How Does The US Election Work?

The United States’ elections are one of the most widely followed elections of any country in the world. The people of the world’s most powerful country casting their votes to choosing their next leader is important, given that they will shape the country’s domestic and foreign policy for the next four years. So, how does an election involving 314 million Americans living in 50 states, and two candidates with over a billion dollars spent in campaigning, actually work?


A presidential election in the US happens every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This day is commonly known as “Election Day“.

The election process begins its trail with the conduction of “Primary Elections” and “Caucuses” and then to “Nominating Conventions“, where political parties each select a candidate to support and unite behind. The candidates also announce their respective Vice-Presidential nominee at this time. They then proceed to campaign across the country to explain their agenda and intentions to the voters and participate in debates with the candidates from the other parties.

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During the election itself, the American citizens go to cast their vote for President at the polling stations. However, the total count of these votes called the “Popular Vote“, does not determine the winner. Instead, Electoral colleges are taken into account in such elections. To win, a candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes, not popular votes. In the event of no majority for either candidate, the Senate chooses the Vice-President, and the House of Representatives elects the President.


The election process follows a simple schedule:

  • Candidates announce their intention to run in the Spring of the year before an election.

  • Primary and caucus debated take place during Summer of the year before an election till spring of election year.

  • States and parties hold primaries and caucus from January to June of an election year.

  • Parties hold nomination conventions from July to September.

  • Candidates engage in election debates during September and October.

  • Election Day falls in Early November.

  • Citizens cast their votes in the Electoral College during December.

  • Congress counts the votes in Early January of the following year.

  • January 20 – Inauguration Day, when the new President gets elected.

US Constitutional Requirements for Candidates

The President must:

  • Be at least 35 years old

  • Be a natural-born citizen of the US

  • Been residing in the US for at least 14 years

Any person meeting these conditions is eligible to run for president at any time, provided they register and file a Statement of Candidacy with the Federal Election Commission(FEC).

Primaries and Caucuses

They are both run differently but serve the same purpose, to allow states to help in the choosing of nominees for general elections-

  • Local and state governments run state Primaries and voting occurs through secret ballot

  • Caucuses are private meetings among political parties. Participants divide themselves into groups supporting different candidates, and the group with the most delegates wins.

Primaries and caucuses can be conducted in the following ways:

  • In an “Open” primary or caucus, people can vote for any candidate regardless of political affiliation.

  • In a “Closed” primary or caucus, participants must be registered to a particular party to be able to vote for its candidates.

  • “Semi-open” or “Semi-closed” primaries and caucuses are variations of the two types mentioned above.

Electoral College

The President and the Vice-President are not elected directly by the people. They are chosen by “electors” through a process called “Electoral College“.

Each state is given a certain number of electors based on the number of members of Congress it has. A candidate needs the support of at least 270 electors, that is, half of the full strength of 538 electoral college votes plus one, to win the Presidential elections by a majority. In case no candidate gets the required 270 votes, the House of Representatives votes to elect the new President from among the candidates.

Special Situations

Although it is very rare sometimes it is possible to win the electoral college but lose the popular vote, meaning a candidate can win a particular combination of states and reach the 270 electors goal without winning a majority of the popular votes from across the country. This has happened five times in American history, with the latest being the election of Donald Trump in 2016.