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The US presidential election: how does it work?

Publié par Clifford Armion le 03/02/2012

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This text is reproduced from Ben's Guide to the US Government, a service of the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO).

According to the United States Constitution, a presidential election is to be held once every fourth year. The process of electing a President and Vice-President begins long before Election Day. Candidates from both major and minor political parties and independent candidates begin to raise money and campaign at least one year in advance of the general presidential election. In order to officially represent a political party, a candidate must be nominated by that party.

This primary nomination process is a contest that often produces factions within political parties. These divisions impact the policy stances and agendas of the candidates running for nomination as they attempt to garner the support of party leaders and activists. The nominating process officially begins with the first state primaries and caucuses, which usually occur in the month of February of the election year. It is at these local events that voters are given their first chance to participate in electing the nation's next President.

There are many factors that influence who will ultimately become the candidate for a party. The public's perception of the candidates is influenced by such things as media reports, public opinion polls, candidate preference surveys, and advertising. These factors will help determine the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the candidates in the months leading up to the caucuses and primaries.

The spring of an election year is characterized by vigorous campaigning for primaries and caucuses all over the nation. This process reaches its crescendo at the national conventions of the political parties. Once at the national party conventions, the delegates from the states cast votes for the person who will represent the political party in the November general election. In order to secure a party's nomination, a candidate must receive a majority of the votes from the delegates. It is not unusual for delegates to vote several times before one candidate secures the majority of the votes and officially becomes that party's candidate for the election to determine the next President of the United States. The candidate for President then must choose a vice-presidential candidate. Generally, a running mate is chosen that will in some way balance the party's ticket for the general election. This balance may be geographic (choosing a running mate that is very popular in one region where the Presidential candidate is not) or ideological (choosing a running mate with a different ideological framework than the presidential candidate), and the balance is intended to make the overall general election ticket of a political party acceptable to as wide a range of voters as possible.

If a President is running for re-election, this nomination process must be completed. Even if the President does not face any opposition from within his own political party, the national convention will still occur. The conventions are extravaganzas, full of pageantry and showmanship. They serve to help jump start the general election campaign for the presidential candidates.

The national conventions of the political parties are the culmination of the primary election process. Once the national conventions have been held, and the candidates from the political parties have been nominated and chosen, the presidential election begins in earnest as a contest between the candidates from the political parties. Any divisions or factions that have surfaced within a political party up to the nomination process tend to be set aside and the entire party becomes unified behind its candidate and begins to work to get that person elected.

Some people choose to run for president without being affiliated with a political party. Such independent candidates need not concern themselves with getting nominated by a party, but must meet other requirements. For example, such candidates are required to collect a large number of signatures to support their nominations. The sources of funding used by independent candidates comes from personal funds and loans as well as fundraising campaigns.

An independent candidate for President must file a declaration of candidacy and a certification of the candidate's selection for vice president with the secretary of state prior to circulation of the candidate's nominating petitions. The candidate and the candidate's selection for vice president must sign the certification before it is filed. No petition or certificate of nomination may be circulated prior to the first day of January of the year in which the election will be held. Once the required number of signatures is received by the person, s/he is able to run in the general election.

The candidates campaign right up until Election Day, when the nation finally votes for its President. The candidates travel throughout the country, making public appearance and giving speeches. The parties and the candidates use media advertising, direct mailings, telephone campaigns, and other means to persuade the voters to choose one candidate over the other(s). Often, these measures also serve to point out the weaknesses of the candidates from the other parties involved in the general election.

In this national presidential election, every citizen of legal age (who has taken the steps necessary in his/her state to meet the voting requirements, such as registering to vote) has an opportunity to vote. However, the President is not chosen by direct popular vote. The Constitution requires that a process known as the Electoral College ultimately decides who will win the general election.

The Electoral College is a method of indirect popular election of the President of the United States. The authors of the Constitution put this system in place so that careful and calm deliberation would lead to the selection of the best-qualified candidate. Voters in each state actually cast a vote for a block of electors who are pledged to vote for a particular candidate. These electors, in turn, vote for the presidential candidate. Each state is apportioned a number of electors equal to the total number of their Congressional delegation.

After Election Day, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, these electors assemble in their state capitals, cast their ballots, and officially select the next President of the United States. Legally, the electors may vote for someone other than the candidate for whom they were pledged to vote. This phenomenon is known as the "unfaithful" or "faithless" elector. Generally, this does not happen. Therefore, the candidate who receives the most votes in a state at the general election will be the candidate for whom the electors later cast their votes. Two votes are taken, one for President and one for Vice President. Electors are restricted from voting for two candidates from their state. The candidate who wins in a state is awarded all of that state's Electoral College votes, except in Maine and Nebraska where the electoral may be split.

The votes of the electors are then sent to Congress where the President of the Senate opens the certificates, and counts the votes. This takes place on January 6, unless that date falls on a Sunday. In that case, the votes are counted on the next day. An absolute majority is necessary to prevail in the presidential and the vice presidential elections, that is, half the total plus one electoral votes are required. With 538 Electors, a candidate must receive at least 270 votes to be elected to the office of President or Vice President.

Should no presidential candidate receive an absolute majority, the House of Representatives determines who the next president will be. Each state may cast one vote and an absolute majority is needed to win. Similarly, the Senate decides who the next Vice President will be if there is no absolute majority after the Electoral College vote. Elections have been decided by Congress in the past. The House of Representatives elected Thomas Jefferson president in the election of 1800 when the Electoral College vote resulted in a tie. When the Electoral College vote was so split that none of the candidates received an absolute majority in the election of 1824 the House elected John Quincy Adams President. Richard Johnson was elected Vice President by the Senate when he failed to receive an absolute majority of electoral votes in the election of 1836.

The President-elect and Vice President-elect take the oath of office and are inaugurated two weeks later, on January 20th.


Pour citer cette ressource :

"The US presidential election: how does it work?", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2012. Consulté le 14/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/la-presidence-americaine/the-us-presidential-election-how-does-it-work