Frequently Asked Questions about Elections

Though Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign is gaining a lot of traction, we still have a long way to go if we want to put him in the White House. By now, you’ve hopefully already visited,, and /r/SandersForPresident. Those are great resources for learning about Bernie Sanders, signing up to volunteer, and tracking the progress of his campaign. However, you need to do one more thing if you want Bernie Sanders to win the presidency: You need to vote for him! Voter turnout has been abysmally low in recent elections, and many of Bernie’s supporters are those who will be voting for the first time. That is why was created, to make the voting process as easy as possible.

Unfortunately, the voting process in the U.S. is quite complex and contains many steps, and every state has their own rules and processes that confuse things even further. This page will answer common questions about the presidential election process in the hope of reducing that confusion.

The U.S. Presidential Election Cycle

The presidential election cycle refers to the process that occurs every four years in which a new President of the United States is elected. During this time, all individuals who announce their candidacy for the presidency engage in heavy campaigning to convince eligible voters to support them. The presidential election cycle can be split up into two campaign phases. First is the primary campaign phase for the primary elections and caucuses, which take place on different days in different states. This is followed by the general election, which takes place on Election Day everywhere in the country. While the campaign for the primary election can start up to two years before the actual presidential election, the general election campaign only lasts a few months.

How does the presidential election cycle begin in the United States?

Every four years, at the beginning of the presidential election cycle, people who want to run for president on the ticket of a political party can register with that party’s national committee as a primary presidential candidate, provided they meet some basic qualifications. The party is usually either the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee. Primary presidential candidates can also register with other political parties such as the Green Party, Constitution Party, or Socialist Party, or they can try to skip the primary election and run without a political party as an independent. However, only candidates who secure the Democratic or Republican nomination have been elected president in recent elections.

When do people start campaigning for the presidency?

The deadlines for individuals to announce their candidacy for the presidency differs from state to state. However, most political parties require presidential hopefuls to register with them and make an announcement by the end of autumn the year before the general election.

Since anybody can sign up to be a presidential candidate, why are there so few names on the general election ballot?

While anybody can sign up to be a primary election candidate, only one candidate for each party will proceed to the general election with that party’s nomination. Through a process that includes primary elections and caucuses, on the state level, and a national convention, each political party chooses one candidate who they believe gives them the best chance of winning the general election. Thus, only one presidential candidate from each party appears on the general election ballot.

Do any other important elections occur at the same time as the presidential elections?

Yes! Congressional elections, for both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, occur at the same time as other federal elections. State and local elections may also occur within a similar time period as the presidential election. Moreover, many federal and state-level appointments to the judiciary directly follow elections.

What are the presidential debates?

The presidential debates are events where candidates convene to discuss their policy platforms, goals as president, and answer questions from the general population about important issues facing the United States. The primary election debates operate differently from the general election debates and serve a distinct purpose. The purpose of primary election debates is to allow voters to identify which primary candidate of their party of choice they like the most. In other words, the DNC allows each of the Democratic primary presidential candidates to face-off; the RNC allows each of the Republican primary presidential candidates to face-off. In this way, voters can more easily decide which party they want to register for (if necessary) and choose a single candidate to vote for in their state’s primary election or caucus.

The purpose of the general election debates, on the other hand, is to allow voters to decide which presidential ticket (A ticket refers to a presidential candidate and their chosen running mate for vice president) they like the most among the candidates general election. During these debates, the final Republican candidate and Democratic candidate, each chosen through the primary election process, face-off against each other. These debates sometimes include independent or third-party presidential candidates as well.

When do the presidential debates occur?

The primary election presidential debates begin in the middle of the primary election campaign, when most candidates have officially declared their intention to run. Primary election debate schedules are maintained separately by the RNC and DNC. Historically, while a certain number of primary presidential debates are always sanctioned by the RNC or DNC, sometimes candidates opted to participate in non-sanctioned debates at certain points during the election cycle. For the 2016 election cycle, however, both the RNC and DNC have instituted an “exclusivity rule”. This new rule states that if candidates participate in debates not sanctioned by their party, they are disqualified from attending the debates that are sanctioned by the party. Surprisingly, for the 2016 election cycle, the DNC has only scheduled 6 debates total, with the first one occurring four days after the primary election registration deadline for New York. Conversely, the RNC has scheduled over 10 debates total. The general election debates begin after both national party conventions have taken place and their schedule is maintained by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).

