Guide to the American elections


How the US Election System Operates?

The US presidential election is the most anticipated political event of the year, not only in the United States, but around the world. This is not unusual if you consider that on November 5, 2024, it will be decided who will lead the most powerful country in the world for the next four years – the country with the greatest political influence, the strongest economy and the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet. 

However, although there is almost no person who does not follow this vote and has not formed an opinion about it, the way in which the US elects the Head of State and Parliament is unique and confusing to many. For this reason, the Institute for Politics and Economy of Southeast Europe (IPESE) has prepared a GUIDE TO THE AMERICAN ELECTIONS. 

Voters in the US presidential elections do not elect the Head of the White House directly, but indirectly – by electing electors of their respective states, who then elect the President as part of the Electoral College

Through a series of articles, we will explain why the voting system in the USA is different from those in most democratic countries, how the President is elected, and how the members of the Senate and House of Representatives of Congress are elected, separation of powers, what primaries are, why there are only two major parties, what is the difference between blue and red, and what swing states are. Furthermore, we will explore who can run for which office, how candidates are financed, and which topics are the most important to voters…

Enlightment ideas

The United States of America is considered to be the first modern, constitutional democracy. Emerging in the rebellion of 13 colonies against the English authorities, they rejected the monarchy and aristocracy with the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, and after the victory in the American War of Independence, the establishment of a new system of government began.

Inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment that spread throughout Europe, the founders of the new state did not have a manual for creating a constitutional republic because, simply put, such states did not exist at that time. Although the goal was the separation of powers between the executive, the legislative and the judicial branch, there has been much debate about what that separation should actually look like. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787, the organization of the Senate and the House of Representatives, whether the executive power should be given to one person or a three-member body, the duration of the mandate, direct elections were discussed…

’’At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton suggested a President and Senate chosen for life. The Convention did not take his suggestion. But neither did it provide for popular elections, except in the case of the House of Representatives. The Constitution provided for Senators to be elected by the state legislators, for the President to be elected by electors chosen by the state legislators, and for the Supreme Court to be appointed by the President“, states Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States.

Electoral college

It is the electors that make the election of the American President unique in the world. In the US Presidential elections, voters do not elect the head of the White House directly, but do so indirectly – by electing electors in their states, who then elect the President in the Electoral College.

The reason for this are the Constitutional Convention and the unique political circumstances of that era. Since the President, along with the Vice President, is the only official in America who is elected at the level of the entire USA and not individual federal states, there has been a long debate about how to elect him. There were many, especially in the North, who advocated for direct elections. However, the opposition to this was significant as it was considered dangerous – some thought that not all voters were sufficiently informed to elect a Head of State, in the South they believed that it would favor the northern, more densely populated states, while others believed that it undermined the idea federalism… There was also an idea that Congress elects the President, which suited the southern states, but it was rejected because then the legislative and executive powers would not be separated, as well as the idea that state governors decide who will be the Head of State. Electors represented a compromise.

Initially, they voted for the President, and the second-ranked candidate would become the Vice President. However, after the election of 1800, when there was a tie, and the winner was decided in the House of Representatives after 36 voting cycles, the system was slightly changed. Since then, electors cast one vote each for the President and Vice President.

There are 538 electors, which is the sum of Congressmen and Senators plus three Electors from the District of Columbia. They were initially elected in the Parliaments of the federal states, but since 1836 they have been decided at the polling stations, according to the rules of the states in question. In some, there is the name of the Elector along with the name of the presidential candidate, but this is not mandatory. In all states except Maine and Nebraska, the winning presidential candidate receives all the electors from that state.

Although this system is considered by many to be outdated and problematic because a candidate with more votes at the state level can get fewer electoral votes, this has only happened five times in the history of the USA, where voting has been held every four years since 1792. John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George Bush Jr. in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 came to power with a smaller number of votes but more electors.

What’s unusual about the Electoral College is that even though the ballots in many states only have the names of the presidential candidates, the electors can opt not to vote for them. There were over 150 such “faithless electors”, as they are called, throughout history.

Conditions to run for presidency

The American President, who is at the same time also the Head of State, Head of Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, is elected every four years, and since 1848 the polls fall “on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November”. The basic conditions for someone to be elected President are determined by the Constitution:

John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George Bush Jr. in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 came to power with a smaller number of votes but more electors.

’’No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.“

Voting for the congress

In the fall, citizens of the United States will vote not only for the President, but also for the Parliament. All members of the House of Representatives of Congress, which has 435 congressmen, and a third of the 100 members of the Senate are elected.

The mandate of a Congressman from the lower house of the Parliament lasts two years, and the conditions for someone to be elected are that he/she is at least 25 years old, that he/she has been a US citizen for at least seven years and that he/she is a resident of the federal state they represents. Members of the House of Representatives have been elected in direct elections since the Constituent Assembly. In the House of Representatives, each US state has a number of congressmen determined by population. States such as Alaska, North Dakota and Vermont have the fewest, with one Congressman each, and California has the most – 52. 

When it comes to the upper house of the Parliament, Senators have been elected directly since 1914, before that they were delegated by the federal states. The mandate of Senators lasts six years, and each state has the same number of Senators – two each.

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