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August 05, 2019

Presidential Elections

Who can be president?

Requirements as mandated by the U.S. Constitution (Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5):

  • ·Natural Born U.S. Citizen
  • At least 35 years of age
  •  Resident of the U.S. for 14 years

How are candidates selected?

Candidates, representing a particular political party, are typically chosen in a primary or caucus. These are held in each of the various states under the laws of that state. There is no one single, national primary or caucus. The national conventions held in the late summer confirm the results of the state proceedings which are usually well decided by the state primaries.

What is the difference between a primary and a caucus?

Primaries are a method of electing a candidate to represent a political party. Primaries are elections in each of the several states staring early in the presidential election year and ending in early summer. A primary can be “open” (i.e., open to all registered voters who may vote for any candidate); “closed” (i.e., restricted to voters who are registered to the political party for which the election is being held); or “semi‐closed” (i.e., restricted to voters who are registered to the political party for which the election is being held, but open to Independent voters).

Caucuses, unlike primaries, are not elections but instead are held through a series of smaller, local meetings in each of the states. Support is shown by hand voting and usually only voters registered with the specific political party are allowed to participate.

When does the presidential election happen?

The election of the president of the United States of America is always held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Voting is done either in person or by mail. Traditionally voters only voted on Election Day, now, however, there is a growing trend to allow an early voting period ( starting as early as the beginning of October in some states), where voters can go to centralized locations to cast their ballots prior to Election Day. Early voting can be for the convenience of the voter or as a means to vote absentee early.

The choice of each voter is reflected in the “popular vote.” But, the president is not elected by popular vote. Instead, the president is chosen by the Electoral College.

What is the electoral college?

The Electoral College is comprised of 538 electors, representing each state, and the number of electors is based on the population of the state. The number of delegates is also equal to the number of congressional districts for each state, plus two senators. As an example, large states like California and Texas, have 55 and 38 electors respectively, and smaller states like Delaware and Vermont, and the District of Columbia, each only have 3 electors. A small state can play an important role as did New Hampshire, a generally “blue” state, split its popular vote between Al Gore and Ralph Nader, an independent, which led to George W. Bush receiving the most votes and that state’s three elector votes. This denied Al Gore the 270 elector votes needed and placed in Florida in play to determine the election.

The first candidate to cross the Electoral College vote threshold of 270 is elected President of the United States. Generally speaking, the winner of the popular vote in a state, is awarded all of the delegates from that state, with two exceptions, Nebraska and Maine.

Electors are generally required to vote for the candidate to which they are pledged, based on the popular vote results for their state. If an elector casts a vote against the instruction of its state delegation, they are labelled as “faithless electors.”

Electors are chosen by their respective political parties prior to the elections, typically at the national convention. Following Election Day, electors will meet in the capital of their state and cast their votes. The results of the Electoral College are announced on January 6 to the U.S. Senate. The new president is inaugurated on 20 January.

When the United States was first founded, it was not possible to have a national election, given the size, lack of widespread ability to communicate with one another, and the nascent nature of a “national” identity for a new country. The founding fathers did not want the president to be elected by Congress or purely by popular vote – as there was fear that larger states would have a disproportionate advantage to vote for their own candidates.


Source: This resource was created using Guide to U.S. Presidential Elections for Foreign Visitors, created by the ABA Standing Committee on Election Law.