GOVERNMENT > Elections >Overviews > The Electoral Process
THE ELECTORAL PROCESS
How are Presidents and Vice Presidents of the United States
Candidates for President and Vice President are nominated
either through individual declaration or by the action of a
major or minor political party.
Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates nominated by
the major parties are chosen at the national conventions of
their respective parties. Delegates to these conventions are
chosen on the State level by a variety of methods, including
Presidential primaries, caucuses, conventions, or some
combination of two or more of these elements. The process of
delegate selection begins early in the Presidential election
year, usually in late January or early February, and is
completed well in advance of the national conventions, usually
by June. National party conventions traditionally meet in July
or August of Presidential election years, with the party ``out
of power'' in the White House usually convening about one month
prior to the other party.
The prenomination campaign may begin within the major
parties as early as a candidate wishes to announce and begin
organizing and fundraising. However, only funds raised after
January 1 of the year preceding the Presidential election year
qualify for Federal matching funds, however.
How are Presidents and Vice Presidents elected?
The President and Vice President of the United States are
chosen every four years, in even-numbered years divisible by
the number four, by a majority vote of Presidential electors
who are elected by popular vote in each State.
Candidates for the Presidency, Vice Presidency, and the
office of elector representing the major political parties are
automatically accorded ballot access in all of the States,
while minor party candidates must satisfy various State
requirements, such as gaining a requisite degree of public
support, through petition signatures, establishing a State-
mandated organizational structure, or having polled a required
number of votes in the most recent statewide election.
All States also provide for inclusion of independent
candidates on the general election ballot. In almost every
case, candidates must submit a requisite number of petitions
signed by registered voters in order to gain ballot access.
Some States also provide for write-in votes for candidates not
included on the ballot.
Although the major political parties dominate Presidential
election contests, there are usually a number of independent
and minor party candidates. In 1996, for example, 19 minor
party candidates for President were listed on the ballot in at
least one state, including the Reform Party candidate, who
received 8.4% of the popular vote. The same candidate had also
run in 1992 on the Reform Party ticket and won 18.9% of the
vote, the highest minor party vote total since the 1912
election, when former President Theodore Roosevelt won 27.4% as
the Progressive Party candidate. None of the minor party
candidates in either 1992 or 1996 won any electoral votes.
The general election campaign for independent or minor
party candidates may begin as early as the candidates wish.
Major-party Presidential campaigns traditionally begin on Labor
Day and, therefore, last approximately two months.
What is the ``electoral college''? What is its role in the
election of the President and Vice President of the United
The President and Vice President of the United States are
elected by electors, individuals who are chosen in the November
general election in Presidential election years. The electors
meet in their respective States on the first Monday after the
second Wednesday in December to vote, separately, for President
and Vice President. Although the term does not appear in the
Constitution, the electors are collectively known as the
Each State is assigned a number of electors equal to the
total of its Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress.
The District of Columbia, under the 23rd Amendment, chooses a
number equal to that assigned to the least populous State
(three). The electoral college currently comprises 538 members
when constituted. The Constitution requires that candidates for
President and Vice President receive an absolute majority of
electoral votes in order to be elected (270 of the current
total of 538).
The Constitution, in Article II, Section 1, provides that,
``No Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of
trust or profit under the United States shall be appointed an
elector.'' Aside from this disqualification, any person is
qualified to be an elector for President and Vice President.
While the Constitution (Article II, Section 1) empowers the
States to appoint electors ``in such manner as the legislature
thereof may direct,'' all 50 States and the District of
Columbia currently provide that Presidential electors be
elected by popular vote. Forty-eight States and the District of
Columbia provide for winner-take-all, at-large elections, known
as the general ticket system; it awards all electoral votes to
the candidate who receives a plurality of popular votes cast in
the State. Maine, beginning in 1972, and Nebraska, beginning in
1992, comprise the only current exceptions to this arrangement,
using the district system to award electoral votes. Under the
district system, popular votes are tallied in each
congressional district and on a statewide basis. The popular
vote winner in each district is awarded one electoral vote,
while the statewide popular vote winner is awarded two
additional votes, reflecting the two ``senatorial'' electors
assigned to each State regardless of population.
The modern electoral college almost always reflects the
preelection pledges of its members and does not, as the
Founding Fathers anticipated, make independent judgments
concerning who should be elected President and Vice President.
Between 1820 and 1988, only 16 electors cast their votes for
candidates other than those to whom they were pledged. This is
known as the phenomenon of the ``unfaithful'' or ``faithless''
elector. While a number of States have enacted legislation that
seeks to bind electors to the popular vote winners, the
preponderance of opinion among constitutional scholars holds
that electors remain free agents.
The electoral college never meets as one body, but in 51
State electoral colleges, usually in the State capital.
