The LexGaze Weekly - DECIPHER

How the US elects its President: A short guide

Prakhar Srivastava

Issue 21 | November 16, 2020

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr or Joe Biden as he is popularly known is USA’s President-elect and Kamala Harris is ready to be its first-ever female Vice President, after Donald Trump and the Republicans wiped the floor in a hotly contested, nail-biting election. But like many of us, were you also scratching your heads as it all unfolded, wondering- what’s happening? What is this bewildering process the US employs to choose its leader? Well, don’t worry! We have got you covered. In this week’s Decipher, we decode for you how the US elects its President in as simple a way as possible. Read on.

The US Presidential elections can be split into five parts:

  • Primaries and Caucuses

  • National Convention

  • General Election

  • Electoral College

  • Inauguration

The process starts right in the month of February/March, with voting in November and the inauguration in January.

Primaries and Caucuses

There are two political parties in the US- Democrats (Liberals) and Republicans (Conservatives). Both these parties nominate a leader for the President's post. To do so, they first hold primaries and caucuses in different states to pick 'delegates' who will then go on to support the Presidential nominee. While some States have a secret ballot (Primaries) to elect their delegates, others choose their delegates by a show of hands in an open meeting (caucuses).

National Convention

The National Convention is a large gathering, usually held at a stadium or a large open space, of all the delegates chosen by the states during the Primaries and Caucuses. At this gathering, delegates vote and parties  announce who is going to run for President and Vice President (also called a Running mate). Democrats and Republicans hold their National Conventions separately, and once the Presidential and Vice Presidential nominees are announced, campaigning, rallies and televised debates begin.

General Election

The Presidential voting takes place in two-steps.

First, voters in each state cast ballots on Election Day. In nearly every state, the candidate who receives the most votes wins the "electoral votes" for that particular state, and gets that number of voters (or "electors") in the "Electoral College." Second, the "electors" from each of these 50 states gather in December and vote for  the President. The person who receives a majority of votes from the "Electoral College" wins. The electors are local leaders who collectively form the Electoral College and every party releases a list of electors ahead of the election day.

Electoral College

Under the Electoral College system, each state is assigned a certain number of "votes". There are a total of 538 electoral votes and   the number of electoral votes each state gets depends on the size of its population. The formula for determining the number of votes for each state is simple: each state gets two votes for its two US Senators, and an additional vote for each member it has in the House of Representatives. For example, California has the highest number of 55 electoral votes (2 senators and 53 members of the House of Representatives).

These electors vote in December and have to vote twice: for President and Vice President. The candidate needs a simple majority of 270 in the electoral college to win the Presidential election. Things get tricky during the Electoral College because despite a party winning maximum states on Voting Day, they might lose in the Electoral College.


The new president is officially sworn into office on 20 January in a ceremony known as the inauguration, which is held on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington DC.

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