There are now just a couple of months left until Election Day (held the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November) when the American people will cast their votes for the 45th President of the United States. Around the world, many people know the general election for our U.S. president takes place every four years, but beyond that, details around the American presidential election process are often less understood.

Prior to the U.S. presidential general election, as in many other countries, candidates take part in public debates and deliver campaign speeches around the country to seek public support. However, in the U.S., states hold primary elections or caucuses to choose delegates for the national conventions where the party nominees are selected. The individual state primaries and caucuses typically take place between January and June, followed by the national conventions in July, August, or September. The conventions are widely televised and mark the start of the general election campaign, giving each party the opportunity to promote its nominees and define differences with the opposition.

It had been that, since the 1970s, presidential candidates who would become the eventual nominees of the major parties were known before the conventions because they had amassed a majority of delegates before the primary/caucus season was concluded. As a consequence, the conventions had become largely ceremonial events. However, this year marked the first time in decades that the outcome of the conventions was not a fait accompli. In the end, both the Democratic and Republican parties held their national conventions in July and officially nominated their candidates – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.


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One part of the election process that even Americans themselves may not be fully aware of is the Electoral College. Under this system, Americans technically do not vote directly for the president and vice president. Instead, they vote within each state for a group of “electors” who are pledged to one or another presidential candidate. The number of electors corresponds to the number in a state’s congressional delegation, i.e., the number of representatives and senators from that state. Election to the presidency requires an absolute majority of the 538 electoral votes, including three electoral votes from Washington, D.C.

Under the Electoral College system, the nationwide popular vote for president has no final significance. As a result, it is possible that the electoral votes awarded on the basis of state elections could produce a different result than the nationwide popular vote. In fact, there have been 17 presidential elections in which the winner did not receive a majority of the popular vote cast. The first of these was John Quincy Adams in the election of 1824, and the most recent was George W. Bush in 2000.

Individual states’ electoral votes are allocated under a winner-take-all arrangement (whichever candidate receives a plurality of the popular vote in a state — even if it is just a narrow plurality — wins all of that state’s electoral votes) with two exceptions. In Maine and Nebraska, the statewide popular vote winner is awarded two electoral votes and the winner in each congressional district is awarded one electoral vote. Since the number of electoral votes for each candidate is determined by the nationwide popular vote, the winner is known before the electors cast their votes. However, the president is not officially elected until the electoral votes are cast in December and counted in January of the following year. The presidential inauguration then takes place on January 20.

More information on U.S. presidential elections is available here.