America holds a presidential election every four years. The date is in November on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of the month. In 2016, election day is November 8. Election day is not a federal holiday.
Election day is the end of a long process that begins with many candidates declaring their intention to run for president in the summer of the year before the election. After that they campaign with much advertising, debating and traveling around the country to meet voters.
Then, from January to June of election year, each state holds either a caucus or a primary election to choose a candidate to represent each political party. In most cases, only voters registered as members of a specific political party can participate in that party’s caucus or primary. The two major political parties in America are the Republican and the Democratic parties.
In a caucus, voters show their support for a candidate publicly. In a primary, voters use a secret ballot. It is up to the individual states whether to have a caucus or a primary. Most states hold primaries. Only 11 states use caucuses.
From July to early September in an election year, political parties hold conventions and select their official presidential candidates. The official candidates of any political party are said to be on that party’s ticket. The party’s official position on issues is called the party’s platform. Over the next two months, the official candidates choose their vice-presidential running mates, participate in presidential debates and continue to campaign right up until election day.
Now it gets a little complicated. Instead of choosing the president by the majority of the popular vote, the US uses the Electoral College.
- The Electoral College consists of people called electors from each state. There are 538 electors in all. See the Slow American English blog at SlowAmericanEnglish.net for a diagram of the electors for each state.
- The number of a state’s electors is based on the number of members of Congress each state has. For example, Florida has 29 electors (two members of the Senate + 27 members of the House of Representatives).
- Each state counts its popular vote after the election. The candidate that wins the popular vote in that state receives all the electoral votes for that state. Therefore, the candidate with the most popular votes in Florida receives all 29 electoral votes, even though not all the people voted for that candidate.
- A candidate must receive a majority of all the electoral votes, or at least 270, to win the election and become president. If no candidate receives a majority, the House of Representatives chooses the president, and the Senate chooses the Vice-President.
- Although everyone knows who will win the election, the electors don’t officially cast their votes until December of election year. Congress officially counts the electoral votes in January, and the chosen president is inaugurated on January 20th.
- Because of the configuration of the Electoral College, it is possible for a candidate to receive the majority of the popular vote nationwide but still not be elected president. This has happened four times in the history of the United States.
Many consider the Electoral College process unusually complicated. However, the Founding Fathers included it in the US Constitution as a compromise between the group that wanted the president chosen by popular vote and the group that wanted the president to be chosen by Congress. To change the election system, America would have to go through the process of amending the Constitution, a long and difficult procedure.
The Constitution also stipulates that a president must be at least 35 years old, must be a natural-born American citizen and must be a resident of the US for at least 14 years. The Constitution’s 22nd Amendment imposes a two-term limit on the president, meaning a person can only be president for two terms, or eight years total. The only president who ever served more than two terms was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Constitutional amendment imposing term limits was added after he died.
Diagram of the number of electoral votes for each state (from USA.gov):
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