The United States Presidential Election Process

The American presidential election is a meticulous process involving many critical steps. Prior to the nationwide general election, presidential primaries are held to decide on the major political parties’ nominees. According to Article II, Section I of the United States Constitution, a presidential candidate must be a natural born citizen of the United States, a resident for 14 years, and at minimum 35 years of age. Every four years, the president of the United States is elected through a two-step system.

First, on Election Day, voters cast their ballots in each state. The candidate who wins the statewide popular vote receives the state’s electoral votes. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia are “all or nothing,” meaning that the winning party takes all of the state’s electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska allow for a split allocation of their electors votes. Second, the 538 representatives, or electors, in turn officially cast their vote for president on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. Most often the candidate who receives the most electoral votes, thereby winning the “Electoral College,” becomes President. It is possible for a President to lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College and thus the election, as evidenced by the 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016 presidential elections. 

The number of electors allocated to each state depends on the population of said state. For example, Wyoming has one electoral vote for roughly every 200,000 voters, while California has one electoral vote for about every 720,000 voters. Simply, the number of electors equals the state’s total number of U.S. Senators and House of Representative members. The 23rd Amendment assigns three electors to the District of Columbia. A majority (270) of electoral votes is required to win the presidency. If neither candidate achieves a majority, the House of Representatives elects the president; each state delegation has one vote. The Senate elects the vice president; each senator has one vote.

An added complication to this process is when electors do not uphold their pledge to their party. These “faithless electors” cast their vote for someone other than the candidate who won their state’s popular vote. In the 2016 presidential election, there were 10 faithless electors—8 of which defected from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and 2 from Republican candidate Donald Trump. Those electors voted for other members of their respective parties such as Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul. However, their actions had no drastic effect on the final outcome, and Trump won with 304 electoral votes whereas Clinton had 227. 33 states require electors to vote for a pledged candidate, and penalties include monetary fines and prison time. 

Image from 270towin.com.

By Glen Cahilly