What's The Difference Between Presidential And Congressional Elections? Here's An Explainer

Given the endless drama of this year’s presidential race, it’s easy to forget that there’s more at stake on the 2016 ballot than the presidency: On November 8, voters will also take part in a major congressional election. There are a few key differences between the presidential and congressional elections, despite the fact that they’re on the same ballot. Read on to find out just how your votes will be counted on Election Day.

This year, in addition to voting for the candidate you’d like to see in the White House, you’ll also get to take part in your state and local elections, vote for members of the House of Representatives, and, potentially, vote for members of the Senate. (In 2016, 34 states have a Senate seat up for grabs.)

Although they might not be as flashy as the presidential race, the congressional elections are important: The two houses of Congress have the power to draft laws, make decisions about taxation and government spending, declare war, and approve or deny appointments to the Supreme Court and other judicial positions. This year, your congressional votes are especially important because there are a number of very close Senate races going on right now — these races will determine whether Republicans will retain their majority in the Senate, or be taken over by the Democrats. (And those results, in conjunction with the outcome of the presidential race, will have a huge affect on how much our federal government can accomplish in the next four years.)


Two key differences between the presidential and congressional elections have to do with how often elections occur and how a winner is decided. First, members of the House are up for election (or re-election) every two years, the president is on the ballot every four years, and senators stand to be elected or re-elected every six. (Roughly a third of senators are on the ballot on each election.) Elections that take place between presidential elections are known as “midterm elections.”

Perhaps the most glaring difference has to do with how your vote actually counts. Congressional elections are decided by direct vote, meaning that the candidate who wins the most votes in the state or district wins the election. Your vote contributes directly to the candidate you support. In contrast, the presidential race is decided by a body known as the Electoral College. When you vote for president, you are really voting for a group of electors in your state; the number of electors for each state is equivalent to its total number of seats in Congress. These electors have been appointed (often by a political party) to vote in the event that the candidate you selected wins the most votes. Every U.S. state except Maine and Nebraska practices an “all or nothing” policy when it comes to elector votes. Whichever candidate gets the majority of popular votes in your state gets all of your state’s Electoral College votes. That’s why it’s possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote and still win the election itself.


Thus, your vote for president takes a slightly more circuitous route than your votes for members of Congress. Either way, however, your vote matters. Be sure to make your voice heard — in regard to the presidential race, and the congressional races, and your state and local elections — on November 8.

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