The Speaker
Saturday, 20 July 2024 – 07:19

How is a US President Elected?

The first thing to know about the American democratic system is that America is not a democracy, it is a Republic.

The difference is really a cosmetic one, with a Republic simply meaning the political power of the nation is vested in the people and their representatives – founding father James Madison deliberately avoided the use of the term democracy.

It is also important to note that the American people do not elect their President. Just 538 people decide who the President of the United States is – these people are the Electoral College delegates. We will look at that again later, but it is important to bear these in mind as we go through the Presidential election cycle.

See below the timeline for how a US President is elected, or click another tab to learn more.

Primary Season

In the primary season, states hold two different types of elections to decide who is going to be given that state’s delegates for the party nomination: primaries and caucuses.

  • There are different types of primaries, the most common being open and closed. Open primaries mean that any registered voter within a state can vote for a particular party’s nominee, whereas for closed primaries, only members of that party can vote
  • Primaries work much the same way as many other elections, with the candidate who wins the most votes gaining the majority of that state’s delegates. Each state does it slightly differently, but most also give some delegates to all other candidates who receive above a certain percentage of the vote.
  • Caucuses are more like a town meeting, where communities gather together to debate and vote on who they want to be the candidate. Some causes last for hours and people will vote with their feet, standing in groups of who they want the candidate to be. Some less popular candidates will be eliminated and their supporters asked to then choose a different group to stand with and a different candidate to select.

National Conventions

The major political parties in the United States are the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, who are the only parties to have won the presidency in the last 150 years.

In the summer leading up to the election, they hold their national conventions, usually placed within key states. The conventions are the ‘rubber stamp’ for parties in choosing their Presidential candidate.

The winner of the primary will be known in advance usually and the delegates from each state will be asked to cast their ballots, although it is the case that delegates may not always agree with their state and can result in a contested convention. Although rare, this means candidates are forced to try and get delegates votes on the convention floor in order to gain them the nomination. A similar process happens for choosing the party platform, with votes on policies which they should adopt.

The convention is headlined by some keynote speeches, usually by rising Senators or established party figures.

Electoral College

This is possibly the strangest part of the American Presidential election.

Voters do not actually vote for the President in a Presidential election, but they vote for a delegate who they wish to go to the Electoral College and cast a vote for their chosen candidate. Although in effect they are voting for the President as the delegates almost always carry out the decision of the voters, there have been a few cases of faithless electors (who are those who cast a ballot differently from how the voters instructed them).

The important things to remember about the Electoral College are:

  • There are 538 electors, a candidate needs a majority of 270 to win.
  • The Electoral College isn’t a physical building – most delegates go to their state Capitol building to cast their vote.
  • Faithless electors are rare, but they do happen. There were 10 in 2016, which is one of the highest in history. From 1948 to 2012 there were only 9.
  • If a candidate does not receive a majority in the Electoral College, the responsibility of choosing the President falls on the Senate, who will then elect the President. This happened in 1824, when Andrew Jackson won the most Electoral College delegates, but not a majority. The Senate then decided to pick second placed John Quincy Adams as President, as Andrew Jackson was disliked amongst the political elite.
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