Separate votes are cast for President and Vice President. Once
the electors have voted and the results have been certified by
the Governor of each State, the results are forwarded to the
President of the U.S. Senate (the Vice President). The
electoral vote certificates are opened and tallied at a joint
session of Congress held on the sixth day of January succeeding
every meeting of the electors, or, by custom, on the following
day if the sixth falls on a Sunday, with the Vice President
presiding. The winning candidates are then declared to have
If no candidate for President or Vice President has
received a majority, the House of Representatives, voting by
States, elects the President, and the Senate, voting as
individuals, elects the Vice President.
Did the electoral college ever vote unanimously for any President?
The electors voted unanimously on only two occasions, both
for George Washington, for the terms beginning in 1789 and
1793. In the Presidential election of 1820, all the electors
except one voted to reelect James Monroe.
How are Senators and Representatives nominated and elected?
Senate and House candidates of major political parties are
nominated by primary election in most States. Some States also
provide for a party convention or committee recommendation in
conjunction with a primary. In many States, no primary election
is held for a particular office if the candidate is unopposed
for nomination. Minor-party candidates in most States are
nominated according to individual party rules and procedures.
Independent candidates are nominated by self-declaration.
Major-party candidates are afforded automatic ballot access
in all States, while minor-party and independent candidates
must meet various State requirements, such as submission of
petition signatures of registered voters, in order to be placed
on the general election ballot.
Senators are elected by plurality vote of eligible voters
in their State. A plurality means that the candidate with the
largest number of votes, usually, but not necessarily a
majority, is the victor. Representatives are elected by
plurality vote in the congressional district in which they are
candidates. The only major exceptions to this rule in Federal
general elections are found in the District of Columbia, for
its Delegate to the House, and Georgia, which require that a
candidate receive a majority of popular votes in order to be
elected. A runoff election is scheduled in the event no
candidate receives the requisite majority. In addition,
Louisiana requires that all candidates, including those for the
U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, compete in an all-
party primary election. A candidate winning a majority of votes
under this arrangement is declared elected, and the general
election is canceled for that office.
What are the qualifications to vote in a national election?
In practice, all U.S. citizens 18 years of age or older who
meet certain additional qualifications established by the
States are eligible to vote in national elections.
The Constitution originally provided for a limited degree
of public participation in the electoral process, requiring
that Members of the House of Representatives be chosen by
electors having ``the Qualifications requisite for Electors of
the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature''; that
Senators be elected by the State legislature; and that electors
for President be chosen, as previously noted, ``in such a
Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.''
Prior to the Civil War, State action extended the franchise
to a point where all white males, 21 years of age or older, and
some black males, in certain nonslave States, were eligible to
vote. Since the Civil War, Congress and the States have,
through a series of constitutional amendments and legislative
enactments, progressively extended the franchise. The 15th
Amendment (1870) guaranteed the right to vote regardless of
``race, color, or previous condition of servitude''; the 17th
Amendment (1913) provided for direct popular election to the
Senate; the 19th Amendment (1920) extended the vote to women;
the 23rd Amendment (1961) established the right to vote in
Presidential elections for citizens of the District of
Columbia; the 24th Amendment (1964) prohibited the payment of
any tax as a prerequisite for voting in Federal elections; and
the 26th Amendment (1971) extended the vote to citizens 18
years of age or older.
Since 1957, Congress has enacted laws designed to prevent
racial discrimination in the election process, namely, the
Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964. In 1965, Congress
also passed the Voting Rights Act which suspended for a stated
period of time all tests and similar devices, which had been
used to discriminate against minority groups, particularly
black citizens. This same legislation authorized Federal
officers to register voters and to observe elections to insure
that there was no discrimination. In 1970, Congress extended
for an additional period of time the test suspension features
of the 1965 Act and reduced the residence requirements imposed
by States as a prerequisite for voting for Presidential
electors. The Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970 provided for
the abolition of continual residency requirements for voting in
Presidential elections and required the States to provide for
absentee registration and voting in Presidential elections.
In 1975, Congress again extended the Voting Rights Act;
placed a permanent nationwide ban on the use of literacy tests
and devices; expanded the act to provide coverage for minority
groups not literate in English; and required affected States
and jurisdictions to offer certain kinds of bilingual
assistance to voters. Congress again extended the Voting Rights
Act in 1982 and amended it, to enable jurisdictions to seek
release from its coverage, but only if they could meet certain
conditions. Section 2 of the Act was also amended to provide
that the courts could judge an election law to be
discriminatory without proof that it was intended to be so, so
long as the law resulted in abridging or diluting minority
The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of
1987 guarantees the right of persons in military service or
living abroad to vote by absentee ballot in Federal elections.