Delegates & Superdelegates

For the two major political parties (the Democratic and Republican parties), the function of the primary election phase is to select and apportion delegates to attend a national convention where they will represent their party’s interests.

What is a delegate? What is a superdelegate? How are they different?

A delegate (typically a pledged delegate) is an individual nominated to attend the national party convention as a result of a given state’s primary election or caucus. Since these delegates are chosen by popular vote, they are bound to vote for a certain candidate at their party’s national convention based on the results of the primary election or caucus. A superdelegate is a person who falls into one of the categories agreed upon by the leaders of a national political party that gets to vote at their party’s national convention for their preferred presidential candidate. They are usually high-ranking members of their party — such as current congressmen, governors, and former presidents — who are associated with that particular state. Of the two major parties, only the Democratic Party uses superdelegates, the Republican Party does not. Unlike pledged delegates, superdelegates are allowed to vote for whichever candidate they want to. While superdelegates are not bound by any promises, non-super delegates are committed to voting for a certain candidate except for those apportioned for the primary voters who explicitly voted for “uncommitted”. Thus, superdelegates (and uncommitted delegates) have much more political freedom than pledged delegates because they can vote for whichever primary presidential candidate who they prefer without revealing their choice.

Who can become a delegate?

Any U.S. citizen registered with the party can request to be a delegate. Yes, that means you too! However, just like the presidency, to even be considered requires heavy campaigning and a history of serving your state’s party well. Each state’s Democratic Party and Republican Party chooses a only a set number of delegates per election cycle. Consequently, there is a lot of competition among party members to become a delegate.

Primary Elections & Caucuses

The purpose of a primary election or caucus is for every registered voter in each state, also known as the electorate, to choose delegates from the general population to represent their state at national party conventions. Each state’s government chooses to engage in either a primary election, a caucus, or some combination of the two.

The following video describes in brief how primaries and caucuses work.

What are primary elections and how do they work?

The goal of a primary election is to get an accurate representation of delegates to vote at national party conventions. In primaries, votes are cast by secret ballot, just like in the general election. When choosing delegates, the Democratic party employs a proportional system. For example, if a state needed to choose 6000 delegates and 70% of the popular vote went to Bernie Sanders while 20% of the vote went to Hillary Clinton and 10% of the vote went to Martin O’Malley, then 4200 delegates would be chosen to vote for Bernie Sanders at the Democratic national convention. The Republican party, on the other hand, only employs a proportional system for some states, and uses a winner-take-all system for the rest. Even if Jeb Bush only won 40% of the popular vote, while the other 60% was split equally among the other 10+ remaining Republican candidates, he would still win all 6000 of the delegates in a winner-take-all state. This difference in method between Democratic primary elections and Republican primary elections creates a completely different climate for each.

What is a caucus and how do they work?

Caucuses are the original method for selecting delegates and superdelegates, and existed long before the first primary election was introduced. Since the early 1900s, when primary elections were established, the popularity of caucuses has decreased in favor of primary elections which are easier to manage, and award more power to individuals in the electorate. In states that hold caucuses, each political party announces the date, time, and location of the caucus. At a caucus, individuals who are viewed favorably within the party are identified as potential delegates. After a comprehensive discussion and debate, an informal vote is held to determine which individuals will serve as delegates at the national party convention. The same rules that apply to delegates and superdelegates chosen from primary elections do not always apply to those chosen from caucuses. For example, the Iowa caucus follows a process in which candidates receiving less than 15% support from caucus-goers in a given district do not receive any delegates from that district.

What are the types of primary elections and caucuses?

The four most common types of primary elections are open, closed, semi-open, and semi-closed. Each state that holds a primary election chooses which type they want to adopt.

