How the US President is elected

As the elections draw near, news on caucuses, conventions and delegates floods the media.

Published: 16th February 2012 12:39 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 05:56 PM   |  A+A-


The 57th United States Presidential Election will be held towards the end of this year. Incumbent President Barack Obama will be running for his second and final term for the Democrats, while the Republican party is yet to finalise a candidate.

The process of electing the US President, which depends on the country’s Constitution, as well as the laws of the states, has changed considerably over time, and is a rather complicated one.

How are Candidates Chosen?

There are several conditions for eligibility of nominees for candidature for the posts of President and Vice-President. These are:

• They must be citizens of the US, born in the US

• They must have been resident in the US for at least 14 years

• They must be at least 35 years old

Usually, political parties pick their candidates for presidency at “conventions”, which are meetings attended by delegates. The delegates are chosen in several ways, themselves:

• For their importance in the party

• By state primary elections, with secret ballots

• By state caucuses, with public voting in place of secret ballots

In order to be chosen as the party’s candidate, the nominee must win a majority of delegate votes. S/he will then choose a vice-presidential candidate. The President and Vice-President run on the same “ticket”. This means, the Vice-President is automatically elected with the President for whom s/he is running mate.

How is the President Chosen?

The US President is elected by an “electoral college”. This is made up of “electors”. Electors are people who have been given Certificates of Ascertainment by their respective State Governors. They will then serve as delegates of the state in the Electoral College, which will eventually elect the President. Most registered voters, who don’t hold a commission or elected office in the Federal government, are eligible to serve as electors. Each state has as many electors as it has senators (two from each) and representatives (the number depends on the population of the state).

There are several steps involved in choosing the President. First, separate elections will be held in all 50 states, and the District of Columbia (DC). Electors “pledged” to one of the tickets will be chosen by voters in these 51 elections. Usually, in order to avoid confusing the voters, the names of the Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates the elector supports will be written on the ballot slip and not the name of the elector.

With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, all the other states and DC follow the winner-takes-all formula. This means that whichever ticket gets most votes in the state, gets all the electors.

In Maine and Nebraska, only two electors are chosen in this manner. The others will be chosen by the winner in each congressional district, with each district voting for one elector. The Electoral College must then cast votes for the President.

Now, all the electors have already pledged their support for one ticket, and are expected not to violate this pledge. So far most electors have stuck to their pledge.

The person who receives a clear majority of the Electoral College’s votes will be declared President, and his running-mate will be Vice President. If it so happens that none of the candidates gets a majority, the President will be chosen by the House of Representatives, from among the top three. Each state delegation in Congress will cast one vote. The Vice-President will be chosen from the top two.

How does the Electoral College System Affect the Candidates?

In most states, one of the two main parties is likely to have overwhelming support and hence is likely to win all the electoral votes. This means there is no point in candidates who don’t have a shot at winning wasting their time and money on campaigns in these states.

For example, most Southern states lying in the Bible Belt (like Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina), are likely to go with the Republican candidate, while the more liberal states, such as New York, California and Massachusetts, traditionally favour Democrats.

This makes the “swing states” crucial. These are also called “battleground states” or “purple states” (since it could go the way of either the Red Republicans or the Blue Democrats). The most ardent campaigns take place in these states. Examples are Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida.

There are several criteria for designating states as “swing states”. Mostly, they are states where the winner has been elected by a narrow margin, sometimes less than one per cent. A state may also be considered a battleground state because one of the candidates has a personal connection there. For example, in 2004, North Carolina was considered a swing state because it was home to Senator John Edwards, the running mate to Democratic candidate John Kerry.

What are the Critical Issues?

This time round, America is faced by several challenges — a shaky economy, huge public debt, and war-weariness.

As President, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009 and the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorisation, and Job Creation Act of 2010 in December 2010, to provide economic stimulus. He also brought in a controversial healthcare bill, which has ticked off the Catholic church and several other religious organisations by requiring hospitals run by them to provide patients with the ‘morning after’ pill, which is considered by some religions to be a form of abortion.

On the war front, he began large-scale withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and ordered the military operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.

While polls have shown that most Americans are dissatisfied with the state of the economy, the tide has turned in favour of Obama of late.

Stay up to date on all the latest Bengaluru news with The New Indian Express App. Download now
(Get the news that matters from New Indian Express on WhatsApp. Click this link and hit 'Click to Subscribe'. Follow the instructions after that.)


Disclaimer : We respect your thoughts and views! But we need to be judicious while moderating your comments. All the comments will be moderated by the editorial. Abstain from posting comments that are obscene, defamatory or inflammatory, and do not indulge in personal attacks. Try to avoid outside hyperlinks inside the comment. Help us delete comments that do not follow these guidelines.

The views expressed in comments published on are those of the comment writers alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of or its staff, nor do they represent the views or opinions of The New Indian Express Group, or any entity of, or affiliated with, The New Indian Express Group. reserves the right to take any or all comments down at any time.

flipboard facebook twitter whatsapp