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Presidential Election Process

Learn about the presidential election process, including the Electoral College, caucuses and primaries, and the national conventions.

Video: How to Become President of the USA

Explains the presidential election process from beginning to end.

Overview of the Presidential Election Process

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.

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 Nominee: the final candidate chosen by a party to represent them in an election.. 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.

What is the Role of the Electoral College?

During the general election General Election: a final election for a political office with a limited list of candidates. , Americans go to their polling place Polling Place: the location in which you cast your vote. 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 Caucus: a statewide meeting held by members of a political party to choose a presidential candidate to support. debates take place.

  • January to June of election year – States and parties hold primaries Primary: an election held to determine which of a party's candidates will receive that party's nomination and be their sole candidate later in the general election. 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 Elector: a person who is certified to represent their state's vote in the Electoral College. cast their votes in the Electoral College.

  • Early January of the next calendar year – Congress counts the electoral votes.

  • January 20 – Inauguration Day

For an in-depth look at the federal election process in the U.S., check out USA In Brief: ELECTIONS.

Infographic Poster: How to Become President of the United States

This poster explains the presidential election process in the U.S. Download a free copy. Teachers, use this lesson plan created for use with the poster.

How to become President of the United States infographic. See description below. View a larger version of the infographic.

How to become President of the United States infographic. See description below.
  • How to Become President of the United States

    The U.S. Constitution's Requirements for a Presidential Candidate:

    • At least 35 years old
    • A natural born citizen of the United States
    • A resident of the United States for 14 years

    Step 1: Primaries and Caucuses

    There are many people who want to be president. Each of these people have their own ideas about how our government should work.  People with similar ideas belong to the same political party. This is where primaries and caucuses come in. Candidates from each political party campaign throughout the country to win the favor of their party members.

    • Caucus: In a caucus, party members select the best candidate through a series of discussions and votes.
    • Primary: In a primary, party members vote for the best candidate that will represent them in the general election.

    Step 2: National Conventions

    Each party holds a national convention to finalize the selection of one presidential nominee. At each convention, the presidential candidate chooses a running-mate (vice presidential candidate).

    Step 3: General Election

    The presidential candidates campaign throughout the country in an attempt to win the support of the general population.

    People in every state across the country vote for one president and one vice president. When people cast their vote, they are actually voting for a group of people known as electors.

    Step 4: Electoral College

    In the Electoral College system, each state gets a certain number of electors based on its total number of representatives in Congress.

    Each elector casts one electoral vote following the general election; there are a total of 538 electoral votes. The candidate that gets more than half (270) wins the election.

    The president-elect and vice president-elect take the oath of office and are inaugurated in January.

    Definitions:

    • Caucus: A meeting of the local members of a political party to select delegates to the national party convention. A caucus is a substitute for a primary election.
    • Delegate: A person authorized to represent others as an elected representative to a political party conference.
    • Elector: A member of the electoral college.
    • Electoral College: The voters of each state, and the District of Columbia, vote for electors to be the authorized constitutional members in a presidential election.
    • Natural Born Citizen: Someone born with U.S. citizenship includes any child born "in" the United States, the children of United States citizens born abroad, and those born abroad of one citizen parent.
    • Primary: An election where voters select candidates for an upcoming general election. Winning candidates will have delegates sent to the national party convention as their party’s U.S. presidential nominee.

    You can download the President Poster.

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

Anyone who meets these requirements can declare their candidacy for president. Once a candidate raises or spends more than $5,000 for their campaign, they must register with the Federal Election Commission. That includes naming a principal campaign committee to raise and spend campaign funds.

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 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. At 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.

Learn which states have which types of primaries.

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.

For information about your state's presidential primaries or caucuses, contact your state election office or the political party of your choice.

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.

Delegates: Types and Numbers Required

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.

Electoral College

Map showing the number of electoral votes assigned to each state.

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.

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

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. See the distribution of electors by state.

Each state’s political parties choose their own slate of potential electors. Who is chosen to be an elector, how, and when varies by state.

How Does the Electoral College Process Work?

After you cast your ballot for president, your 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 you vote. But the actual Electoral College vote takes place in mid-December when the electors meet in their states.

The Constitution doesn’t require electors to follow their state's popular vote, but it’s rare for one not to.

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.

How to Change the Electoral College

The Electoral College process is in the U.S. Constitution. It would take a constitutional amendment to change the process. For more information, contact your U.S. senator or your U.S. representative.

Inauguration Day

On this federal holiday, the president-elect and vice-president-elect are sworn in and take office.

When is Inauguration Day?

Inauguration Day occurs every four years on January 20 (or January 21 if January 20 falls on a Sunday) at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC.

What is the Presidential Oath of Office?

The vice-president-elect is sworn in first, and repeats the same oath of office, in use since 1884, as senators, representatives, and other federal employees: 

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God."

Around noon, the president-elect recites the following oath, in accordance with Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

What events take place on Inauguration Day?

The inauguration is planned by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Nine activities typically occur:

For more information on the history of presidential inaugurations, explore the inaugural materials from the collections of the Library of Congress.

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Last Updated: December 4, 2019

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