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How to choose the president of the United States: a simple explanation of the complex electoral system

The electoral system in the country is so complex that not everyone understands it even among Americans. ForumDaily has laid out the entire process on the shelves so that Russian-speaking US citizens can also make an informed choice and understand what is happening.

Photo: Shutterstock

Voice of the people

Ukrainian Tatyana Murza has been living in Maryland for over ten years. She came to America to study, then married. In 2013, she received citizenship, and already voted in the previous presidential elections. It is recognized that by that time already understood something in American politics. The citizenship test helped in which there were a couple of questions about the electoral system. She registered to participate in the elections she also received citizenship.

“When I received a US passport, I just ticked the box“ register me in the elections, ”says Tatiana Murza.

Registering to vote is the first and required step for all US citizens who wish to elect a president. You can register both when you receive citizenship, as well as when you pass your license, but at this point you must already be a US citizen. However, if you changed your residential address, you need to go through this procedure again. ForumDaily has already described in detail whole registration process.

Check whether you are on the lists of voters can be on the site Election Assistance Commissions. Also here you can register online.

A few days after a simple registration, Tatiana Murza received an invitation card to the elections by mail. It was written her name, surname and address of the polling station. She only had to come on election day and vote.

And here Tatyana got a reason for surprise. Elections in the States are not held on Sunday, as we do, but on Tuesday. This is because farmers used to have Saturday as a working day, on Sunday they went to church, and on Wednesday they went to the market. Therefore, they decided that it was Tuesday that was the best day for expressing will.

“There is no day off in honor of the elections, but everyone is dismissed from work so that people can vote. And polling stations work from early morning until late at night, ”says Tatiana.

She came to the polls with a driver's license and an invitation. Her details were checked on the lists and pointed to the voting machine, where she was to cast her vote.

“They are somewhat similar to ATMs,” explains Tatiana. “There are candidates on the screen, you press the necessary button, you get a sticker at the exit with the words“ I voted ”and that's it.”

Depending on the state, paper ballots can also be used for voting, which are then scanned, which makes the counting process faster. This is how the voting process looks like for all US citizens who are on election day in their state.

If on Election Day you will be out of state or in general abroad, then you can vote in advance.

To do this, you need to contact state government or local electoral office Election Assistance Commissions, order a ballot from them (the so-called absentee ballot), after receiving it, vote and send the ballot by mail back to the electoral office.

Long road to elections

Despite the fact that the day of the final voting is in November, the pre-election campaign lasts about a year, or even longer. A series of intra-party elections - caucuses and primaries - kicks off in February of the election year.

Caucuses are one of the most obscure electoral forms. Plus, the parties themselves conduct them in different ways. The essence of caucuses is this - ordinary party members and ordinary voters who support it, gather in one place and discuss candidates for nomination. Party activists are trying to win the support of the maximum number of people present. At the end, a vote takes place.

Republicans vote simply - a tick in the ballot and then a vote count. The Democrats are becoming more entertaining: the supporters of the candidates disperse in different angles, debate among themselves and try to invite the voters to join their group. At the end, the number of participants in a group is calculated. If someone left, without waiting for the end, his voice is not counted.

The primaries are essentially the same as caucuses, but the form is much simpler - they are held as standard elections with ballots and polling booths.

As a rule, not only party members, but also ordinary citizens can participate in both primaries and caucuses, Registration. they indicated which party they support. That is, if you indicated that you support the Democratic Party, then you can take part in the Democratic primaries, if the Republican - in the Republican primaries. The same person cannot participate in the primaries and caucus of both parties.

The results of the caucuses in Iowa and the primaries in New Hampshire serve as beacons for the further course of the campaign. Typically, the candidate who wins both states usually becomes the party's contender. Over the past 40 years, there have been only two exceptions:

  • Bill Clinton, as recalls Vox, lost both states, but won the 1992 Democratic nomination;
  • Joe Biden also lost both states this year, but eventually received a Democratic nomination.