Open primaries and caucuses allow all voters, regardless of party affiliation, to vote for a single candidate in a party of their choice.

Closed primaries and caucuses require voters to register with a specific party to be able to vote for that party’s candidates.

Semi-Open primaries and caucuses allow any registered voter except for Republicans to vote for that party’s candidates.

Semi-Closed primaries and caucuses follow the same rules as Closed, but they also allow voters who are not affiliated with a political party to vote.

Which states have primary elections? Which states have caucuses?

You can find the answer to this question by referring to the map on the front page of this website.

When do each state’s primary elections or caucuses take place?

While dates for primary elections and caucuses can change each year, four events typically occur before all of the others each election cycle: the Iowa Republican and Democratic Caucuses followed shortly by the New Hampshire Democratic and Republican primary elections. Many primary elections and caucuses occur on
Super Tuesday every election cycle; this time Super Tuesday falls on March 1, 2016.

Primary and Caucus dates can and do change often, sometimes even at the last minute. Be sure to subscribe to the newsletter to receive updates and reminders of upcoming deadlines and changes.

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Why do some states have closed primaries and caucuses while others do not?

Closed primary elections and caucuses exist as a defense mechanism against political sabotage. Some states’ political parties are concerned that voters, instead of using their vote to support the candidate with whom they agree the most, will vote for a weak candidate in the opposing political party. That is to say, these individuals may subvert the opposing political party’s power as a way to advance the potential of their own political party. By hosting a closed primary election, states force individuals in their electorate to register as either a Republican, a Democrat, or another political party, and then participate in only their own party’s caucus or primary election. In this way, both the state parties ensure that they are not undermining each other’s political efficacy. Those states which hold open primary elections and caucuses have weighed the likelihood of this political sabotage occurring, and have decided that the risk is insufficient to force voters to stick to rigid party lines, they would rather each voter choose to support a candidate regardless of party affiliation.

Can U.S. territories and protectorates hold primary elections or caucuses?

Yes! Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas Islands, and American citizens living abroad all hold their own primary elections. However, only US citizens registered to vote in the 50 states or D.C. are able to vote in the general election.

The Democratic & Republican National Conventions

The purpose of the Democratic and Republican national conventions is for delegates and superdelegates choose the candidates that will represent each party during the general election.

When and where do the national party conventions take place?

There is no law that states the time or location the national party conventions will be held, except that they must be held only after all the primary elections and caucuses have been completed, and each party’s delegates have been chosen. Instead, the RNC and DNC each consider certain circumstantial data — such as the current strength of their political party and the current political climate of the country as a whole — to choose a date for their national conventions that strategically favors their own chances in the general election. Once they choose, the two national parties issue a “Call To Convention” to their state and local counterparts, thus formalizing a particular date. For the 2016 election cycle, both national party conventions will be held in mid-to-late July. The Democratic convention will take place in Philadelphia, PA. The Republican counterpart will be held in Cleveland, OH.

How do the national party conventions work?

The national party conventions work similarly to primary elections. However, they rely on the popular vote of delegates and superdelegates, in contrast to the general electorate, to select final presidential and vice-presidential nominees. In practice, this is usually a formality, as the primary elections usually have made it clear who the nominee will be. At both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, delegates place their votes for the primary presidential and vice-presidential candidate that they want to proceed to the general election. Remember that at the Democratic Party convention, superdelegates are not bound by a candidate beforehand and therefore act as wildcards, while pledged delegates are bound to vote for the candidate that won their state’s primary election or caucus. Superdelegates’ and delegates’ votes are counted equally.

What happens at national party conventions?

Whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote among the party’s chosen delegates and superdelegates wins the nomination from the party for the general election. Although, in theory, this same process applies to selecting a vice-presidential candidate; in practice, presidential candidates announce their preferred vice-presidential candidate beforehand and the winner’s preferred vice president is given the nomination. From this point on, the nominated president and vice president run a joint campaign, called the presidential ticket. This vice-presidential nomination process, which supersedes a popular vote, has been established as a tradition to ensure that the presidential ticket functions cohesively — you would not want a President and VP who could not trust each other! In addition to formalizing the selection of a presidential ticket, national political parties also establish their party platforms at their respective national conventions. These party platforms serve as an official record for the political values the parties espouse, the actions they plan to take, and the policies they want to enforce.

