The Process of Becoming President: From Start to Finish

    In Brief:

  • The 2020 election is now in full swing with the start of the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary.

  • The difference between a caucus and primary is explained in detail below.

  • Curious about the history of the Electoral College and its history? The facts may surprise you.

  • Stay current with informative election charts that explain the amount of delegates up for grabs in each state, the number of electoral votes each state has, and the dates of each caucus and primary.

The road to election day 2020 twists and turns through major cities and small towns, financial hubs and manufacturing capitals, coastal communities and fertile plains. The candidates have all hit the road to campaign for America’s vote. Some have grandiose visions of universal basic income and free college tuition, while others have tried to spread a message of “America First” and isolationism from foreign conflicts. Even though voting for the next president may seem like a clear cut process (whoever receives the most votes wins), the process may be more complicated than you think.

The Difference Between a Caucus and a Primary

Before the Electoral College can actually vote on the office of president, each political party must first determine who their candidate for the office will be. The first round of voting is known as either a primary or caucus. So, what’s the difference?:

A Caucus Election Explained:

We know your chomping at the bits to learn about the caucus process, but first, a linguistic lesson. There are two conflicting origins for the word caucus. Some scholars believe a caucus in ancient latin refers to a drinking vessel. The implication is that officials in Ancient Rome used to drink a lot at political gatherings. Another origin for caucus is from the Native American, Algonquian language in which caucus means adviser. Whatever the case may be, a caucus is when state party leaders select delegates, establish party positions for the election, and ultimately pick their candidate for president.

In a caucus, voters must be eligible to vote and need to be affiliated with a political party. Voters must go to their designated precinct in order to cast their nomination, rather than simply filling out an absentee ballot. In order for a candidate to become viable for nomination, they must achieve 15 percent of the vote. If they do not, the voters must realign to another candidate. The winner of the caucus is the candidate that gains the most delegates. If a candidate wins 35 percent of the vote, they gain 35 percent of delegates available in that state.

Currently, there are six states that still prefer to use a caucus over a primary – Iowa, Maine, Kansas, Nevada, North Dakota, and Wyoming. The Iowa Caucus is the most prominent because it is the first state to partake in the presidential nomination process. It is often a good predictor of who the party’s nominee will wind up being.

A Primary Election Explained:

A primary is a preliminary election for who voters want to see be their party’s nominee for president. Unlike in a caucus, voters in an open primary do not have to be affiliated with a specific party to vote. In Texas for example, a Democrat voter does not have to choose a Democratic Party candidate as their nominee. Conversely, in a closed primary, only registered voters in a specific party can vote for that party’s nominee. In Pennsylvania, only a registered democrat voter can select a Democrat candidate as their nominee.

Primaries originated during the Progressive Era of the late 1800s and early 1900s in which there was a movement to increase the participation of voters in the party nomination process. The consensus was that primaries would lead to a more transparent voting process and that the nominee would be less corrupt than if that nominee came from the caucus system.

The first primary traditionally occurs in New Hampshire around the same time as the Iowa Caucus. On Super Tuesday in March, over 20 primaries are held to determine a party’s nominee. Similar to the winners of a state caucus, the winner of a state primary receives the most delegates.

After the Caucus and Primary Round of Voting:

The founding fathers, when not battling chronic lice and the common cold, met numerous times to deliberate the framework of this strange and revolutionary experiment known as the United States of America. The men who built America decided on a compromise between popular vote and congressional vote by establishing the Electoral College.

The Origins of the Electoral College

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates met to establish the process for electing a president. A majority of committee members agreed that an Electoral College would protect future elections from being decided by a small group of Congressman. The committee also agreed on the Three-Fifths Compromise. At the time that delegates argued in favor of the Electoral College, southern delegates were concerned that they would be allotted much less representation than their northern counterparts.

In states like South Carolina where slaves made up over 60 percent of the population, delegates feared the total population would not reflect this large number of slaves. As difficult as it is to imagine in our present society, slaves, of which the majority were African descendents, were legal property, not human beings. Therefore, they would not be counted towards a state’s representation. In a shameful act, the committee determined that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person.

On September 6th 1787, the committee approved the Electoral College motion. The number of electors each state would have is directly proportional to how many representatives and senators they have in Congress. For instance, California has 53 representatives and two senators, therefore they have a total of 55 electoral votes.

The total electoral votes for New Jersey is 14 because there are 12 representatives and two senators. It is important to note that the election for president and vice-president is the only time when the Electoral College is used as the deciding factor. In every other election, only the popular vote is counted.

The Electoral College Process

Electors are selected on a state-by-state basis. There are very few provisions that would prevent someone from becoming an elector. Electors cannot be a current Representative or Senator at the federal or state level, someone who holds an Office of Trust or Profit, and anyone who committed a treasonous act against the U.S. or prompted an insurrection is also barred from serving as an elector. In most cases, state political parties choose citizens to be electors in recognition for an outstanding achievement or years of service to the party. The elector selection process is implemented in two parts.

First: When the two presidential candidates are finally nominated, state Democrats and Republicans nominate electors who will then vote for their respective presidential candidate at the meeting of electors on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December

Next: On election day, which resides on the first Tuesday of November every four years, electors are still considered part of the general election. The designated electors can vote as individuals for their preferred presidential candidate. In 48 out of 50 states, when voters determine who they think should be president, they are actually voting to select their state’s electors. The candidate that receives the most votes has their slate of nominated electors become their state’s official electors. The first candidate to win 270 votes out of the 538 up for grabs, wins the election.

In Nebraska and Maine, electoral votes can actually go to both candidates. Both states have a total of three electoral votes, but in some cases, not all three votes have gone to the same candidate. In a process known as proportional distribution of electors, the state winner receives two electoral votes, and the winner of the congressional districts receives one vote. In a situation where one candidate wins the state vote, but does not win as many congressional districts as the other candidate, the vote is split.

If a candidate does not win a majority of Electoral College votes, the House of Representatives must elect the president. The president-elect is determined from the three candidates who received the most Electoral College votes. The Senate then elects the vice president from the remaining two candidates. This outcome has only occurred once in U.S. election history when the House elected John Quincy Adams president in 1824.

The Purpose of the Electoral College

To the untrained eye, the Electoral College seems like a very un-democratic process. After all, winning the popular vote does not actually mean a candidate will win the election. In fact, the winner of the presidential election has failed to win the popular vote five times in American history – 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.

The advent of the Electoral College comes from the framers deep distrust of direct democracy. On one hand, they did not want Congress to elect the president because there was the potential for corruption and bribery to arise. Furthermore, a populist candidate could easily appeal to voters wants with little to no intention of ever following through on his/her campaign promises.

Finally, the Electoral College limits states with large populations from holding too much power. If the president was elected based on a popular vote, candidates would only need to campaign in states like California, Texas, Florida, and New York. The lesser populated states would have little to no say in the election, a very un-democratic system.