So is it one unmitigated mess or a scientific methodology that’s simply too arcane? For a first time observer, it certainly tends to get confusing.
The system of US Presidential Election is very different from the European (which has 3-4 variations) or the Indian one. In fact, the entire process of US election, whichever category it may be, is distinct from most prevalent systems around the world. There are three different races for office - The Congress, the Senate and the White House.
The US has dual system of elections for all three. The two parties that contest are the Democrats and the Republicans.
As far as the Presidential Elections are concerned, the candidates of the main parties are elected via a series of Primary or Caucus elections, after which they are chosen at the party’s national convention. All elections this far are between the candidates of the same party.
Each party has a predefined number of delegates per state. It may be noted that both parties have a different number of delegates in the same state. Candidates campaign for months ahead of the primaries/caucuses to fend off competition from opposition within the party.
The choices, for whom a registered voter can cast his ballot, are also varied. There are three types of primaries – Closed, Open and Blanket. In the Closed system, a registered voter can only participate in the election for the party with which he is affiliated. In the Open primary, a person can vote for his favourite candidate, even if he/she belongs to the other party. But the voter can participate in only one primary election. A less popular method is that of the Blanket system in which the registered voter can participate in both primaries.
In the primaries, on chosen dates, registered voters participate in choosing the candidate by voting through secret ballot, just as in a general election. The party then chooses the delegates or representatives favouring either of the main presidential hopefuls, who usually “pledge support” depending on the results at state caucuses and primaries. Each party has its own rules for awarding delegates. Some states divide them as proportion to the vote share won (Democrats usually follow this system), while others have a winner-take-all system.
In states that hold caucuses, each political party holds a meeting, where prospective delegates are identified as favourable to a specific candidate or uncommitted. After discussion and debate an informal vote is taken to determine which delegates should be chosen.
Electing Party Nominees
At the preliminary level, any number of candidates can file for nomination. Mostly a slew of high profile persons file for nominations but depending on the outcome of the initial primary results, they tend to drop out and endorse another still in the running. By the time the process ends, and it takes quite a few months, there are mostly just a couple of aspirants left per party.
The parties then hold a national convention to choose their final candidate. The person, who gets the support of a majority of delegates (50%+1), becomes the party’s nominee for the race to the White House.
Once the candidates of the different parties are in the fray against each other, the system of Electoral College comes into play. Each state has a specific number of “electoral votes”, which is equal to the number of the Congressmen and Senators from the state.
Therefore the Electoral College = 538 is the add up of:
House of Representatives = 435
Senate = 100
District of Columbia = 3 (this state has no representative in either House of the American Congress)
On election day, Americans vote from among representatives of the main parties or Independents. But it is the name of the official candidate that appears on the ballot paper.
Whichever candidate wins the popular general vote from a state, gets all electoral votes of that state. It is for this reason that the candidate, who gets the majority popular vote, need not be elected the President.
Countdown to White House
After counting, the representatives of the successful candidate meet in their state capitals and vote for the main presidential candidates. These votes are sent to Washington where they are opened and counted.
Of the 538 electoral votes, a candidate must get at least 270 to become the President. In case no candidate manages the number, the vote goes to the House of Representatives.
The candidate who emerges the winner here is elected President.