Election Process

Learn about the presidential election process, including the electoral college, caucuses and primaries.

Presidential Election Process

The election process begins with the primary elections, during which political parties each select a nominee to unite behind; the nominee in turn selects a Vice Presidential running mate. The candidates then face off in the general election, usually participating in debates and campaigns across the country to explain their views and plans to the voters.

An election occurs every four years. Unlike other political elections, presidential elections use the Electoral College. The President and the Vice President are the only two nationally elected officials in the United States. To win election, a candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes, or if no candidate receives a majority, the House of Representatives and Senate choose the President and Vice President.

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Steps to Become President of the United States Infographic

View the steps to become President of the United States.

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Steps to Become President of the United States

U.S. Constitution Requirements for a Presidential Candidate:

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

Once the requirements are met, a candidate for President can declare candidacy and register with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) once you receive contributions or make expenditures in excess of $5,000. Within 15 days of reaching that $5,000 requirement, candidates then may file a Statement of Candidacy.

Step 1: Primaries and Caucuses:

Before the election, most candidates for President go through a series of state primaries and caucuses.

State primaries occur through a secret ballot. There are two types of primaries:

  • Open: You can vote for a candidate from any political party
  • Closed: You can only vote for a candidate belonging to your same political party.

Caucuses give political parties the chance to persuade undecided voters to support their chosen candidate. At the end of the caucus, party organizers count the voters in each candidate’s group and calculate how many delegates each candidate has won.

For information about your state’s presidential primary or caucus, contact your state election office.

Step 2: National Convention:

After the primaries and caucuses, most political parties hold a national convention to select their presidential and vice presidential nominees.

In July 2016, Philadelphia will host the 47th Democratic National Convention and Cleveland will host the 41st Republican National Convention.

Step 3: General Election:

The presidential candidates participate in debates and general election campaigns throughout the country  to explain their views and plans to the general population and win the support of  potential voters.

Step 4: Electoral College:

When you cast your vote for president, you are actually voting for a group of people known as electors. They are part of the Electoral College,  the process used to elect the U.S. President and Vice President. Each elector casts one electoral vote following the general election.             

Number of Electors:

There are a total of 538 electors. A candidate needs the vote of more than half (270) to win the presidential election.

  • Each state’s number of electors is equal to the number of its U.S. Senators plus the number of its U.S. Representatives. Washington D.C. is given a number of electors equal to the number held by the smallest state.
  • In 48 states, when a candidate receives the majority of votes, he or she receives all of the state’s electoral votes.
  • Maine and Nebraska are the only two states that use the congressional district method.
    • For example: Nebraska has five electoral votes (one for each of the three congressional districts plus two for the state’s senate seats). The winner of each district is awarded one electoral vote, and the winner of the statewide vote is then awarded the state’s remaining two electoral votes.
  • U.S. territories are not represented in the Electoral College.

It is possible for a candidate to receive the majority of the popular vote but not of the electoral vote and lose a presidential election.

  • For example: If the United States had only three states each with a population of 100, each state would have three electoral votes (2 Senators plus one House of Representatives member) so a candidate would need 5 electoral votes to win the election.
    • Candidate 1 wins the first two states with 51 votes each but loses the third state with just one vote giving them 103 popular votes (51 + 51 + 1) BUT winning the popular vote in the first two states means candidate 1 has earned six electoral votes.
    • Candidate 2 receives 49 votes in the first two states and wins 99 votes in the third state to bring their total popular vote count to 197 (49 + 49 + 99). BUT having won only one state, candidate 2 receives only three electoral votes and therefores loses the election.

How to Change the Electoral College:

Because the Electoral College process is part of the U.S. Constitution, it would be necessary to pass a Constitutional amendment to change this system. For more information, contact your U.S. Senator or your U.S. Representative.

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Presidential Primaries and Caucuses

An election for President of the United States occurs every four years. Before the election, most candidates for President go through a series of state primaries and caucuses.

  • State primaries occur through a secret ballot. There are two types of primaries: closed and open. During a closed primary, you can vote only for a candidate belonging to the same political party as you. During an open primary, you can vote for a candidate of any political party.
  • Caucuses are meetings where members of political parties divide themselves into groups according to the candidate they support, with undecided voters forming into a group of their own. Each group then gives speeches supporting a candidate and tries to persuade others to join their group. At the end of the caucus, party organizers count the voters in each candidate's group and calculate how many delegates each candidate has won.

When the primaries and caucuses are over, most political parties hold a national convention where the winning candidate receives a nomination.

For information about your state's presidential primary or caucus, contact your state election office.

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Electoral College

The Electoral College is the process used to elect the U.S President and Vice President. The process serves as a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens. The candidate with at least 270 electoral votes wins a presidential election.   

The process begins with the selection of the electors, followed by the meeting of the electors to vote for President and Vice President, and finally the counting of the electoral votes by Congress.  

Number of Electors

Each state's number of electors is equal to the number of its U.S. Senators plus the number of its U.S. Representatives. In 48 states, when a candidate receives the majority of votes, he or she receives all of a state's electoral votes. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, can split their electoral votes among the candidates. It is possible for a candidate to receive the majority of the popular vote but not of the electoral vote and lose a presidential election.

The Office of the Federal Register coordinates the functions of the Electoral College on behalf of the Archivist of the United States, the States, the Congress, and the American people. For more information, contact them by e-mail at electoral.college@nara.gov or by phone at 1-202-741-6030.

How to Change the Electoral College

Because the Electoral College process is part of the U.S. Constitution, it would be necessary to pass a Constitutional amendment to change this system. For more information, contact your U.S. Senator or your U.S. Representative.

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