A Very Basic Explanation of how US Presidential Elections Work (ELEIÇÕES PRESIDENCIAIS NOS EUA)

  • By Karen Elizabeth Queiroz

Please be warned, this process is difficult to understand because it is regulated by a combination of both federal and state laws.

American voters must be citizens; naturalized or native-born, and be at least 18 years old.

In the early days of America, only white males who were property owners and over the age of 21 could vote.

Women were given the right to vote in 1920, after years of fighting through the suffrage movement.

African-Americans were given the right to vote in 1870, but most southern states did everything in their power to obstruct them from exercising their rights.  This only changed in 1965, after civil rights fights led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, during the Vietnam War, mostly because citizens questioned why American teenagers could get drafted and sent overseas to fight, but could not have a say in who should have the power to wage war.

When American citizens pick a president, they are not only choosing a head of state and government, but also the commander-in-chief of the largest military on the planet.

Right now, the USA is in the nomination process, and is holding primary elections and caucuses, things that were never in the constitution but instead developed by political parties.

A caucus is simply a town gathering where the voters decide which candidate to support and then select delegates for nominating conventions.  Some states rely only on caucuses, and do not hold primaries.



Primaries are statewide and direct, very similar to the general election process.  Voters cast secret ballots for the candidates of their choice and this process selects both the candidates and delegates.

It goes like this: the winner of each state collects a number of delegates – those are party members with the power to vote for that candidate at the party conventions held in July, where candidates are formally confirmed.

These delegates are usually people who are active in local politics and strongly support a particular candidate.  They must be registered as a member of the party that their candidate belongs to.  They are morally obligated to this candidate, not legally obligated to him or her.

The more state primaries a candidate wins, the more delegates will be pledged to support him or her at the convention.

Then there are the electors.  They are individuals who cast their state’s vote for president and vice president after the presidential election is held.  They are usually appointed because of their loyalty to a particular party.  They need to have a state Certificate of Ascertainment and cannot be a member of congress or a federal employee.

The Electoral College is set up so that each state is allocated a number of electors equal to the number of its senators and representatives in the US congress.

It was originally created to keep the vote in the hands of the people and downplay partisan politics.  Many Americans question the procedure nowadays.

Different states have different ways of choosing electors, because under the US Constitution, each state legislature is allowed to designate a way of choosing them.

In all but two states (Maine and Nebraska), it´s a winner-take-all system – so if a candidate wins 60% of the vote in a state, he or she gets all of that state´s electors.  For example, in 2012, President Obama got 51% of the nationwide votes, which translated into 61% of the Electoral College votes.

Just to make it fair, Washington, D.C., which is a federal district just like Brasilia, is given a number of electors equal to the number held by the least populous state.

California has the biggest population in the States, and therefore has the most delegates.  Alaska is an enormous state, but has a small population and has only one delegate.

Some states are predictable.  For example, Texas is almost always Republican and California is almost always Democratic.

Florida is usually considered a swing state as it cannot be predicted.

The nominating conventions are considered a big deal, and always held in the summer before the election.  It is an indirect election process, where the delegates of a political party that voters selected choose their party´s presidential nominee.

Officially, delegates are supposed to vote for the candidate their voters chose, but sometimes they don´t.  If a candidate doesn´t receive 50% of the vote, the delegates vote again, and they are not bound ethically or officially to any candidate in this second vote.

Right after receiving the nomination, the nominee chooses a vice presidential running mate to join with him or her on the same ticket, and the convention approves both candidates.

This year, the Republican National Convention will be held during the week of July 18 – 21 in Cleveland, Ohio.  They are expecting 2,472 delegates to be present.

The Democratic National Convention will be held July 25-28 in Philadelphia.  The Democrats are expecting 4,765 delegates to be present.

Both conventions have been purposely scheduled to be held just before the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics.

It is only after these conventions that the real presidential campaigns begin.

Presidential elections are held quadrennially on Election Day, which since 1845 has been the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  Presidential elections are always held in years divisible by four.

The beginning of November was originally chosen because the harvest would have been finished by then, but the severe winter storms would not have begun.

In the 1700s, Tuesday was chosen as an election day out of consideration to Christians of that time, so they would not have to travel or even go out to vote on a Sunday.  Election day is only a holiday in 7 states, and in the other 43 states people generally have the right to take some time off and leave their workplace to go to voting stations.

But in many states the citizens vote by mail and in one state, Oregon, all votes must be cast by mail.

You have probably already deduced that the presidential election is not a national election like Brazil holds – it is a separate state election.

This year the 58th presidential election will be held on Tuesday November 8th, at which time voters will select presidential electors who will in turn elect a new president and vice president on that date.

To sum this all up, the presidential elections are an indirect vote in which citizens cast ballots for the members of the US Electoral College.  Citizens must vote for a ticket, which means a package deal of a president and a vice president.

The outcome of the citizen´s votes in each state determines a “slate” of electors who, in turn, make the actual choice for president and vice president.

It is the electors who, in December, cast direct votes for the president and vice president.

Not all states require electors to vote for the popular majority. (!)

If both votes result in an absolute majority, the election is decided and over.

If a majority of electors do not vote for one presidential candidate, then the House of Representatives chooses the president.


Anything can happen, especially if The Donald becomes an official candidate and discovers that many Republican electors will refuse to support his run for presidency.

An example of how unpredictable the process can be when in the 2000 election, George W. Bush lost the popular vote nationally, but took it to the Supreme Court and won the electoral college.

If a majority of electors do not vote for one vice presidential candidate, then the senate votes for one.

Territories are not represented in the Electoral College, and the US has 16 territories.

You could say that a presidential election is really an amalgamation of separate elections held in each state instead of being a national election.

Actually, the electors can vote for anyone, but with rare exceptions they vote for their designated candidates and their votes are certified by congress, which is the final judge of electors in the beginning of January.

After the election, the winner begins to put together a cabinet and works on his or her political agenda.

During that time, outgoing President Obama will be considered a “Lame Duck” and probably will not get much done.

The 4-year presidential term begins on inauguration Day, which is always on January 20th.

After note:

The senate holds staggered elections; every 2 years 1/3 of the senate members come up for re-election or new senators are elected.  These are called mid-term elections and are good because the public can change things if they don´t like the way the federal government is being run.  Each state has 2 senators and they serve 6-year terms.

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