UPSC (IAS) Prelims 2020: How is the US President Elected?

With the US presidential elections taking place in November 2020, it is important for the UPSC (IAS) 2020 aspirants to understand the U.S. Presidential election process. In this article, we have provided all the details in the simplest form for better understanding. 

Sep 10, 2020 10:22 IST
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UPSC (IAS) CSE 2020: How is the US President Elected?
UPSC (IAS) CSE 2020: How is the US President Elected?

The 2020 United States presidential election is scheduled for Tuesday, November 3, 2020. This will be the 59th quadrennial presidential election. Voters will select presidential electors who in turn will vote on December 14, 2020, to either elect or reelect a new President and Vice President. It is to be noted that the US election system is much different from that of India. This is because the framers of the Indian Constitution opted for a Parliamentary form of Government, in the lines of Britain, rather than the Presidential form of Government. However, a UPSC Civil service aspirant is expected to have knowledge about both the election processes. Let’s understand how elections are conducted and a President is elected in the United States. 

How is President of India elected?

US Presidential Election Process

An election for President of the United States occurs every four years on Election Day, held the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The US President and Vice President are not elected directly by the people. Instead, they are chosen by “electors” through a process called the “Electoral College”.

The election process of the US President can be consolidated into five stages 

Stage 1: Primaries and Caucuses, 

Stage 2: National Conventions, 

Stage 3: Election Campaigning, 

Stage 4: General Election, and 

Stage 5: Electoral College.

Before understanding these five steps in detail, it is important to know Who can contest for the US President position?

US constitution provides some necessary requirements for the Presidential candidates. These requirements include:

  • Be a natural-born citizen of the United States*
  • Be at least 35 years old
  • Have been a resident of the United States for 14 years

*A Natural Born Citizen is someone born with U.S. citizenship. This includes any child born “in” the United States, the children of United States citizens born abroad, and those born abroad of one citizen parent.

Stage 1: Primaries and Caucuses to Select Electors

Primaries and caucuses are methods that political parties use to select candidates for a general election. A primary is a state-level election where party members vote for the best candidate that will represent them in the general election. Party candidates selected in a primary then run against each other in a general election. Out of 50, 34 U.S. states conduct primary elections.

A caucus is a local meeting where registered members of a political party in a city, town, or county gather to vote for their preferred party candidate and conduct other party business. A caucus is a substitute for a primary election to select delegates to the national party convention. 16 states hold caucuses to determine political party candidates.

List of 80 Important Articles of the Constitution at a Glance

Stage 2: National Conventions of Each Party

Once the primaries and caucuses are completed in each state, a national convention is held. During the convention, the elected delegates from each state cast their vote for a party candidate for the President position and the candidate with the most delegates gets the party’s nomination. After electing the party’s nomination for president, it is formally announced to the public. The end of the convention marks the beginning of the general election process.

Each party holds a national convention to finalize the selection of one presidential nominee. At each convention, the presidential candidate chooses a running-mate (vice-presidential candidate).

In the 2020 US Presidential elections, the Republican party has nominated Donald Trump as their nomination for the President. He has chosen Mike Pence as his running mate. While for the Democratic party, they have nominated Joe Biden as their Presidential candidate who has chosen Kamala Harris as his running-mate.

Stage 3: General Election Campaigning

After a single nominee is chosen from each political party, via primaries, caucuses, and national conventions, General election campaigning begins. The nominated candidates travel throughout the country, explaining their views and plans to the general public and try to win the support of potential voters. Rallies, debates, and advertising are a big part of general election campaigning.

Stage 4: General Elections

In the US general elections, the voters indirectly cast vote for their preferred Presidential candidate through electors who are members of the Electoral College. these electors then directly elect the president and vice president. To win the election, a candidate needs to secure more than 270 electoral votes.  If no candidate receives the minimum 270 electoral votes, the United States House of Representatives will elect the president from the three candidates who received the most electoral votes, and the United States Senate will select the vice president from the candidates who received the two highest totals.

To understand this better, let’s consider the example of General elections 2020. On November 3, 2020, the US voters will indirectly vote for their presidential candidate by voting for the elector from the same party. Voters will select presidential electors who in turn will vote on December 14, 2020, to elect the President of the United States. 

Stage 5: Electoral College

The US the president is elected by the institution called the Electoral College. The Constitution only states that the candidate who receives a majority of votes in the Electoral College becomes president. It says nothing about the popular vote. The intent of the framers was to filter public opinion through a body composed of wiser, more experienced people.

Each state gets a certain number of electors, based on each state’s total number of representation in Congress. Each of the 50 US states and the capital Washington DC (a district that does not belong to any state) have a set number of electors which reflect their size. California is the most populated and has 55 electoral votes which are more than any other. On the other hand, a state such as Montana, which is geographically large but has a relatively small population has three electors. Aside from Maine and Nebraska, if a candidate gets the most votes within a state they receive that state’s full quota of electoral college votes. Each elector casts one electoral vote following the general election. There are a total of 538 electoral votes.

The candidate that gets more than half (270) wins the election. The president-elect and vice president-elect take the oath of office and are inaugurated in the month of January.


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