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  • Raghav Sand

How U.S. Presidential Election Works

Periodicity of Election


The election for United States’ President is held every four years. As per the current schedule, the presidential election will be held on Tuesday, November 3.


Eligibility to be the President of U.S.


As per Article 2, Section 1 of the United States Constitution, a person needs to fulfil the following conditions, namely

  1. A natural born citizen

  2. At least 35 years old, and

  3. A U.S. resident for at least 14 years

Image Courtesy: usa.gov

Four step process


The U.S. Presidential election is broadly divided in to four steps. An overview of the process is discussed below.

  1. Primaries and Caucuses: In a Caucus, party members select the best candidate through a series of discussions and votes. In primaries, party members vote for the best candidate that will represent them in the general election.

  2. National Conventions: In a national convention, party selects a final presidential nominee. State delegates from the primaries and caucuses selected to represent the people will now “endorse” their favourite candidates. Final presidential nominee from each party will be officially announced at the end of the conventions. The presidential candidate also chooses a running mate (Vice Presidential candidate).

  3. General Election: U.S. citizens eligible to vote cast their ballot for one President and Vice President. The voters are actually voting for a group of people called electors. Except in the states of Maine and Nebraska, if a candidate receives the majority of the votes from the people of a state then the candidate will receive all electoral votes of that state.

  4. Electoral College: The founders of U.S. settled on the middle path approach between the election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens. Electoral votes are allocated among the States based on the Census. Irrespective of the size of the state, there are two members from each State to the U.S. senate; the current strength of U.S. Congress is 100 i.e. two members from each of the 50 states. Every State is allocated number of votes equal to the number of senators and representatives in its U.S. Congressional delegation—two votes for its senators in the U.S. Senate plus a number of votes equal to the number of its Congressional districts. For example, California has 53 seats in the House of Representatives and 2 members from senate. The District of Columbia is allocated 3 electors and treated like a State for purposes of the Electoral College under the 23rd Amendment of the Constitution.

Map of the U.S. showing the number of electoral college votes by state.
Image Courtesy: usa.gov

Who is eligible to vote in US Presidential election?

  1. U.S. Citizen

  2. Person meeting State residency requirements

  3. 18 years old on or before Election Day. Requirements for registration and voting varies from State to State.

Methods for Voting in US Presidential election

  1. Voting on election day

  2. Absentee and early voting

Voting on election day is self explanatory. Absentee voting allows you to vote by mail. Citizens living outside their voting jurisdiction or travelling at the time of in person voting make use of this facility. In early voting, a state may let the eligible voters vote during a designated early voting period. No excuse is required for early voting. This facility is useful for elderly and persons with disability.


Are there restrictions on who the electors can vote for?


There is no Constitutional provision that requires electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their States. Some States, however, require electors to cast their votes according to the popular vote. These pledges fall into two categories—electors bound by State law and those bound by pledges to political parties. It is rare for electors to disregard the popular vote by casting their electoral vote for someone other than their party’s candidate. Electors generally hold a leadership position in their party or were chosen to recognize years of loyal service to the party.


What happens if no presidential candidate gets 270 electoral votes?


If no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the Presidential election leaves the Electoral College process and moves to Congress. The House of Representatives elects the President from the 3 Presidential candidates who received the most electoral votes. Each State delegation has one vote and it is up to the individual States to determine how to vote. (Since the District of Columbia is not a State, it has no State delegation in the House and cannot vote). A candidate must receive at least 26 votes (a majority of the States) to be elected.


Some Key Definitions

  1. 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.

  2. Delegate: A person authorized to represent others as an elected representative to a political party conference.

  3. Elector: A member of the electoral college.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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. This day is a federal holiday in U.S.

If Joe Biden wins the election, he wouldn’t immediately replace President Trump as there is a set transition period to give the new leader time to appoint cabinet ministers and make plans. In case President Donald Trump wins the Presidential election, he shall take a fresh oath for the office of President on inauguration day.


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