The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of
1984 mandates Federal standards of physical accessibility for
polling places and registration sites and requires the
availability of large type ballots and hearing devices for the
Voters must also meet State requirements in order to vote,
the most common of which is registration. Citizens in 46 States
and the District of Columbia must register between 10 and 50
days in advance of election day, while the States of Maine,
Minnesota, and Wisconsin provide for registration on election
day. In addition, North Dakota does not require registration of
voters, relying instead on presentation of personal
identification at the polls. Thirty States and the District of
Columbia require that voters be residents for a period of
between 1 and 50 days prior to election day. In addition, most
States bar registration and voting by convicted felons and
those judged mentally incompetent.
Who is responsible for the administration of elections in the
The administration of elections, including regulation of
political parties, ballot access, and registration procedures,
establishment of polling places, provision of election-day
workers, counting and certification of the vote, and all costs
associated with these activities, are the responsibility of the
States. In performing these functions, the States are subject
to the requirements of the Constitution and Federal law, as
How was the choice of a national election day made?
The Constitution (Article II, Section 1) provides that
``Congress may determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and
the Day on which they shall give their votes; which Day shall
be the same throughout the United States.'' In 1792, Congress
enacted legislation establishing the first Wednesday in
December as the day on which Presidential electors were to
assemble and vote, and further required the States to appoint
electors within 34 days prior to the date set for the electors
to vote. In 1845, Congress enacted legislation providing a
uniform date for the choice of electors in all States,
establishing ``Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month
of November of the year in which they are to be appointed.''
In 1872, Congress extended the November election day to
cover elections for Members and Delegates to the U.S. House of
Representatives. In 1915, following ratification of the 17th
amendment, which established direct popular election of
Senators, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November was
also designated as election day for Senators.
The decision to create a single day for the selection of
Presidential electors was intended, in part, to prevent
election abuses resulting from electors being selected on
separate days in neighboring States. Several other reasons are
also traditionally cited as being responsible for the selection
of November as the time for Federal elections. In a largely
rural and agrarian nation, harvesting of crops was completed by
November, so farmers were able to take the time necessary to
vote. Travel was also easier before the onset of winter weather
throughout the northern States. Tuesday was chosen partly
because it gave a full day's travel time between Sunday, which
was widely observed by religious denominations as a strict day
of rest, precluding most travel, and voting day. This interval
was considered necessary when travel was either on foot or by
horse in many areas, and the only polling place in most rural
areas wasat the county seat. The choice of Tuesday after the
first Monday prevented elections from falling on the first day of the
month, which was often reserved for court business at the county seat.
What federal laws regulate the financing of election campaigns?
The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971, as
amended, regulates the financing of campaigns for election to
federal office. The Act regulates fund raising and expenditures
related to primary, general, and special elections.
The FECA, as amended, establishes three major aspects of
campaign finance regulation applicable to all candidates for
federal office and to others who spend money to influence
federal elections (under standards created by statute and
Disclosure of receipts and expenditures on a regular basis,
including both aggregate data and detailed information on
contributions and expenditures in amounts greater than $200;
Prohibition on spending of treasury funds by corporations,
labor unions, and national banks to influence federal elections
(as opposed to the creation of political action committees,
called PACs, by such entities to raise voluntary contributions
from specific, restricted classes); and
Limitations on amounts that can be contributed to candidates,
PACs, and political parties.
In contrast with contributions, expenditures for communications
directly with voters are generally not subject to federal limits.
Provisions initially enacted in the Revenue Act of 1971 offer
optional public financing, for candidates in presidential primary and
general elections and for political parties' presidential nominating
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the principal enforcement
agency, with primary civil jurisdiction and investigatory authority in
criminal cases. The FEC has the power to prescribe regulations to
implement and clarify campaign laws, to issue advisory opinions to
facilitate compliance with the law, and to disseminate information on
campaign finances to the public.
Who pays for the campaigns of candidates for federal office?
Most of the funding for federal candidates comes from
voluntary contributions by individuals, groups, and political
parties. Since 1976, Presidential candidates have also had the
option--which most have accepted--of public funding for their
campaigns, which is supported by taxpayer designations against
their tax liability of $3 ($6 on joint returns). Public funding
is not available to candidates for Congress.
How much can individuals contribute to candidates' campaigns for
Under federal election law, individuals are subject to
contribution limits of $1,000 per candidate per election
(primary and general elections are counted separately), $5,000
per year to a political action committee (PAC), and $20,000 per
year to a political party's national committee. An individual's
total contributions to candidates, PACs, and parties for
federal election campaigns may not exceed $25,000 per year.
How much may interest groups contribute to candidates' campaigns
for federal office?
Through PACs, interest groups may contribute up to $5,000
per candidate per election--if the PAC meets, as most do, the
law's criteria for a multicandidate committee (a political
committee that has been registered with the FEC for at least 6
months, has received contributions from more than 50 people,
and has made contributions to at least 5 Federal candidates).