The Electoral College

Perhaps surprisingly, the President of the United States is not elected by a popular vote. Instead, he or she is elected through an electoral vote — a system which uses appointed electors. The electoral college is unique to the general presidential election; no other political position in the country is selected in this manner.

What is the electoral college?

The electoral college is a representative system of voting that employs a winner-takes-all approach in a state-by-state manner (with the exceptions of Nebraska and Maine, which allow each Congressional district to determine a single electoral vote, and award two electoral votes to the statewide winner). Each of the fifty states is given a certain amount of electoral votes (the District of Columbia is also awarded 3 electoral votes). As you can see from this distribution of electoral votes, for the 2016 election, some states have many more electoral votes than others.

How does the electoral college work?

On Election Day (the day of the general election), each eligible voter casts their vote via secret ballot, just like in primary elections. The result of this popular vote decides which presidential ticket wins the electoral votes of that state. For instance, if one presidential ticket were to win 65% of the popular vote in Illinois, they would earn all 20 of their electoral votes. However, if that ticket were to gain only 45% of the votes in Illinois and an opposing ticket gained a higher percentage, all 20 electoral votes would instead be awarded to the opposing ticket instead. These electoral votes are cast by individuals known as presidential electors. Thus, while citizens who vote in the general election mark a certain presidential ticket on their ballot, they are actually voting for presidential electors who will represent them in the final election. Each state chooses a set of electors for each ticket on the ballot. The set of electors that represent the presidential ticket that wins the state’s popular vote then casts their electoral vote accordingly.

How is each state’s number of electoral votes decided?

Each state’s number of electoral votes is calculated by adding the state’s current number of U.S. Representatives and current number of U.S. Senators. Since there are a total of 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, the total number of electoral votes is 538 once you factor in Washington D.C. Every state has two Senators, but a variable number of Representatives. All states have at least one Representative, and are awarded an increasing number based on population size (based on the official census taken every ten years) — that is to say, more populous states have more Representatives, and therefore use more electoral votes in the general election. Following this method, each state earns a guaranteed minimum of 3 electoral votes.

Do U.S. territories and protectorates receive electoral votes?

No. While residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas Islands can participate in their own primary elections, they may not cast their vote in the general election.

Who can become a presidential elector?

Anyone who is a citizen of the U.S. and a member of either party can become an elector — again, you can become one, too! And just like those delegates, once chosen by your state, you are bound to vote for a particular presidential ticket.

How are presidential electors chosen?

Presidential electors are appointed by leaders of the state Democratic and Republican parties, just like superdelegates. However, unlike superdelegates, presidential electors are not required to have a high political status. That being said, just like if you were to try to become a national party convention delegate, if you want to become a presidential elector, you must actively campaign and have a history of serving your state’s party well.

Why does the electoral college exist?

The founding fathers of this country originally intended the United States of America to operate as a federation of individual states with a largely limited federal government, instead of as a single and unified nation. The electoral college was established in Article One of the U.S. Constitution as a means for each state’s electors to elect a presidential candidate that they think would represent their own state’s best interest, rather than the nation’s interest as a whole. From this perspective, it is not the population of the country who should be responsible for voting for the presidency, but representatives of each state and its government. Using this method, much more political power rests within state governments — whose decisions are much more relevant to our everyday lives — than the federal government — which is more removed from its citizens and more easily corrupted. Since the U.S. operates more like a unified nation rather than a collection of states in the 21st century, some critics of the electoral collegeargue that its function is now obsolete. These critics argue that it is no longer prudent for our federal government to be so far removed from its citizens. They believe that electoral college must be abolished so that voting power is taken away from state governments gifted to individuals. However, even in the face of such criticisms, no Congressional body nor President has removed the electoral college from the Constitution since its inception in 1789. For more information on the electoral college, see FairVote’s Electoral College FAQ.