Why do we need delegates

The goal of each candidate during caucuses and primaries is to collect the maximum number of votes. But here, too, not everything is so simple - even during the primary elections, voting is indirect. In each state, Republicans and Democrats have a certain number of delegates. These are party members who travel to the National Convention in the summer, where the party will officially announce its single candidate. Who of the applicants wins the state, he gets the majority of the delegates' votes. Although candidates continue to collect votes by state until June, almost always the winner of the nomination is known long before the party gathering of both parties.

“The last time a candidate was not identified before the Convention was in the 1976 election, when Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford were running for the Republican nomination. Ford won the convention. And this has never happened since then, ”says Ilya Shapiro from the Cato Institute.

Republicans vs. Democrats

In the summer, after the National Conventions of Republicans and Democrats, the elections that we are used to - between two party opponents begin. As a rule, these are representatives of the Republican and Democratic parties, but sometimes other candidates can join the race.

For example, in 1992, during the confrontation of Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush, independent candidate Ross Perot and libertarian Andre Marrow joined the election. Ross Perot proved to be a fairly strong contender, he scored 19%, taking votes from Bush Sr., which in turn brought victory to Clinton.

However, since the first president of the United States, George Washington, who was an independent candidate, not a single representative of the third forces has managed to become the head of state - this post has passed in turn from Republicans to Democrats and vice versa.

Electors decide everything

Presidential elections in America are indirect. Journalist Matthew Scheil with irony recalls that he did not immediately realize this:

“I realized that I was choosing, in fact, not the president directly, but the Electoral College, only by the age of twenty.”

Matthew implies a two-stage election system. Its essence is this. Each state is awarded a certain number of electors. It is equal to the number of state representatives in Congress and is determined by the principle: the more people live in a state, the more electors are assigned to it. For example, California has the largest number of electors - 55, while in Wyoming and several other states their minimum number is only 3. There are 538 electors in total, all of them together make up the Electoral College.


On election day, voters tick the box next to one of the presidential candidates, but are essentially voting for the electors. Let's explain this with the example of abstract numbers. For example, in state N, 10 people voted for a Democrat, and 000 people voted for a Republican, which means the latter wins. Suppose this state has 10 electors. Such voting results mean that all five electoral votes go to the Republicans - voters delegate their voting rights to them and, figuratively speaking, indicate to their state's electors whom to support.

The principle described above, when a candidate who receives a majority in a certain state, takes all the electoral votes for himself, is called “the winner gets everything”. For example, Democrats traditionally win in California, which means that all 55 electors on the College will vote for a Democratic candidate.

Although there is no law that would oblige electors to cast their vote for a specific candidate, there were only a few cases in history when they did not vote as expected. And it still did not affect the final result.

The winner of the presidential election is determined precisely by the number of electors that he received - the winner is the one who can collect more electoral votes, and not directly from voters. This, in fact, was vividly demonstrated by the 2016 election, when Clinton received the majority of the popular vote, three million more than her opponent, but Trump became president, who received the most electoral votes.

To win, a candidate needs 270 votes - half of the total number of the Electoral College (538) plus one.

Such a complex scheme in the United States is used to take into account the interests of sparsely populated states.

“If the counting had been by pure votes, then the entire campaign of candidates would have been built in California, Chicago and New York, where the most people live,” explains Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute. - And so the candidates have to pay attention to small states. After all, it is unfair if the president becomes a man who won only seven states, but the most populous. But what about the other 43? ”

Such a system also has a significant disadvantage. “Five times in US history, it has happened that the candidate who received the most popular vote did not win the electoral vote. And this, of course, is unfair too, ”states Ilya Shapiro.

In addition to Trump and Clinton, such a mathematical-political injustice also occurred in 2000 in the confrontation between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. More than 51 million voters and 266 electors voted for Gore, and 50,4 million voters, but 271 electors, for Bush. Bush ultimately won.

The electoral college formally meets in December, and only then the winner is officially announced. In fact, America will know the name of the new president already on the evening of the voting day.

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