How much may political parties contribute to candidates' campaigns
for federal office?
Political parties are essentially treated as PACs for
purposes of contribution limits: they may contribute up to
$5,000 per candidate per election. They may also make
coordinated expenditures on behalf of their general election
candidates, subject to higher limits that are indexed for
How much may candidates spend on their campaign for federal
Candidates may spend unlimited amounts of their own
personal funds on their campaigns, except Presidential and Vice
Presidential candidates who accept public funds may spend no
more than $50,000 from personal and immediate family funds.
How does public funding of Presidential elections work, and how
may candidates qualify to receive it?
Under federal election law, presidential candidates may
choose to accept public funds if they agree to abide by
specified expenditure limits and meet other eligibility
criteria. Primary election campaigns are funded through the
Presidential Primary Matching Payment Account, general election
campaigns and conventions through the Presidential Election
Campaign Fund. These funds come from a $3 per taxpayer optional
check-off designation on Federal income tax returns.
A primary candidate may be eligible for matching funds
after raising $100,000, in amounts of $5,000 from each of 20
States, in donations from individuals of $250 or less.
Thereafter, the Fund matches each contribution of $250 or less
until the total amount of public funds equals 50% of the
candidate's primary spending limit. By linking the level of
funds received to that of private funds raised in the
primaries, the law seeks to insure receipt of public funds only
by serious candidates (i.e., those who demonstrate public
support by raising a sizable number of private contributions).
In the general election, nominees of the major parties for
President and Vice President are automatically eligible for a
flat stipend from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. In
1996, the major-party candidates, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole,
each received $61.8 million for the general election (an amount
which is adjusted every four years for cost-of-living changes).
No private contributions may beaccepted by major-party
candidates who receive general election public funding, except for a
specified amount from their parties' national committees.
Third-party candidates may get public funds in an amount
proportionate to votes received by that party as compared with
the major parties in the previous presidential election. In
1996, Ross Perot became the first third-party candidate to be
eligible and received $29.1 million as a Reform Party
candidate. Independent or new party candidates may receive
retroactive public funds after the election, if they get at
least 5% of the popular votes. John Anderson, in 1980, was the
only candidate to date who received this benefit--some $4.2
Parties may receive public funds for their national
nominating conventions. The two major parties each received
$12.4 million in 1996. This amount, also, is subject to cost-
of-living increases. No minor parties have qualified to date
for this subsidy.
What about spending outside of a candidate's control? Does federal
law regulate such efforts to influence elections?
Spending money to communicate with voters independent of a
candidate's campaign is generally subject to Federal regulation
only if the message contains express advocacy (i.e., expressly
advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified
candidate through such words as ``vote for Smith'' or ``defeat
Jones''). If a communication contains express advocacy and has
not been made in coordination with an affected candidate, it is
considered an independent expenditure under the FECA. All
principles of Federal regulation apply to these expenditures,
but there are no limits on the amounts that may be spent on
such communications. If a non-coordinated communication does
not contain express advocacy such as specific words advocating
the election or defeat of a candidate, courts have generally
held that funding for these communications are not subjected to
Federal contribution limits, because such speech is protected
by the First Amendment. Courts have held such ads may discuss a
candidate's actions, voting record or position on an issue, so
long as they do not contain express advocacy. These messages
are often called issue ads or issue advocacy.
What is "soft money'"?
"Soft money"' is a term often used for funds raised and
spent by political parties, corporations, labor unions and
other groups that is not subject to regulation by the Federal
Election Commission. This money comes from corporations, labor
unions, and individuals in amounts greater than those permitted
by the Federal contribution limits.
One example of soft money is funds raised and spent by
political parties for state, as opposed to Federal campaign
activities. Such funds are currently regulated by state law.
When political parties spend money for activities that could
impact both state and federal elections, such as generic party
advertising, voter registration and get-out-the vote programs,
FEC rules require these activities to be paid for with a mix of
funds raised under federal and state law. Those percentages are
determined by the ratio of federal and state candidates on the
ballot in a particular election. Some state contribution limits
are more restrictive than Federal law, while others are less
Another example of soft money is funds spent by
corporations to communicate with their executives and
stockholders, and spent by unions to communicate with their
members. Large amounts of money are spent, particularly by
unions to educate, register, and turn out union members and
their families. Courts have held that dues paying union workers
who are not union members are not required to pay for political
activities of the union if they do not wish to, however that
principle does not apply to full union members.
Federal law requires that all contributions to Federal
election campaigns must be periodically disclosed to the
Federal Election Commission. The public may examine these
reports by national political parties, Federal PACs, and
federal candidates on the FEC's website WWW.FEC.GOV. A new law
requires that such reports filed directly with the FEC must be
filed electronically via the Internet, or by similar means.