The Electoral Process for Dummies

Cassandra Scalia, Editor-in-Chief

On November 3rd, eligible voters across the country will spill into their local government centers, fill out a piece of paper, and carry on with their lives as they were. 

Though in the moment it may feel like that slip of paper holds no weight, each vote truly sways the results of what is referred to as the “general election.” Each vote can make or break our country; our future, and as such, we ought to be educated voters. 

We ought to know what we’re voting for; we ought to know why we’re voting; we ought to make educated decisions, not just in favor of ourselves, but for the wellbeing of those around us.

To be an educated voter, we must understand both what the candidates are pushing in addition to how the electoral process works in general. Though it sounds relatively simple at face-value, there are many integral intricacies of which we as a people ought to be aware of.

With that being said, let us explore the road to the White House, from meeting the baseline requirements all the way to the final stage of the electoral process: the Electoral College.

1. So, you want to be the next President of the United States?

George Carlin, a comedian, once said: “In America, anyone can become president. That’s the problem.”

Well, yes — but not really. 

Socioeconomics aside, because that’s a whole other ball game, it is decently easy to qualify as a potential candidate for President of the United States. 

One must be a natural born citizen, which means they must have been born in the United States. This disqualifies immigrants from running (though they can still run for congressional positions). 

Additionally, one must be a resident of the United States for at least fourteen years. In other words, a natural born citizen of the United States can live or could have lived abroad at one point in their life, but in order to be eligible to run for president, they must have lived at least fourteen years in the United States. 

Finally, one who wishes to run must be at least thirty-five years old. 

If one meets these basic requirements, they are eligible to campaign as President of the United States.

2. And so, the race begins (and it’s complicated). 

After months of preliminary campaigning and fundraising, the primaries and caucuses begin.

Primaries and caucuses are, essentially, how each political party goes about selecting their final nominee for the rest of the electoral process. They do so by hosting a vote for party members in each state either through a primary or through a caucus.

When one votes in a primary, they simply go to their local government center, vote in a private voting booth, and leave. If their vote is not being suppressed, they are not there for more than an hour or two and nobody else knows about who they are voting for. Additionally, there are voting centers set up in most, if not all, towns and cities.

Caucuses, on the other hand, are much more involved. Caucuses are not set up in every town or city. Instead, there are a few select locations that people of each party can attend throughout a given state. In addition, caucuses aren’t a simple case of vote-and-go. Rather, people of the same party meet up in said location and discuss the candidates, why they wish to vote for each candidate, and then submit their vote. It’s not as private as a primary, and is certainly longer and less accessible than a primary as well.

Once the votes are tallied, delegates will be allocated to candidates of each party depending on two factors:

  1. What party the candidate belongs to
  2. What delegate allocation system is implemented in the state.

The two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, both have different ways of allocating delegates to candidates. They also have different amounts of delegates for each state. However, their systems are, for the most part, similar.

For the Democrats, all states utilize a proportional system. In a proportional system state, delegates are allocated based on the percentage of votes won. The Democrats, on top of this, have placed a threshold of 15% on all states. This means that, if a candidate wants to walk away with any delegates from any state, they must hold at least 15% of the votes. 

For the Republicans, there are two types of states: winner-takes-all and proportional. In a winner-takes-all state, the candidate with the most votes will win all delegates at stake. As for proportional, their system is similar to the one that Democrats use. However, they do not require the 15% threshold across the board. States only introduce that rule if they want to.

After all primaries and caucuses are held and the votes are tallied, each party holds a convention to decide on a sole presidential nominee.

3. Balloons, more balloons, and planks.

By time the conventions roll around, many candidates will have likely dropped out. There are many reasons a candidate may decide to drop out before the convention, the most common reasons being the following:

  1. Funds are running low
  2. Low to no voter turnout during the primaries and caucuses
  3. Delegates are not being secured
  4. The campaign is trashed by information released
  5. Backroom deals (which will be discussed later)

The remaining candidates, however, attend a national political convention (i.e. the Democratic National Convention or the Republican National Convention).

At the convention, delegates are tallied up and a nominee is chosen. However, before we get to that, it’s important to know the two different types of delegates.

First, there are the pledged delegates. Pledged delegates are the delegates that are won during the primaries and caucuses.

Then, there are the superdelegates (Democrats) and the unpledged delegates (Republicans). These delegates cannot be won through primaries and caucuses. They vote for who they please when the convention rolls around. In the Democratic party, superdelegates are not allowed to vote unless in the case of a contested nomination.

In order to win the nomination, a candidate must hold the majority of delegates. For the Democrats, a candidate must have at least 1,991 delegates. For the Republicans, a candidate must have 1,276 delegates.

