What Happens When You Vote

An overview of the electoral stages

by Jonathan Sumettikul, world editor
with additional reporting by David Prichard, correspondent


On Tuesday the 8th of November, the 2016 U.S. presidential election took place. The United States’ election process can be confusing to both citizens and foreigners alike, and is further complicated by its two-level federalist governmental structure and its inclusion of the Electoral College.

The initial steps of the electoral process include the primaries, caucuses and national conventions. Candidates from each political party start their campaigns by trying to win the favor of their party members in each state, either through a caucus — where party members choose whom they believe to be the best candidate through a series of discussions and votes — or a primary, where the party members vote for the candidate whom they believe will best represent them in the general election. The format of this first step varies from state to state, as do the dates that it takes place. States with early primaries are often very influential in the selection of the final presidential candidates.

The next step is each party’s national convention, where each party selects the final presidential nominee, usually based upon the results of the primaries and caucuses. This is also the time when the major parties announce their policies and platforms; the two major issues are usually fiscal (financial) and social policies. Democrats are more liberal on both, having a tendency to spend money on government programs to improve the lives of U.S. citizens and residents. Republicans tend to be conservative on both issues, spending less on social programs and more on defense, while trying to reduce the government’s footprint on citizens’ lives.

Sometime after the conventions, nominees choose running mates, then campaign throughout the country to try to win the support of the general population.

The last two steps of the electoral process are the general election and the Electoral College. During the general election, voters in each state vote for one president and vice president from among the presidential candidates. But the voters are actually voting for a group of people known as electors, who are members of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College consists of electors appointed by each state who choose the president and vice president. Article II, Section I, Clause II in the U.S. Constitution specifies how many electors each state is entitled to have. Since 1964, there have been 538 electors in each presidential election, the total voting membership of the United States Congress: 435 representatives, 100 senators and three electors from the District of Columbia.

The presidential candidates are trying to win 270 electoral votes, over half of the 538 electoral votes. Each state is given a total number of electors equal to the number of senators and representatives it has. This number is determined in part by the state’s population, collected during a census every 10 years.

Electoral votes are more important than the overall popular vote because a presidential candidate can still become president even though he or she may not have the majority of the popular vote. It is possible for a presidential candidate to not receive one vote in 39 states or the District of Columbia and still be elected president based on electoral votes from states with large numbers of electors.

According to the authors of the textbook “Government in America,” the Electoral College was conceived as part of James Madison’s plan for a new centralized U.S. Government. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution were concerned about the new system’s being too democratic, fearing the “tyranny of the majority.” To counteract this, Madison proposed the Electoral College as a way to keep as much of the government away from the direct control of the majority as possible by acting as a buffer between the largely unaffluent and uneducated masses and the elite land-owning minority, the class that most electors belonged to.

Though often criticized, this system is important to the U.S. presidential elections because it introduces bias into the electoral process; since each state gets two of its electors regardless of population, some of the less-populous states are overrepresented.

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