The selection of a president: US elections explained in five steps

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Apr 26, 2016 14:52 IST
US President Barack Obama in the White House press briefing room in Washington, April 5, 2016. (REUTERS)

Every four years, people in the United States elect a new president on a Tuesday followed by first Monday in November. This year the date falls on November 8, 2016.

The American election system is not straightforward, as mere votes do not win one the presidency.

Here is how the system works starting from who can become a presidential candidate to the day a newly-elected president is inaugurated in five steps:

1. The requirements

If you want to contest for the presidency you have to fulfil the following criteria:

* You should be a natural born US citizen

* You have to be 35 years of age

* You must be a US resident for the past 14 years

2. Primaries and caucuses

Each candidate is backed by a party and each party has its own believers. The primaries and caucuses help bring these like-minded candidates and believers of a party together to choose a candidate who will represent the party in the general elections.

In a way, these are ‘elections before elections’ where one candidate of each party is selected by party believers before they go on to face the general elections.

In Indian scenario, this is equivalent to a party nominating a prime ministerial candidate.

Primaries are straight-forward voting systems where party believers vote for a particular candidate. They are run by state and local governments.

During caucuses, voters divide themselves into groups according to who they support in the party. They then discuss and give speeches to convince the others to join their group. Finally, votes are called in and the winner is chosen.

These are private meetings organised by political parties.

Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at his New York presidential primary night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 19, 2016. (REUTERS)

3. Delegates

At the end of every primary or caucus, the candidates of different parties pick up ‘delegates’. Each candidate of a party has to pick up a pre-determined number of delegates to win the nomination.

If one wants to become a Democratic party candidate one has to be pick up 2,383 of 4,765 delegates. To become a Republican party candidate one has to pick up 1,237 of 2,472 delegates.

The question of why the delegates target is different for each party needs a long-winding explanation. If you are interested, you can go through what Kevin J Coleman, an analyst in elections, has to say.

Delegates are of two types - pledged and unpledged.

4. National conventions

Parties hold national conventions to announce the candidate, who has picked up the required number of delegates, as the party’s nominee for the general elections.

If no one has achieved the magic number then the convention becomes a brokered or contested one. The pledged delegates and unpledged delegates come into the spotlight.

Democratic US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (L) and Senator Bernie Sanders speak at the same time during a Democratic debate hosted by CNN and New York One at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York April 14, 2016. (REUTERS)

Contested convention is equivalent to the election of a pope. Because there was no consensus in the primaries and caucuses, another round of voting is conducted. Wherein ‘pledged delegates’ usually have to vote for the candidate they were awarded to in the first round of voting, while unpledged delegates don’t.

Pledged delegates may be allowed to choose any candidate in subsequent rounds of voting. The voting continues until a consensus emerges and a nominee is finalised.

5. General elections

US citizens vote to choose their presidents during general elections. But here too they do not choose the president directly. The US follows an indirect method called electoral college to choose the president. Under this system, citizens vote for a group of people known as electors. And the electors, in turn, choose the president.

Who are these electors?

In the electoral college system, each state gets a certain number of electors based on its representation in the Congress. There is a total of 538 electoral votes.

Each political party nominates electors who are state-elected officials, party leaders or persons who have a personal or political affiliation with the presidential candidate.

Each selected elector casts one vote following the general election and the candidate who crosses the 270 mark wins.

The newly-elected president is inaugurated in January.

Data source:

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