US Presidential Elections 2020: How America Elects Its Leader

Here’s a lowdown on how the electoral process of the one of the biggest democracies in the world functions.

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Explainers
6 min read
Here’s a lowdown on how the electoral process of the oldest democracy in the world functions.
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(This story is being reposted from The Quint’s archives in light of the US elections on 3 November)

All eyes are on the United States now as the country gears up for its 59th quadrennial presidential elections in November 2020. With both the Democratic and Republican parties holding their national conventions, the election season is in full swing in the US.

Its sitting president, Donald Trump, will take on the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for control of arguably the most powerful electoral office on the planet.

With a couple of days to go, an intense battle is being fought between the two ahead of the election on Tuesday, 3 November, even as the world battles the COVID-19 scare.

A complex and long-drawn out process, riddled with various terminologies like primaries, caucuses and the electoral college – the US Presidential Elections can be difficult to comprehend. Here’s a lowdown on how the electoral process of the US functions.

The Road to White House: A Brief Overview

An election for president of the US takes place every four years, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Which is why, this year, Tuesday, 3 November is the D-Day.

However, the actual process begins much earlier, with most serious candidates announcing their intention to run by spring or summer of the previous year.

  • From January to June, states hold primaries and caucuses to vote for party nominees.
  • Between July-August, parties hold national conventions to formally nominate their presidential candidate, typically choosing the candidate with the most votes from state primaries and caucuses.
  • The General Elections are held in November, where people vote for electors.
  • In December, the Electoral College takes place at which the president and vice president are formally elected.
  • Finally, they are sworn into office on 20 January of the following year, celebrated as Inauguration Day.

Who can vote in the US elections? Well, anyone who is a US citizen and is over the age of 18 years is allowed to vote. However, some states have enforced laws that require one to show identification, such as a driving license, in order to vote.

This has attracted criticism from many who argue that this discriminates against the poor or minority voters who are unable to provide such identification, reports BBC.

Additionally, while it may seem so, the election doesn’t just decide who will be the president and the vice president, because states are also voting to send new members to the United States Congress.

Who's Who: The Candidates, Parties & States

In order to be US president, a candidate must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, be at least 35 years old and have been a resident of the United States for 14 years. Anyone fulfilling these requirements can run for president.

Both Trump and Biden have already accepted the presidential nominations at their respective party’s national conventions. At 78, Biden would be the oldest US President in history if elected. He had served as former US President Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years.

Trump is the candidate of the Republican Party, the conservative party in the US, also known as the Grand Old Party (GOP).

According to BBC, the party’s support base is more in rural parts of America. Traditionally, Republican-dominated states such as Wyoming, Alaska, and many southern states are considered ‘red states’.

As a Democrat, Biden is fighting the election as the representative of a party which is known for its liberal stance on burning issues like climate change and immigration. The Democrat-dominated states such as California, Illinois and much of the New England region of the northeast coast are called 'blue states'.


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Key to the US elections are the battleground states or the swing states, where the population is closely divided politically, making it difficult to predict the voting outcome, as it could swing either way. These states see the most extensive campaigning by both parties.

Florida is a well-known swing state, but Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin could all be decisive in this election’s outcome.

The Stages of Choosing a Candidate

Primaries and caucuses are how political parties nominate candidates for a General Election.

In primaries, voters go to official polling stations and vote for their favoured candidate.

They may be open or closed to registered party members. In the former kind, voters can vote for any candidate regardless of the party, while the latter requires voting only for candidates from the party the voter is affiliated to, reports Al Jazeera.

Some states, however, use caucuses, which is a much lengthier process. Members of a party gather together and openly express their preferences for a candidate over another. At these events, voters decide which candidate they prefer, organisers evaluate the votes and a candidate is allotted delegates on the basis of the votes they get.

While Republican caucuses are simpler, only involving speeches by candidates, Democratic ones are far more complicated and lengthy and only end when candidates with at least votes of 15 percent of all the voters present remain standing.

Until the 1970s, most states held caucuses, but then came primaries, which are more popular now. Only four states – Iowa, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming – held caucuses in 2020.

The US is also unusual in its system of allowing for candidates to receive delegates, who then vote for the party’s candidate at the National Conventions. What are these?

National Conventions are events where both parties formally nominate their presidential candidate, typically choosing the candidate with the most votes from state primaries and caucuses. This is done by delegates who have been pledged to vote for a party’s particular candidate as a result of the primaries and caucuses.

Choosing a Winner: The Electoral College

During the elections, when people vote, they are actually voting for a group known as 'electors'. In the US, the president and vice president are not elected directly by citizens, but by electors, through a process called the 'Electoral College'.

A presidential candidate is, therefore, not aiming to win the people’s vote, or the ‘popular vote’, but a majority of the Electoral College, according to The Conversation.

Trump, in 2016, lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by almost three million, but won by virtue of the Electoral College.

Each state is assigned a number of electors based on its Congressional delegation: the sum of its senators (every state has two) and representatives in the House. Currently, there are 538 electors – the sum of 435 members of the US House of Representatives, plus the 100 senators (two each for 50 states), as well as the three votes assigned to Washington DC.

Each presidential vote goes to a statewide tally. With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, which use a different system to award their electoral college votes, 48 states and Washington DC, follow a winner takes all formula. This means that the winner by even one vote gets all the electoral votes for that state.

A candidate needs at least 270 votes, that is, 50 percent plus one, to win the presidential election.

If no single candidate wins the majority, the House of Representatives will select the president from the top three candidates, according to The Conversation. Meanwhile, the Senate will choose the vice president from the remaining two candidates.

While the Constitution doesn’t require electors to follow their state's popular vote, many states' laws do.

The Pandemic Effect

How has the pandemic affected the election? Well, Biden has been campaigning partly from home, which is also where he accepted the Democratic nomination from, reports Vox.

The Democratic party members were supposed to travel to Milwaukee, but decided to take their National Convention virtual. While the Republicans are holding their National Convention in person, they too have witnessed reduced numbers.

With the COVID-19 pandemic issuing a challenge to the election process, many have been advocating for expanded use of mail-in voting or absentee voting as opposed to in-person voting on Election Day.

The process is simply sending a vote by mail. In the US, when the election authorities receive such a request, they send a ballot to the address of the voter, after vetting the application.

The voter then signs the envelope, casts the vote and sends the ballot back to the authorities. Voting by mail is not new to the United States and has been around since the Civil War.

While Trump has repeatedly denounced mail-in ballots as a possible source of fraud, and alleged that it made it possible for “massive cheating” to occur, election experts say that it is very hard to interfere with this and that there are safeguards in place. Documented instances of fraud related to this kind of voting are actually rare and there have only been some isolated instances, BBC reports.

Meanwhile, with the election in its last leg, campaigning will heat up between Biden and Trump now as they race towards the finish line. Stay tuned to find out who will occupy the White House in 2021.

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