US Elections – Basics and Current Issues

The United States has a bicameral legislature consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Direct elections are held to fill the vacancies in these legislatures. In addition, the vacancies in the Senate may be filled by a gubernatorial appointment. Like in India, the minimum age to exercise franchise in the presidential elections is 18-years.

US Presidential election happens once in every four years on Election Day. Election Day falls on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. 

Eligibility conditions for a US Presidential candidate

The Presidential candidate must be:

  • natural-born citizenof the United States (Natural Born Citizens are those who are born in the US or born abroad to the parents both of whom are US citizens or born abroad with one US citizen parent)
  • at least 35 years old,
  • Should have been a resident of the United States for 14 years.

Steps in the US Presidential elections

Step 1: Primaries and Caucuses

Before the general election, a series of primary elections and caucuses are held in each state and territory (including Puerto Rico and Guam) of the US. The main purpose of the primaries and caucuses is to help the states to choose the nominees of the political parties’ for the general election. This process is not specified in the US constitution and got evolved over time. Each state and territory in the US holds primaries or caucuses or both of them.

The primaries and caucuses are run differently but both of them are essentially conducted to elect state delegates who represent their states at national party conventions. The candidate who is able to accumulate a majority of his/her party’s delegates at the national party convention wins the party’s nomination.


A caucus is a local private meeting of the local members of a political party to select delegates to the national party convention. In a caucus, members divide themselves into groups according to the candidates they support.  The members select candidate through a series of discussions and finally based on the votes they cast, the number of delegates each candidate has won will be calculated. The Iowa caucus marks the start of the US presidential elections.


Primary elections are state level elections conducted by the state and local governments. In this, voting occurs through a secret ballot and voters choose candidates affiliated with their political party for the upcoming general elections. Winning candidates will send the delegates to the national party convention.

The delegates selected through primaries and caucuses then officially nominate their national candidate.

In total, the caucuses are held in 10 US states— Iowa, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming. The remaining 40 states hold primaries.

Step 2: National Conventions

After the primaries and caucuses, political parties hold a national convention to finalize one presidential candidate. The candidates who have won the required number of delegates in primaries and caucuses stands selected. At the convention, the presidential candidate chooses a vice presidential candidate (running mate). However, if none of the candidates have the majority of party’s delegates, then the party’s presidential nominee is chosen at the convention.

Step 3: General election:

The General population in the country vote for one president and one vice-president. Here when people vote, they are actually voting for a group of people called as electors.

Step 4: Electoral College

Each state is allotted a certain number of electors depending upon its total number of representatives in Congress. The electors then cast their votes to decide the next President of the US. Each elector has one electoral vote. If a candidate obtains more than half (270) out of the total 538 electoral votes, he stands elected to the office of the President. In the event no candidate has the majority then the House of Representatives chooses the President and the Senate chooses the Vice President. Both the president-elect and vice president-elect take the oath of office in January.


Although the electoral votes get aligned with the popular vote most of the times, there are some (four) instances in the US history when the elected president did not receive the most popular votes. These 4 presidents were- Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, John Quincy Adams, and George W. Bush.

Current Issues

The general election in the United States is too close to call. This has often been the case in the past two decades, ever since the 2000 presidential election was decided when Democratic candidate Al Gore conceded with just 537 votes in between him and George W Bush in Florida.

Concerns –

There is every reason to believe that, with multiple different voting rules in different states, different rates of counting, and legal challenges being prepared by all sides, getting a firm result in this election will take a long while.

Broken system –

  • In the 2018 midterm elections, it took a week for all the results to be in — a week during which the Democratic swing turned into a Democratic landslide. Such a change is even more possible this year, given the specifics of voting during the pandemic.
  • Thus, it is too soon to determine the eventual national margin in the presidential race; even California, the US’ largest state, is about two-thirds through its counting. It does appear that opinion polls in some of the battleground states, such as Wisconsin, were clearly off the mark.
  • Whoever wins, the distribution of the popular vote so far is not on the lines the polls had predicted (an 8 percentage point gap). The pollsters have some introspection, and some explaining, to do.
  • The chances are that, as they have in six of the last seven presidential elections, the Democratic party will have won more votes than the Republicans, in this case by a decent-sized margin. Even so, who will sit in the White House from January 2021 is still undecided. The fact is that the United States’ electoral and power-transference system is broken.
  • Few other democracies have demonstrated this consistent breakdown between voters’ preferences and the assignation of power. In the current election, even the notion of a straightforward transfer of power is being doubted.

What is the cause of inefficient election process in the US?

  • The essential problem remains that elections in the US are excessively decentralised in terms of their rules. In the pivotal state of Pennsylvania for example, some counties are counting their mailed-in ballots alongside their regular votes; and others have said they will not even start counting those till the day after election day.
  • In 2000, the election of the most powerful official in the world depended upon Miami counters holding up individual ballots to their eyes and trying to determine if they were punched all the way through or not; this year it might depend upon Philadelphia counters trying to determine whether the date stamps on a few hundred ballot envelopes are legible or not. This is no way to hold an election.
  • America’s claim to leadership of the democratic world can hardly hold up, given its elections are unreliable indicators of the political will, are in danger of being ignored by unelected judges and incumbents, and are so slow, complex, and inefficient.

Conclusion –

The election has also shown how deeply divided America has become, and how much identity politics is taking over. In part this is a consequence of increasing inequality, though it is strange that the wealthiest and some of the poorest whites are both Republican. Also, the country is becoming multi-racial. In just four years, the share of white voters has dropped from 71 per cent to 65 per cent. This too is adding to the divisiveness.

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