How Does Electing The President Work?

There is, for many people around the world, nothing as absolutely nuts in American politics as the presidential run. It goes on forever, all the stages seem to involve more complications than a Kafka-esque nightmare, and after nearly two years of yelling and smear campaigns and tax returns and emails, the result may not even be definitive. It's enough to turn a person back to hereditary monarchy. But the American system persists; and if you've become utterly lost in the deluge of the process, or have forgotten how electing the president actually works, this is the guide for you.

We're now nearing the end. Nov. 8, when the nation goes to the polls, will be the culmination of billions of dollars of funding, millions of hours of political coverage, and innumerable words spent in think-pieces. I'm proud of you for (nearly) having survived this marathon; the finish line is in sight. But elections are labyrinthine things, and it's worth reminding ourselves of how it's supposed to work, even if the 2016 election has been so bizarre it's been one for the history books (it's featured the first female nominee for president, and that's only been the start of it).

Here's hoping everything from here goes smoothly, though with current precedent of this presidential race, that doesn't look exactly likely.

1. Candidates Announce Their Intention To Run

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At the very beginning of the campaign trail, about 18 months before the actual election itself (though it's getting earlier and earlier), candidates will start announcing their intent to run, usually as a result of forming "exploratory committees" that have poked around, seen what people are thinking, and determined that the answer to "should this person be president?" is anything less definitive than "Oh, god, never in a million years."

Candidates tend to announce pretty early in the hope of attracting as much funding as possible; when you're competing for a limited amount of money from wealthy party donors, it's necessary to get in first, so that you can nab their endorsement (and their cash) over fancy dinners and intimate fund-raisers with caviar canapés. This is the reason that candidates start to talk about their presidential run earlier and earlier, when you feel like you only just elected the last one: running a campaign is bone-crushingly expensive.

2. Candidates Compete For Primary Votes With Debates


The system of primary voting is one of the most labyrinthine forms of government on the planet. Primaries and caucuses, where voters select the candidates for their particular parties to contest the presidency, are more bewildering than they appear: they're actually centered around delegates, the party members who can vote for the candidate to be their nominee.

How each party determines which delegates support which candidates is vaguely insane, and I'll get onto that in a minute. But this is the point in the process where competitors for the presidential nomination (the big boss fight, if you will) go head-to-head within their own parties, leading to such exchanges as Obama's "I'm looking forward to you advising me too, Hillary" stinger to Clinton in 2008 and Ben Carson's "Can somebody attack me please?" in February 2016.

3. Primaries Are Held To Determine Candidates

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The primaries themselves, many of which are held on "Super Tuesday," are the make-or-break for the first stage of the bewildering steeplechase that is a presidential campaign. This is the point where the candidates who just didn't live up to the mark get dropped. It's a particularly brutal and confusing system.

The system actually differs between the two major parties. In some states electing Republican candidates, as with the electoral colleges (which we'll get to later), the "winner takes all"; if four candidates for a party nomination get pretty close votes in a state, but one edges out the others, he or she gets all the delegates. Even if it's insanely close. Republicans allow every state to have its own process to elect delegates, while the Democrats have a strict rule for their contest: you get delegates based on the percentage of votes you get in the state. These system differences make for a lot of insanely complicated delegate mathematics, which is why it's so tricky for people to predict who's actually winning the nomination until the next step.

4. Party Conventions Announce Their Chosen Candidate

This is the point where the delegate mathematics has been stacked up, back-door deals have been made, and the party comes forward at its convention and announces the person its delegates have selected as a candidate, with a lot of fanfare, speeches, and balloons. BBC News has called it "one of the great set pieces of American politics." From this point on, you're pretty much stuck with your candidates for the presidency, unless something unprecedented happens. The party generally throws all its weight behind the nominee, though there are always grumblers and doubters who supported other candidates for the nominations and need to be placated.

5. Candidates Clash In Debates

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Well, we're all intimately familiar with this stage, aren't we. The nominees for the two major parties face each other in a set of debates staged across the country, from town halls to colleges, with moderators drawn from different media organizations and national and international media coverage. It's their chance to really make their case, explore all of the aspects of their platform, discredit their opponent, and also to give a direct, person-to-person approach to the presidency. It's also the point where they can call their enemies "nasty women" and make insulting remarks about Rosie O'Donnell, if they really think that's the best way to go.

This is hardly the only bit of work the candidates are doing at this point; if you're in a cafe anywhere in the United States, or doing something picturesque at a county fair, there's a high chance you'll run into a candidate doing some canvassing and eating some vaguely disgusting local delicacy with every appearance of enjoyment. At this point they've been on the road giving speeches and convincing voters of their best qualities for well over a year, so you can excuse them if they regard their 2000th hot dog with a little less than frank enthusiasm.

6. The Election Is Held

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You thought it was going to get simpler towards the end, didn't you? Ha! The actual election day, where polls open across all of America's glorious states, is one of the biggest headaches in the international news cycle, causing massive confusion across the world as we try and figure out who on earth might be winning.

The popular vote may indicate a clear success for one candidate, but the thing that really matters is the votes of the state's electoral college, the people who formally cast the state's number of votes for the presidential office, and that's usually a winner-takes-all system too. (Even if Trump gets 1.5 million votes in one state and Clinton gets 1.51 million, all the electoral college votes in the state will go to Clinton.) It's an extremely confusing day for the world. Overseas voters' ballots have already arrived, accusations of voter registration problems and difficulties at polling places are usually rife, and as numbers creep up across the states, we all watch with bated breath.

The states that have traditionally mattered significantly for the result are the "swing" states, who aren't firmly entrenched with one particular political party and could be persuaded to go either way. (This year several previously Republican strongholds have indicated they might go Democrat, making everything even weirder than normal.) People in these swing states have had an even more significant dose of candidates popping up their towns and eating their local delicacies.

7. The Electoral College Casts Votes


This point is where people wait for the magical number: 270. That's the number of electoral college votes required for a party to win the presidency for their candidate. There are 538 electoral college votes up for grabs, with a portion for every state in the U.S. according to their political numbers in Congress. (Every state gets two electors representing their senators, and then at least one more depending on the number of representatives it has in the House, which shifts according to state population. Idaho has four electoral votes, while far more populous New York has 29.)

Al Jazeera has compiled a list of landslides in American history (in 1984, for example, Ronald Reagan won 525 electoral votes to his rival Walter Mondale's 13), but it's much more often a story of closely-contested numbers. Often the ways in which states have voted becomes clear on Election Day itself, as counting commences and exit polls (conducted as voters leave their polling place) demonstrate what's actually gone down. Given that Donald Trump is being a massive baby about actually accepting the electoral result, though, there's not much likelihood that he'll give a nice, charming concession speech if he loses.

8. Ta-Dah! You Have A President


Congratulations! It's a healthy, bouncing new president of the United States of America, who will now give victory speeches and start considering the people they'll appoint to cabinet positions and whether they'll adopt a White House cat. They'll be sworn in once January rolls around. Aren't you proud? Isn't this a glorious moment in — wait, hold on, are potential fresh candidates starting to form exploratory committees already?