In other U.S. elections, candidates are elected directly by popular vote. But the president and vice president are not elected directly by citizens. Instead, they’re chosen by “electors” through a process called the Electoral College.
The process of using electors comes from the Constitution. It was a compromise between a popular vote by citizens and a vote in Congress.
Each state gets as many electors as it has members of Congress (House and Senate). Including Washington, D.C.’s three electors, there are currently 538 electors in all.
After you cast your ballot for president, your vote goes to a statewide tally. In 48 states and Washington, D.C., the winner gets all the electoral votes for that state. Maine and Nebraska assign their electors using a proportional system.
A candidate needs the vote of at least 270 electors—more than half of all electors—to win the presidential election.
In most cases, a projected winner is announced on election night in November after you vote. But the actual Electoral College vote takes place in mid-December when the electors meet in their states. See the Electoral College timeline of events for the 2020 election.
While the Constitution doesn’t require electors to vote for the candidate chosen by their state's popular vote, some states do. The rare elector who votes for someone else may be fined, disqualified and replaced by a substitute elector, or potentially even prosecuted.
Explains the presidential election process from beginning to end.
Overview of the Presidential Election Process
An election for president of the United States happens every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The most recent presidential election was November 3, 2020.
Presidential Primaries and Caucuses
Before the general election, most candidates for president go through a series of state primaries and caucuses. Though primaries and caucuses are run differently, they both serve the same purpose. They let the states choose the major political parties’ nominees for the general election.
State Primaries and Caucuses for the Presidential Elections
State primaries are run by state and local governments. Voting happens through secret ballot.
Caucuses are private meetings run by political parties. They’re held at the county, district, or precinct level. In most, participants divide themselves into groups according to the candidate they support. Undecided voters form their own group. Each group gives speeches supporting its candidate and tries to get others to join its group. At the end, the number of voters in each group determines how many delegates each candidate has won.
Both primaries and caucuses can be “open,” “closed,” or some hybrid of the two.
During an open primary or caucus, people can vote for a candidate of any political party.
During a closed primary or caucus, only voters registered with that party can take part and vote.
“Semi-open” and “semi-closed” primaries and caucuses are variations of the two main types.
Awarding Delegates from the Primaries and Caucuses
At stake in each primary or caucus is a certain number of delegates. These are individuals who represent their state at national party conventions. The candidate who receives a majority of the party’s delegates wins the nomination. The parties have different numbers of delegates due to the rules involved in awarding them. Each party also has some unpledged delegates or superdelegates. These delegates are not bound to a specific candidate heading into the national convention.
When the primaries and caucuses are over, most political parties hold a national convention. This is when the winning candidates receive their nomination.
For information about your state's presidential primaries or caucuses, contact your state election office or the political party of your choice.
U.S. Constitutional Requirements for Presidential Candidates
The president must:
Be a natural-born citizen of the United States
Be at least 35 years old
Have been a resident of the United States for 14 years
Anyone who meets these requirements can declare their candidacy for president. Once a candidate raises or spends more than $5,000 for their campaign, they must register with the Federal Election Commission. That includes naming a principal campaign committee to raise and spend campaign funds.
After the primaries and caucuses, most political parties hold national conventions.
What Happens at a National Political Convention?
Conventions finalize a party’s choice for presidential and vice presidential nominees.
To become the presidential nominee, a candidate typically has to win a majority of delegates. This usually happens through the party’s primaries and caucuses. It’s then confirmed through a vote of the delegates at the national convention.
But if no candidate gets the majority of a party’s delegates during the primaries and caucuses, convention delegates choose the nominee. This happens through additional rounds of voting.
Types of Delegates at a National Convention
There are two main types of delegates:
Pledged, or bound delegates must support the candidate they were awarded to through the primary or caucus process.
Unpledged delegates or superdelegates can support any presidential candidate they choose.
Contested and Brokered Conventions
In rare cases, none of the party’s candidates has a majority of delegates going into the convention. The convention is considered “contested.” Delegates will then pick their presidential nominee through one or more rounds of voting.
In the first round of voting, pledged delegates usually have to vote for the candidate they were awarded to at the start of the convention. Unpledged delegates don't.
Superdelegates can't vote in the first round unless a candidate already has enough delegates through primaries and caucuses to get the nomination.
If no nominee wins in the first round, the convention is considered “brokered.” The pledged delegates may choose any candidate in later rounds of voting. Superdelegates can vote in these later rounds.
Balloting continues until one candidate receives the required majority to win the nomination.
At the convention, the presidential nominee officially announces their selection of a vice presidential running mate.
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Last Updated: July 28, 2021
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