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Election 2020: The U.S. Election System

Federal Elections: How Do They Work?

The Constitution established the following guidelines for federal elections:

  • House of Representatives: Members serve for 2 years; they are elected by popular vote.
  • Senate: Members serve for 6 years. These terms are staggered so that one-third of Senate seats are open for election every 2 years. Article I directed that senators be selected by state legislatures. The 17th Amendment, which was ratified in 1913, transformed this process to direct election by voters, the same system used to elect members of the House.
  • President: The chief executive is limited to two 4-year terms. Although people vote for their preferred candidate, the winner is actually determined by the Electoral College, which is explained in another box. Each party selects a presidential and vice presidential candidate who run as a team, a system that emerged following the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804.

Although the Constitution established the foundations for federal elections, specific laws and rules that shape the actual voting process and determine who is eligible to vote are created by the individual states. However, the federal government can challenge and sometimes overrule state election policies that it considers unconstitutional.

The following links and video provide more detailed explanations of federal elections.

Constitutional Amendments and Elections

The Constitution created the formal structure of the federal government, and it established the original rules governing national elections. Since its ratification, however, it has been amended numerous times in ways that fundamentally affect national elections. Perhaps the most significant amendments were those that extended the right to vote to populations such as women and people aged 18-21. Other amendments altered the mechanisms by which senators are elected and limited the president to two terms.

Laws, Court Rulings, and Elections

The Constitution established the basic rules governing federal elections. Specific policies regarding voter eligibility and restrictions, congressional voting districts, and campaign contributions have evolved over the years. Below is a list of national laws and judicial rulings that have helped to shape our electoral system. Click on each link for more information. 

Electing the President: The Electoral College

When voters go to the polls on Election Day to choose their president, they are actually selecting their state's electors, who determine which candidate wins the White House. The Electoral College was established by Article II, Section I, as an alternative to the direct election of the president. The number of electors for each state equals their total congressional representation; that is, the combined number of senators and representatives. Technically, then, the objective of a presidential election is to win the majority of electoral votes, which currently totals 270. In 2012, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney 332-206.

Although the majority of candidates who have won the popular vote have also won the Electoral College, three presidents have been elected who did not receive the most popular votes. The most recent was Republican George W. Bush, who won the 2000 election although his opponent, Democrat Al Gore, won the popular vote.

The following links and videos explain how the Electoral College works.

Primary Elections

Most federal elections involve a contest between a Democratic and a Republican candidate. However, in many elections, particularly presidential contests, several candidates from both parties vie for open seats. The parties then hold primary elections to eliminate all but one candidate. Each state schedules its primaries, although multiple states frequently schedule them for the same date. The most prominent example is "Super Tuesday," usually in March, where as many as a dozen states hold either primary elections or caucuses.

Most primary elections fall into one of two categories: closed and open. In a closed primary, only members of a particular party can vote in that party's primary. In contrast, an open primary is open to all voters.

Watch the video below for a comprehensive explanation of how the primary system works.

Party Platforms

In every presidential election year, each party creates an official statement of its core principles, known as a party platform. The platform is composed of a series of "planks," which present the party's positions on specific issues.

The candidates are not technically required to adhere to their party's platform. Their failure to do so, however, can lead to conflicts and controversies within the party, which candidates generally seek to avoid.

The links below will take you to websites that define party platforms and address the question of how significant they are in today's politics. The next page contains boxes that summarize and examine the 2016 Democratic and Republican platforms.