The General Election

The general election is the process by which the President of the United States is chosen every four years. While every individual in the electorate casts their vote, the results are decided by way of the electoral college rather than a popular vote.

When does the general election campaign period begin?

The general election period begins after the national party conventions have taken place, and two candidates — a president and vice president — have been nominated by each political party. At this point, all primary presidential candidates who were not nominated must either drop out of the race and cease campaigning, or attempt to run as an independent without the support of a political party.

When does the general election take place?

The general election takes place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November of the election year. This means the 2016 General Presidential Election is taking place on November 8th, 2016. Thus, the general election period during the 2016 election cycle will last about four months in total. This is very short compared to the primary election period which can last up to eighteen months. Once the new President of the United States is chosen, he or she remains in that position for four years, during which a new election cycle begins.

How does the general election work?

The general election proceeds by way of the electoral college. Whichever presidential ticket wins the majority of electoral votes (270 or greater) wins the general election. In the rare instance that no presidential ticket wins at least 270 electoral votes, then the new president is chosen by a popular vote in the House of Representatives, and the new vice president is chosen by a popular vote in the Senate. Only in this highly unique circumstance can the president and vice president be from two different political parties.

Can a candidate lose the popular vote and still win the electoral vote?

Yes! In fact, this happened several times throughout our nation’s history. If a general election candidate were to win the popular vote by a small margin in states with a large number of electoral votes (e.g. California, New York, Florida, etc.) and lose the popular vote in all states with a small number of electoral votes (e.g. Alaska, Delaware, Vermont, et. al.), they would win the electoral vote while losing the popular vote. Statistical estimates indicate that, in the most unlikely case, the President can win as little as 22% of the popular vote and still earn enough electoral votes to win the general election.

When is the new President of the United States inaugurated?

The new President of the United States is sworn in on January, 20 at 12pm of the year immediately following the general election.

Other Concurrent Elections & Appointments

Many offices are up for reelection at the same time as the U.S President. These include all of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, one-third of the seats in the U.S. Senate, the seat for many states’ governors, most cities’ mayors, and many more. Sometimes, positions in federal and state judiciaries open up, too. For these positions, new members are chosen by appointment, rather than election.

What other important federal-level elections occur during this time period?

Elections for both houses of U.S. Congress, the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Since U.S. Senate terms last 6 years, but elections occur every two years, during the 2016 presidential election cycle, one-third of the senate will be replaced. House of Representatives terms last only 2 years, but elections are also every 2 years. This means that in 2016, an election will be held for every seat in the House of Representatives. For more information on Congressional elections, see the
History Learning Site page dedicated to the top.

What important federal-level appointments occur during this time period?

The most important federal level appointments that occur are for the U.S. Supreme Court. There are a total of nine Justices on the Supreme Court, and each one is appointed by the U.S. President at the time that a vacancy appears. Since these nine positions are chosen by appointment, not by election, they are guaranteed for life, i.e., there is no preset term length, and the Justices can remain on the Supreme Court until they retire.

Right now, there are four Justices who are over the age of 70 — Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. Many people believe that these Justices will retire within the next five years which means that the President elected in 2016 will be required to choose four others to take their places. In effect, this means that whoever is elected in the upcoming election cycle has to power to single-handedly replace half the Supreme Court — a decision that will likely remain in place for at least the next 30 years.

What important state-level elections occur during this time period?

Elections for the governor and state legislatures. One major difference is that while the President is elected by way of the electoral college, governors are elected by way of popular vote. However, the election process for both the federal-level and state-level legislature is almost exactly the same.

What important state-level appointments occur during this time period?

The most important state level appointments that occur are for state Supreme Courts Justices. Although the rules of appointment and number of Justices differs from state to state, many of the same concepts that apply to federal-level judicial appointments also apply to state-level judicial appointments, e.g., these positions are guaranteed for life.

What important local-level elections occur during this time period?

The positions up for election at the local-level at the same time as the presidential election vary widely. Nevertheless, there are certain offices that are generally replaced across the vast majority of cities. These positions include, but aren’t limited to, city mayors, county school boards, and county sheriff.