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U.S. GOVERNMENT > Elections >Overviews > The Electoral Process


How are Presidents and Vice Presidents of the United States nominated?

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 States?

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 electoral college.

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 been elected.

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 voting power.

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 handicapped.

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 United States?

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 noted above.

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 judicial ruling):

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 conventions.

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 federal office?

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 inflation.

How much may candidates spend on their campaign for federal office?

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 million

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 restrictive.

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.

Campaign Disclosure

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.

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