Primer: United States Presidential Elections

Primaries? Electoral College? Supreme Court Interference? All your questions answered.

With only 33 days left for the United States Presidential election, now might be a great time to really understand the process behind the U.S general election. 2016 provided a general shock when people realised it was possible to lose the U.S presidency even if you win the popular vote. This pointed out that while coverage of the US elections is vast and never-ending, rarely is there enough discussion around the intricate procedure behind the electoral process. Hopefully, in reading this you will be better prepared to face the 2020 elections and its results, whatever they may be.

How do the elections work?

The United States is a presidential form of democracy, meaning the people of the country (indirectly) vote for the president- unlike in India or the United Kingdom- where the people vote for the political parties that will form the parliament (the legislature). Then, the leader of the party that wins the election will assume the role of the Prime Minister.

The modern political party system of the United States is a two-party system. These two parties are: The Democratic Party and The Republican Party (also known as the Grand Old Party “GOP”). In the US, the people of the country will get to directly vote for the presidential nominee, but indirectly vote for the President.

The entire process is like this:

  • Individuals will nominate themselves as candidates competing in a political party.
  • Primaries and caucuses will be held by both the parties to determine who is the most “popular candidate” from that party.
  • A party convention will be held to nominate a single presidential candidate and vice presidential nominee from each party.
  • The general election determines the President and Vice President on election day.

How are the Presidential Nominees Selected?

The election process begins with primaries or caucuses by the two political parties to choose the presidential nominee that will represent each party. While the procedure for the primaries and caucuses vary from state to state, generally, candidates for the primaries will be nominated before the primary process begins. There is also a difference between primaries and caucuses. Primaries are run by the state and local governments, while caucuses are run by the political parties themselves. However, the goal behind both the process are the same: to find the candidate that should be the Presidential nominee from the party. After the primary/caucus process, each party will have a convention where the nominee from that party will be declared.

The process behind the primaries and caucuses of the presidential election is complex. Candidates do not have to win “votes” in a primary or caucus. Rather, candidates who win in a primary or caucus are awarded delegates. Delegates are individuals who will represent a state at the party’s convention. Delegates will generally coalesce behind a candidate in a party, and the candidate with the most number of delegates will be given the nomination. Going into the convention, there may be delegates that are pledged to a candidate, or there may be “superdelegates” i.e. delegates who are still free to unite behind any candidate.

Generally, parties may unite behind a candidate before moving into the convention itself. Candidates who are expected to become the nominee will also choose a running mate, i.e. the Vice-presidential candidate to run the general election with them.

At the conventions, each party will declare its presidential nominee depending on which candidate has secured the maximum number of delegates. Once the presidential nominee is declared, then the process moves towards the general elections.

After the primary/caucus process in 2020, former Vice President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was nominated from the Democratic Party, with Senator Kamala Harris accepting the nomination for Vice President.

A lot of primaries/caucuses of the republican party were cancelled since the party had united behind the Incumbent President Donald J. Trump, and the Vice President Mike Pence. They were declared as the GOP nominee for President and Vice President respectively, at the Republican National Convention in 2020.

What about Independent party candidates?

The Republican and Democratic Party nominees will be placed on the general election ballot. Independent party candidates may also contest in the general elections, but they usually have to follow the state wise rules to appear on the ballots. Each state may have different rules for this, and usually will require that the independent party candidate receive a certain number of signatures from registered voters, to appear on the ballot.

To date, an independent party candidate has not secured enough votes to win the presidency.

General Election

The process of election for the President and Vice President of the United States is laid down in the Twelfth Amendment to the US Constitution.[1] The general election happens across one day (known as “Election Day”) which is generally the first Tuesday of November in an election year. This year it is on Tuesday, November 3rd.

On election day, all citizens that are above the age of 18 years and registered to vote will cast their vote in a secret ballot for the post of President. However, this vote is not a direct vote for a presidential candidate. The winner of these votes will be considered the winner of the popular vote.

But to win the presidency, a candidate must win the vote from the electoral college. The electoral college consists of electors who will cast their vote for President. The number of electors a state receives is proportional to its number of members in the House of Congress. When people vote on Election Day, their vote will go towards a state-wide tally. In most states, the winner from the state will receive all the electoral votes of that state. In some states, the electoral votes will be assigned on a proportional basis.

The actual electoral vote does not happen on Election Day, rather, the winner of the Presidential election is declared based on a projection on how the electoral votes will be assigned. A candidate has to secure the vote of 270 electors to win the Presidential election. The electoral vote will actually happen in December of the election year, when the electors meet in the states.

Electors can cast their vote for a different candidate than the winner of the popular vote from their state, as there is no constitutional requirement to follow the popular vote. However, as of July 2020, the U.S Supreme Court has ruled that if a state has a law requiring that electors cast their vote for the winner of the popular vote from their State, then they must do so.[2]

Hence, the candidate that secures the majority (more than half) of all electoral votes will win the Presidential Election. It is rare that the result of the popular vote is different than that of the Electoral college, but it has happened in 1876, 1888, 2000, and most recently in 2016 when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, while Donald Trump won the electoral college. The difference between the electoral votes may happen, as the electoral college is not proportional to the population in a State but rather its representation in Congress.

What happens if there is a tie?

While it has never happened before in an American presidential election, it is possible that the electoral vote could produce a tie. In case no single presidential candidate can secure more than 270 electoral votes, then the election shall move to the Congress. The House of Representative will vote for a President from the 3 Presidential candidates that received the most electoral votes. Each state delegation will have one vote, and a candidate must receive the majority of the states (i.e. at least 26 votes) to secure the Presidency.

In case the House of Representatives also produce a tie, or cannot determine a president by Inauguration Day, then the Senate will vote for a Vice President. Again, the candidates considered will be the 2 Vice Presidents with the greatest number of electoral votes. The candidate must receive a majority in the Senate i.e. at least 51 votes. This candidate will become Vice President Elect and will serve as President until the House of Representatives can vote again.

What happens if it is a close finish in the States?

In case there is a tie in the popular vote in a state or if the results are very close, then the rules of that state will have to be followed. Certain states will allow a recount in the event of a tie or a very close finish (say less than 1% difference). Based on a recount, candidate may then be able to challenge the results in the Courts, or even challenge the decision to recount itself.

In 2000, during the Presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the race was deemed too close, and eventually rested on the count in Florida. The vote split between the candidates came down to 0.01%, and a machine recount was initiated. While the Florida Supreme Court had held that machine recounts had to be activated in all districts of Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed that decision, and started to hear the parties instead. The Supreme Court eventually overturned the Florida decision, and the recounts were not considered. President Bush won the election with less than a 0.01% difference in Florida[3].

While the election process itself may seem very tiresome and complex. It is important that every democratic citizen exercise their right to vote. The registration to be a voter for the US election is open, and can be done at: https://vote.gov/ . The election for the 46th President of the United States is on November 3rd 2020.


[1] https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendment/amendment-xii

[2] CHIAFALO ET AL. v. WASHINGTON, 193 Wash. 2d 380, 441 P. 3d 807

[3] Bush vs. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000)

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