How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents is stranger than you think


By Angela Greiling Keane – – – – –

     The U.S. Constitution lays out just three requirements to be eligible to become president: You must be at least 35 years old, have lived in the U.S. for at least 14 years and be a natural-born citizen. Not much else about becoming president is simple. Americans have the longest, most expensive and arguably most complex system of choosing a head of state in the world. And after two years of debates, caucuses, primaries and conventions, the person who gets the most votes can still lose. It’s a system that baffles non-Americans — and many Americans, too.

The Situation

Every four years, Americans select a president on a Tuesday in November. The two candidates representing the Republican and Democratic parties on Election Day will have survived a long series of state-level primaries (votes by ballot) and caucuses (votes by a show of hands or by clustering all the candidate’s supporters in one place in the room ). The first 2016 caucus comes on Feb. 1 in Iowa; the first primary is in New Hampshire on Feb. 9. These small, rural states jealously guard their “first in the nation” status and the outsized influence it gives them. Candidates spend months meeting the states’ voters in school gyms, diners and living rooms, so it makes sense to build campaign teams and raise money early. That’s why some contenders formally step into the race almost a year before the first votes take place. By the time a dozen states hold primaries on so-called Super Tuesday (March 1), the field is winnowed down, as campaign cash, news coverage and debate invitations dry up for those who have fared poorly. After the primaries and caucuses end in June, each state sends delegates to the Democratic and Republican conventions, where their job is to translate the popular vote into a formal nod for a party nominee. Though it’s been decades since the outcome of a convention has been in doubt, the events serve as made-for-TV spectacles to tout the achievements of the party’s nominee and that person’s pick to be the vice-presidential running mate.

The Background

The U.S. has had an elected president since the Constitution took effect in 1789. Since Abraham Lincoln took the job in 1860, all presidents have been members of the Republican or Democratic parties. Third-party candidates have a hard time getting on state ballots for the November general election and have never done better than the 27.4 percent won in 1912 by former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, then running on the Bull Moose Party ticket. The quirkiest part of the contest is the Electoral College, created by the nation’s founders as a compromise between those who favored a direct popular vote and those who wanted lawmakers to pick the president. Every state is assigned as many Electoral College votes as it has members of Congress, a formula that amplifies the importance of small states. In the early 19th century, states seeking to maximize their impact adopted a winner-take-all approach that awards all Electoral College votes to whichever candidate wins the most votes in that state on Election Day. Maine and Nebraska are the only exceptions; they award one electoral vote to the winner of each Congressional district and two electoral votes to the winner statewide.

The Argument

The winner-take-all system caused the Electoral College to choose presidents who did not win the overall vote in 1876, 1888 and 2000, when Republican George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore after a weeks-long recount. After each such election, there’s a renewed pushto make the total tally of ballots decisive, but states, especially small ones, are unwilling to switch, citing the loss of sway. The Electoral College also forces candidates to focus on a few “swing states” where polls show a close contest, since the electoral votes of reliably Democratic California or Republican Texas can be taken for granted. Critics of the system argue that just a handful of states actually decide the election, and that urban issues get short shrift. Defenders say that small states and rural areas would otherwise be overlooked. There’s broad agreement that money plays too big a role in campaigns. It’s estimated that each party’s 2016 nominee will spend $1 billion by Election Day, most of it on advertising. So the winners in this long process include local television stations that reap these ad dollars and the political junkies who love to watch the saga unfold.



  • The Broadway musical “Hamilton” explores the life of Alexander Hamilton, who explained in a 1788 letter that the Electoral College would make sure candidates with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” could be rejected in favor of “characters preeminent for ability and virtue.”
  • The Center for Voting and Democracy lays out a list of problems with the Electoral College.
  • Arrow’s Theorem, which won Kenneth Arrow a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1972, says in part that there’s no such thing as a perfect voting system.
  • The QuickTake on U.S. Campaign Finance explains how the money is collected and spent.
  • The Green Papers’ list of 2016 presidential primaries, caucuses, and conventions.

(This QuickTake reflects a corrected reference to how Maine and Nebraska apportion electoral votes.)

To receive a free monthly QuickTake newsletter, sign up

Sources: The Green Papers, Federal Election Commission

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: