POLYAS Election Glossary

We provide explanations and background information on elections, voting rights and digital democracy

Presidential Election

The US Presidential Election takes place every four years on the first Tuesday in November. Candidate must be at least 35 years old, born in the United States and lived in the US for the previous 14 years in order to be eligible. Traditionally, candidates make their intention to run for President public in the year before the election takes place. Since there is no national authority which conducts the elections, local authorities organize the election with the help of thousands of administrators. 

Presidential primaries and caucuses 

The election process starts with the primaries and caucuses in January or February of the election year. Primaries are organized by state and local authorities using a secret ballot to cast votes for hopeful presidential candidates from each of the major parties. Caucuses are private events organized by political parties themselves. Here, voters decide publicly which candidate they prefer. Afterwards, organizers count the votes and calculate how many delegates each candidate receives. 


Each state, the District of Columbia and some US territories are allocated a number of delegates, usually determined by population size. In addition, a formula is used to adjust the number by “rewarding” states which, for example, voted for the last party’s Presidential candidate. These delegates represent their state in the national party convention and vote to decide each party's presidential candidate. 

There a two main types of delegates: 

  • pledged delegates - who have to support the candidate to whom they were assigned in a primary or caucus
  • unpledged or superdelegates - who can choose freely which candidate they would like to support

National conventions

The national convention of each party is held in the summer of an election year. A majority of delegates’ votes is needed to receive the nomination of the party, which is often already reached and known before the national conventions take place. If no majority is reached, the national convention is where the presidential candidate will be selected. 

General Election campaigning

After the nominee for each political party have been chosen, the presidential candidates go head-to-head campaigning throughout the country. They go on rallies and take part in debates to win the support of voters across the nation. Moreover, they explain their plans and views to society. 

Electoral College

On Election Day, voters go to the polling place and cast their vote for their prefered candidate. The voters elect their President and Vice President indirectly. Both are chosen by electors through the Electoral College process. 
States are allocated electors based on the number of seats they have in the House of Representatives and Senate. Washington D.C. gets three electors but other US territories don't get any. In total there are 538 electors (435 House of Representatives seats + 100 Senate seats + 3 for Washington D.C.). After ballots have been cast, all votes go to a statewide tally. Washington D.C. and 48 states use the winner-takes-all procedure where the election winner receives all the electors in that state. Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions because they have a proportional system. A candidate has to "win" at least 270 electors in order to become President. Voting at the Electoral College takes place in the weeks after Election Day the winner is usually always announced on the night of the election. 

Inauguration Day

Inauguration Day takes place on January 20 at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. First, the Vice President is sworn in, followed by the President. Both officially become President and Vice President after reciting the oath of office which has been used since the late 18th century. 

See also: Primary , caucus, Republican Party, Democratic Party

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