How does the American presidential election work?

Do you wonder how we get from the presidential campaign season to Election Day? Do you wonder how we get from this mess of media-fueled speculation, polling and stories about candidates behaving badly to electing a new president? Let me help. Our election process reflects the American individualistic spirit, aversion to the federal government and need for media ratings.

Why does it last so long?
The American presidential campaign season lasts a long time, in part, because it isn’t run by the government. There are no laws about when a candidate can declare that they’re running or when they have to end their campaign (Ted Cruz declared that he was running for president back in 2014, so that’s when his campaign began). Another part of the problem is that each of the 50 states makes up its own process for determining who wins the state and that process can take as long as they want. And the media is part of it. They’ll report on anything related to a presidential campaign because it increases ratings, so they’re happy to start covering an election months and months ahead of time. Thus has the American presidential election season stretched way beyond the actual election year.

Primary season
Each state has a process called either a primary or a caucus. By this process, individuals elect delegates that will represent their state in the general election. Those delegates attend the party’s convention (Republican party, Democratic party or other) and elect the party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees. Primary season usually goes from January to June. In the primaries, citizens vote for which presidential candidate they want and those votes are tallied, but it’s really the delegates that count because they’re the ones who will go to the convention and actually elect the presidential nominees. Our democracy doesn’t quite follow the one-person, one-vote structure.

Conventions
This year the Republican party’s convention lasts from 18 to 21 July and takes place in Cleveland, Ohio. The Democratic party’s convention lasts from 25 to 28 July and takes place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the conventions, the delegates from each state get together and decide on their party’s set of positions which is called their platform. Delegates also vote on the presidential nominees for their parties. This usually results in one Democratic nominee and one Republican nominee, but sometimes a third party runs a third candidate (in 2000 The Green Party backed Ralph Nader).

Each delegate is expected to vote according to how the voters in their state voted in the primary, but there’s no law requiring this. It could happen that a delegate sets aside the wishes of their state’s voters and supports a different candidate. Things can get ugly at a convention when delegates want to support someone who hasn’t had the majority of votes. That’s called a contested convention and a lot of Republicans have talked about this possibility because so many of them are unhappy with Donald Trump. With the Democrats, some supporters of Bernie Sanders are hoping the convention produces Sanders as the nominee even though Clinton has many more delegates supporting her right now.

At the convention, the presidential nominee names his or her running mate. I’m not aware of there being any formal process for that decision. The delegates then officially elect that person as the vice presidential nominee.

Election Day – voting
After the conventions, the presidential and vice-presidential nominees campaign in earnest until Election Day, which this year falls on 8 November. In the U.S, Election Day is not a holiday. It’s always the second Tuesday of November. This can make it difficult for working people to make it to the polls. The United States has a long history of making voting harder for the working class, including requiring official identification, a fee or knowing the answer to an impossible question. Even without those often illegal hurdles, the hours of the polling stations don’t always accommodate those working one or two (or more) jobs every day. Most polls are usually open from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. which works best for people who work regular business hours or have salaried jobs (salaried jobs earn maybe $30,000 a year and up).

Election Day – media coverage
The American media goes crazy on the day of a presidential election. You’ll see round-the-clock coverage on cable news stations and constant updates from radio and online news sources. Reporters and researchers will ask people coming out of the polling places who they voted for. The closer the numbers are in the exit polls, the better for ratings.

Electoral college

Even on Election Day, voters aren’t voting directly for the candidates. The United States Electoral College is the institution that elects the president and it’s made up of electors. Citizens vote for electors who are obligated to vote for the candidate who wins the majority of votes in the elector’s state, but again there’s no law requiring this and there have been a few occasions when an elector didn’t honor their state’s preference. The number of electors for each state equals the number of members of Congress to which the state is entitled. Since the number of congresspeople each state gets is determined by population, that means states with larger populations get more electors.

On Election Day, the candidate who gets the majority of electoral votes is elected. (If no candidate receives a majority, it can turn into a ridiculous mess as in the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. See this Wiki article for details on how such a situation supposed to be handled.) The news media usually projects a winner at some point in the evening of Election Day, and that’s usually the new president. At this point, often around 9 or 10 pm, the loser makes a concession speech, the president-elect makes a victory speech and large parts of the country begin complaining about what went wrong that caused their candidate to lose, or how disgusted they are with the election even though they chose not to vote at all (only about 54.9% of the Americans who were eligible to vote, did so in 2012).

If you want to know what can happen when the electoral college fails to elect a new president by a majority, here’s brief summary of how it all went wrong in 2000 with Gore and Bush. When it was all finally over, Gore had received more individual votes, but Bush had secured more electoral votes. It was weird.

Day after Election Day
On the day after Election Day the news media begins discussing who might run in the next presidential election. That election is four years away, so the cycle really never has a break any more.

The United States might have the longest presidential election process in the world, but it’s typical of the kind of political processes we prefer. Founded by rebels who refused to be led by the English government, America would rather have a system that takes forever to get anything done than a system that works with expediency. We tend to fear that an expedient government can quickly turn into a fascist state. Americans are extremely sensitive to any threat to our independence and individualism, which makes many of us particularly vigilant against a strong federal government, even if that means our presidential elections drag on for years.