school system could be more useful than ever.