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Understanding US Elections - A Complete Guide

Understanding US Elections - A Complete Guide

Once in every 4 years in November, United States votes to select their next President. But that’s not just it. The U.S Elections is a long and tiring process but is also the most followed political contest all over the world. And Why not? The President of the United States is a coveted position. As they say in TV shows and movies, “He/She (mostly He) is the leader of the free world”. But more realistically, The President is the leader of one of the most powerful military and economic nations in the world.

So, what are the U.S Elections? From the debates, to the conventions, to the electoral college, this guide will help you understand the complexity that is the U.S Presidential Elections.

American Elections

The American Election process starts more than a year before the actual Election Day. The cycle of elections is as follows:

  • Spring of the year before an election – Candidates announce their intentions to run.
  • Summer of the year before an election through spring of the election year – Primary and caucus debates take place.
  • January to June of election year – States and parties hold primaries tooltip and caucuses.
  • July to early September – Parties hold nominating conventions to choose their candidates.
  • September and October – Candidates participate in presidential debates.
  • Early November – Election Day
  • December – Electors cast their votes in the Electoral College.
  • Early January of the next calendar year – Congress counts the electoral votes.
  • January 20 – Inauguration Day

US Presidential Elections

Like most positions anywhere in the world, there is qualification criteria for someone to even be eligible to run for the office of President of the United States.

These are:

  • Be a natural-born citizen of the United States: This means that the person must be born in the United States and should not be someone who was born elsewhere and became a naturalised citizen later.
  • Be at least 35 years old
  • Have been a resident of the United States for 14 years

Anyone who meets these requirements can declare their candidacy for president. Once a candidate raises or spends more than $5,000 for their campaign, they must register with the Federal Election Commission. That includes naming a principal campaign committee to raise and spend campaign funds.

Now, let’s get into the details.

Presidential Primaries & Caucuses:

You know how in India, there are State Elections and then the General Elections. Consider your Presidential Primaries & Caucuses similar to your State Elections but slightly different. In USA, the primaries and caucuses are run differently – They both serve the same purpose. They let the states choose the major political parties’ nominees for the general election.

State primaries are run by state and local governments. Voting happens through secret ballot.

Caucuses are private meetings run by political parties. They’re held at the county, district, or precinct level. In most, participants divide themselves into groups according to the candidate they support. Undecided voters form their own group. Each group gives speeches supporting its candidate and tries to get others to join its group. At the end, the number of voters in each group determines how many delegates each candidate has won.

Both primaries and caucuses can be “open,” “closed,” or some hybrid of the two.

  • During an open primary or caucus, people can vote for a candidate of any political party.
  • During a closed primary or caucus, only voters registered with that party can take part and vote.
  • “Semi-open” and “semi-closed” primaries and caucuses are variations of the two main types.

After this, comes the process of awarding the delegates from the Primaries and Caucuses. In each primary or caucus, is a certain number of delegates are at stake. Who are these delegates? These are individuals who represent the state at National party conventions.

The candidate receiving the majority of the party’s delegates wins the nomination. Each party has different number of delegates based on the rules in awarding them.

Each party also has some unpledged delegates or superdelegates. These delegates are not bound to a specific candidate heading into the national convention.

When the primaries and caucuses are over, most political parties hold a national convention. This is when the winning candidates receive their nomination.

National Convention:

Remember watching the House of Cards? There was an instance in the show when the party selects Frank Underwood as their Presidential Candidate and his wife Claire as the VP candidate.

Yes, that entire process is called the National Convention. The Democrats and Republicans have their own separate Conventions where they finalize their party’s choice for presidential & vice-presidential nominees.

To become the presidential nominee, the candidate needs to win a majority delegates. This happens through the primaries and caucuses and is later confirmed at the national convention.

But if no candidate gets the majority of a party’s delegates during the primaries and caucuses, convention delegates choose the nominee. This happens through additional rounds of voting.

At the convention, the presidential nominee officially announces their selection of a vice presidential running mate.


Once the party has chosen a presidential nominee, it’s campaign time. The nominee then with his/her campaign staff tries to reach out to as many people and spread their message. While most states historically are either red (votes Republican) or blue (votes Democrats) there a re few states that likes to be convinced. These states are called the swing states and each party’s nominee tries to spend as much time and effort campaigning in these states to secure a victory.

These swing states are: Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska's second congressional district, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Electoral College:

Only 538 people vote directly for the president. Wait. What? The explanation is below but as you probably know it is slightly non-sensical for a lot of us. And yes, this is the reason why Donal Trump won the election in 2016 even though Hilary Clinton got more votes than Trump.

These 538 people form the body of electors, known as the Electoral College. On Election Day, when Americans come out to vote, who they choose doesn’t directly pick the President. Instead, their choice tells the state’s electors which candidate to support. Weird right? Yes. It is.

Each state is allotted a certain number of electors who are nominated in advance. On Election Day, a vote for a presidential candidate is a vote for a slate of electors who’ve pledged to vote for that party. In many states, ballots only list the names of presidential nominees, so it's not surprising that so many people think they're voting directly for the president.

Each state gets the same number of electors as it has congressmen and senators. Each state has two senators and the number of their congressmen is based on population. So, the more populous a state, the more electors it gets. No state has fewer than three.

Election Results

Now, here comes the weirdest part of it all. How are the electors in a state distributed between candidates? Well, they’re not. It’s winner-take-all (in every state except Maine and Nebraska), and the candidate who wins the most votes gets all the electors—also known as electoral votes. This is how entire states go blue or red. A candidate must win at least 270 of the 538 electoral votes across the U.S. in order to declare victory. While the winner is announced the same day it is only as late as December that the Electors cast their vote.

The entire counting of votes takes another month and on January 20, i.e. The Inauguration Day the President Elect and Vice President Elect takes oath at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC.

Mid-Term Elections:

Also known as the congressional elections, mid-term elections determine who represents a state in Congress. It also determines which party (Democrats or the Republicans) will have a majority in each chamber of Congress for 2 years.

Mid-Term elections happen every 2 years. 1/3rd of the senators and all 435 seats of the House of Representatives are in contention. Since they usually happen 2 years after the Presidential elections, they are called the mid-terms. The congressional elections in November 2018 were "midterms."

The good thing about these elections is that they use the popular vote to decide the winners instead of the Electoral College.

US Election 2020

November 3, 2020 is the day when the American public comes out to vote and decides the fate of Trump Presidency.

However, control of the US Congress, state legislatures and governorship are also in play. But the big question is whether Donald Trump can win re-election. All eyes are on the Democrats and the candidate they will nominate to take on Trump.

The general election isn’t just about the presidency, however.

Democrats have a chance to take control of the US Senate from Republicans, with 34 out of 100 seats up for election and about a third of those looking competitive. Democrats also will try to defend their majority in the House of Representatives, where all 435 seats come up for re-election every two years. States will host legislative elections and 11 of them will hold elections for governor.