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.
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.
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 in the U.S.—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. See the Electoral College timeline of events for the 2020 election.
While the Constitution does not require electors to vote for the candidate chosen by their state's popular vote, some states do. The rare elector who votes for someone else may be fined, disqualified and replaced by a substitute elector, or potentially even prosecuted.
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.
Video: How to Become President of the USA
Explains the presidential election process from beginning to end.
Lots of people dream of becoming President of the United States. But to officially run for office, a person needs to meet three basic requirements established by the U.S. Constitution (Article 2, Section 1).
A Presidential candidate must be:
A natural born citizen (U.S. citizen from birth)
At least 35 years old and
A U.S. resident (permanently lives in the U.S.) for at least 14 years
Step 1: Primaries and Caucuses
People with similar ideas usually belong to the same political party. The two main parties in the U.S. are Republican and Democrat.
Many people want to be President. They campaign around the country and compete to try to win their party’s nomination.
In caucuses, party members meet, discuss, and vote for who they think would be the best party candidate.
In primaries, party members vote in a state election for the candidate they want to represent them in the general election.
Step 2: National Conventions and General Election
After the primaries and caucuses, each major party, Democrat and Republican, holds a national convention to select a Presidential nominee.
The party’s Presidential nominee announces his or her choice for Vice President.
The Presidential candidates campaign throughout the country to win the support of the general population.
On election day, people in every state cast their vote .
Step 3: The Electoral College
When people cast their vote, they are actually voting for a group of people called electors.
Each elector casts one vote following the general election. The candidate who gets 270 votes or more wins.
The newly elected President and Vice President are then inaugurated on January 20th.
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 most recent presidential election was 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.
July to early September – Parties hold nominating conventions to choose their candidates.
September and October – Candidates participate in presidential debates.
Early November – Election Day
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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