Civics 101: The Presidential Election Process

Elections are one way we can address real-life issues such as climate change, immigration, systemic racism, police brutality, and so on, on a local, state, and federal level. Through voting, we can work toward creating a better future for the generations to come. Elections are important and the outcomes impact all of us. 

It’s important to note that while the electoral college plays a significant role in electing the president and the vice president, the popular vote is what helps us elect the members of the House of Representatives, senators, governors, state legislatures, mayors, and many more officials on the state and local level. Every vote counts. Keep reading to learn more about how the presidential election is conducted in the U.S. 

Primary Election or Primaries 

Primary elections, also known as primaries, are held from January to June of the election year. Political parties choose their strongest candidate* to run for president and represent their political party in the general election in November. But voters don’t directly vote for candidates during the primaries. They instead vote to select delegates of party members in each state. While some states, like New Jersey and Georgia, choose to hold an election for primaries, some states, such as Iowa and Utah, choose to hold a caucus. Primaries conducted as elections are similar to every other standard election, while a caucus is a public vote where people get together in groups in public places and try to persuade the crowd. If people change their minds, they physically switch sides. 

In an election year,  Super Tuesday is held in February/March. On this day, a majority of states and U.S. territories hold primaries to help determine the frontrunners of the race at the time. 

Fun Fact: There are winner-take-all primaries in all states except for Maine and Nebraska. 

*Note: this information applies to the presidential level only, not down-ballot offices. 

National Conventions 

In the summer of the election year, political parties in the U.S. hold national conventions to choose their presidential candidates for the general election. The incumbent party holds its convention second. The three things that happen at the conventions are: 

  1. Delegates vote for a candidate of their choice for a presidential nomination. 
  2. The party’s presidential nominee selects a running mate—vice presidential candidate. 
  3. The party adopts a party platform to boost voter turnout and to support the candidates for the general election. 


Election Day 

In between the national convention and the general election, candidates campaign across the country to win the support of the public. On election day, which is on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November, people cast a ballot in each state. However, we don’t directly vote to elect the president and the vice president on election day, we vote for electors. 

The electoral college is a body of electors who are the people assigned by each state to elect the president and vice president of the United States on the behalf of citizens. The electors in the presidential election are based on their total representation in Congress. There are a total of 538 electors—435 representatives, 100 senators, and 3 electors from the District of Columbia. That’s why the census plays a pivotal role in determining electoral votes for states as states may lose or gain a few electoral votes in every 10-year period. 

Fun Fact: The six states with the most electors are California- 55, Texas- 38, New York- 29, Florida- 29, Illinois- 20, and Pennsylvania- 20. The District of Columbia and the seven least populous states—Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming—have three electors each.

What happens after we cast a ballot? 

During election day and inauguration day, the electors vote to elect the president and the vice president. The 538 chosen electors meet in mid-December, on December 14 this year, and cast the votes to determine the new president and vice president of the U.S. A candidate needs a simple majority to win the presidential election, which is 51% of 538 that equals 270 electoral votes. The winning candidate becomes the next president of the United States of America. The newly elected president and vice president are inaugurated on January 20, 2021. 

The future belongs to us—the future depends on us, so it’s important to vote in elections. Learn why your voice and your vote matter here