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How the President of the United States is Elected

*Written by: Robert Alexander, Professor and Chair of the Department of History, Politics, and Justice at Ohio Northern University.

About the author: He has been recognized for his teaching through numerous teaching awards and has published three books, including his most recent book titled Presidential Electors and the Electoral College. He has appeared on C-SPAN, MSNBC, and NPR and contributed to CNN.com, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Toledo Blade, and the Huffington Post.

The term of a president is four years and they are limited to two terms of office. Presidential contests attract a great deal of media attention and large sums of money are spent campaigning during the course of the election. In 2012, approximately $7 billion was spent on the election.

The United States has a presidential system with two main political parties—Democrats and Republicans. Generally, Democrats are more liberal while Republicans are more conservative.

The campaign for the presidency consists of several stages:

View this infographic in a larger format by clicking on the image.

The nomination process

Each party has candidates who compete to be their party’s nominee in the general election. All states do not vote at the same time. Instead, states hold their elections at different times throughout the year.

As of March 6, 2020, there are two main contenders for the Democratic nomination: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. The candidate who earns the majority of delegates during the state elections will win the nomination.

Delegates are a whole other thing to explain. You can read more about them by clicking here. But what you need to know is that in order for a candidate to earn the Democratic nomination, the magic number of delegates is 1,991. President Trump pretty much has the Republican nomination, but he is also collecting delegates as well so he can “officially” earn the Republican nomination.

And to make the nominations for each party official, each party holds a national convention publicly announce their candidate. During the convention, the presidential candidate will announce their running-mate (vice presidential candidate).

The delegate count for the Democratic nomination for president as of March 6, 2020.

The general election

To win the presidency, a presidential candidate needs to receive a majority of votes in the Electoral College. To understand the Electoral College, you must understand a bit about representation in the United States.

The U.S. is a federal system with shared powers between the national government and 50 state governments.  This is reflected in the national legislature, which is divided into two chambers.  The House of Representatives has 435 members and is determined by population.  States with more citizens, receive greater representation.  In the United States Senate, all states receive two representatives (equaling 100 total Senators).  This gives greater representation to lesser populated states.   The Electoral College combines

the representation of the House of Representatives (435) with that of the Senate (100) for 535 electoral votes. The District of Columbia also receives 3 votes, bringing the total number of electoral votes to 538. These electoral votes correspond to the amount of representation each state has in the House of Representatives and the Senate. For instance, California has 53 Representatives and 2 Senators, so they are given 55 electoral votes. Wyoming has one Representative and 2 Senators, so it has 3 electoral votes.

It takes 270 electoral votes (a majority of the Electoral College) to win the presidency. Candidates collect electoral votes on a state-by-state basis. So, on November 3, 2020, 51 separate contests will be held across the country. In most states, as long one candidate receives more votes than their opponent, they are awarded all of the state’s electoral votes. For example, in 2016 Hillary Clinton received 8.7 million votes in California to Donald Trump’s 4.4 million. She received all of California’s 55 electoral votes.

Throughout the campaign, President Trump and the Democratic nominee will focus their attention on several states where there are many electoral votes. They will also concentrate on states where there are about the same number of democrats and republicans. These include states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado. The presidential election will largely be decided by these “battleground” states. Many other states will receive little attention because they are not competitive. Citizens in battleground states receive a lot of attention from the candidates—from campaign commercials, to phone calls, to visits from politicians.

After citizens vote on November 3, Congress will meet to certify the outcome on in early January of 2021. If a new president is elected, there will be a Presidential Inauguration and it takes place with a great deal of fanfare in Washington, DC. The new president will take an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

*This article was written for International Student Voice in 2016. We have updated it to reflect the current events of the 2020 election.

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