Between the time the convention starts and before the nominee is officially announced, losing candidates may decide to forfeit their delegates. Typically, this is done as a display of party unity (especially in the Democratic party). A great example of this is the 2008 Democratic National Convention, where Hillary Clinton forfeited all of her delegates to Barack Obama, making it a unanimous vote in his favor.

However, delegates can also be forfeited as a result of backroom deals. Candidates may be promised by another candidate that, if they win the presidency, the losing candidate will be offered a seat in their administration so as long as they forfeit their campaign and/or delegates.

Once a nominee is announced, the party will then move to establish their platform. The party platform, which is implemented every four years (every presidential election year), is a series of principles and “planks” that the party will stand by.

The principles are, basically, the qualities and values that a given party believes in. The planks, however, are the specific goals they wish to achieve in addition to their proposals on how to achieve them. 

Platforms are not binding to any presidential candidate or political figure. They are not legally abided to follow it or to adhere to it, nor do they have to satisfy the party’s goals through the methods detailed in the platform. However, going against one’s own party, especially in the presidential position, is very much frowned upon and therefore is not typically done.

4. And so, the race begins (Redux).

After another series of debates, campaigning, and fundraising, the sole nominees from each party are, again, put on the ballot and chosen by eligible voters in each state on election day (November 3rd, 2020). This stage is called the “general election,” yielding one of the most important components in the electoral process called the “popular vote.”

In order to win the popular vote, a candidate must win the majority of votes nationwide. Winning the popular vote typically means the candidate will win the last stage, the Electoral College, though this isn’t always the case — such as in the 2016 election.

5. We’re in the endgame now.

Although the popular vote is arguably the most important part of the electoral process, the Electoral College is actually what dictates who wins the election. 

Just like in the primaries and caucuses, there are two types of states: winner-takes-all and proportional. However, electors are not allocated based on the rules of individual parties. Instead, all parties follow the same rules of allocation.

All states are winner-takes-all, including territories, except two: Maine and Nebraska. Both states follow a proportional system and therefore divide electors based on percent of the vote won. In all other states and territories, however, whoever wins the majority of votes wins all of the electors.

To win the Electoral College, a candidate must surpass the 270 threshold, which is the majority of the electoral votes.

So, how can a candidate lose the popular vote and win the electoral college, and therefore win the presidency? It all comes down to what states they won the majority in. 

In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, won the popular vote by about 2.8 million votes. She had great voter turnout in more densely populated, liberal-leaning cities in addition to securing a good chunk of northern states.

 However, even though she secured densely populated areas (such as those in California and New York, which are two of the most populous liberal states in the United States), she failed to secure the majority of votes in smaller states such as Iowa and Utah, and failed to win the majority of voters in more conservative-leaning populous states such as Texas and Florida. 

While she might have had pretty decent voter turnout in the historically conservative-leaning states, which ultimately lead to her win in the popular vote, she did not win the majority vote in those states. Because she didn’t win the majority, and because all of those states are winner-takes-all states, she failed to secure any electors from them. 

The smaller states are sometimes regarded as relatively insignificant in the electoral process, as they are not densely populated and don’t have many electoral votes to offer, however if one fails to win the majority in pretty much every single one, it starts to add up for their opponent.
This is what helped Trump to win the Electoral College; he won the majority in all of those smaller states, in addition to Texas and Florida (which, combined, have more electors than California), which propelled him far beyond the 270 threshold. As a result, he won the election and became President of the United States.

6. It’s all downhill from here, right?

A common thought nowadays is the following: “My vote doesn’t matter in the end, because the Electoral College is truly the system that dictates who becomes president. What, then, is the point of me voting?”

This is a dangerous thought.

In the 2016 election, nearly half of eligible voters in the United States chose not to vote. Some didn’t like any candidates, some didn’t feel like it mattered, and others simply didn’t care. 

Those hundred-something million votes could have easily swayed the entire election. Hillary Clinton could have won both the popular vote and the electoral college. Alternatively, President Trump could have won both the popular vote and the electoral college, or either candidate could have won a mix of the two. 

Who knows what could have happened, what could have been different?

In the end, your vote does matter. Your vote could be what decides if your candidate wins the majority in your state. Your vote can be what ensures that your choice crosses that 270 threshold.

Most importantly: your vote dictates not just your future, but the future of over three hundred million others.

For the sake of yourself and your fellow Americans, no matter your differences, educate yourself. Learn what each candidate is offering and proposing. Don’t rely on just news stations, as many hold bias; go out and find information yourself. Find the sources; find the facts

Exercise your right to vote.