The electoral system in the USA

Every 4 years, the US Americans elect their president and thus the most powerful office in the world. In the following article you will learn everything you need to know about the American electoral system and the political parties in the US!

The history of the US electoral system

The American Constitution, passed in 1787, also addresses US electoral law. Article Two already anchored the indirect election by electors. In the course of time, a total of 27 amendments were added, some of which further specified the right to vote. For example, in 1920 the 19th Amendment introduced the right to vote for women.

Since 1788, elections have been held every 4 years and since 1845, they have been held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. As a result, US Election Day is always between November 2 and 8. This date was intended to meet the needs of the farmers, since the harvest season was already over by then. Other weekdays had been excluded because they were already considered church or market days.

Who is eligible to vote in the US election?

US citizens are eligible to vote under the following conditions:

  • Age of at least 18 years
  • Current (or former) residence in one of the 50 US states or in Washington D.C.

People who live in the American territories like Guam, Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands are not allowed to vote. Also excluded from voting are prisoners - in some US states even after the end of their prison sentence.

US citizens must also register to vote in advance, as there is no central registration office in the USA. Everyone may only vote once in the state in which he/she currently resides or previously resided in the case of US citizens living abroad.

This registration requirement is seen as one reason for the rather low US voter turnout. Moreover, individual states have different procedures. In Oregon, for example, there is only a postal vote, in North Carolina there is no registration in advance, and in some states there is the possibility of early voting by letter or in person.

The presidential candidates for the US election

Not everyone can become president of the United States so easily, because the candidacy is tied to certain conditions. If these conditions are met, one can be officially nominated as a candidate of their political party through the primary elections, which is explained in more detail in section 5.

Requirements to become US president

In order to run for President of the United States of America, three key requirements must be met. These are:

  • possession of US citizenship by birth ("natural born citizen")
  • Minimum age of 35 years
  • Continuously residing in the USA for at least 14 years

In addition, each US President may be re-elected only once, which translates into a maximum term of office of 8 years. An exception is if a candidate succeeds the current president due to his early resignation and there are less than 2 years left in this term. In this case, the new candidate may run for two more full terms.

The presidential election process

The procedure for the presidential election is regulated by Article Two and three amendments of the American Constitution. The US population does not elect the new president directly, but through a board of electors, the so-called Electoral College. It is a rather lengthy process consisting of the following four phases:

  1. Primary elections from January/February
  2. National conventions in July/August
  3. Election day in November
  4. Meeting of electors in December

The entire election process will be concluded with the inauguration of the newly elected president on January 20 of the following year in Washington D.C.

Presidential primary election

The course of the primary elections is not regulated by the constitution but has rather grown historically. For this reason, there are different procedures in the individual states, i.e. voting takes place either in so-called primaries or by caucus.

The official primaries usually begin in January of the election year and last until June. The individual candidates tend to be rather independent, which is why political outsiders such as Donald Trump may also have good chances. However, the actual election campaign between the candidates already begins with the first TV debates in the summer of the previous year.


Primaries take place in public voting places and are organized by the state. A secret ballot is held to select a candidate to be elected by delegates at the national convention in the summer. There are Open Primaries, where all eligible voters in a US state can vote regardless of their party affiliation. In Closed Primaries, on the other hand, voters must commit themselves to a party when they vote or register, but they do not need to be a member of that party.


The so-called caucus is a private political party meeting in which only registered members of that party can participate. After detailed discussion, they then elect the delegates who will represent them at the national convention in the summer. Traditionally, the primary elections begin with the Iowa Caucus in January.

Super Tuesday

The so-called Super Tuesday refers to a Tuesday in February or March, on which the primary elections take place in a number of states. It is of particular importance for the outcome of the elections, because about one third of all votes are cast on this day, including the most populous states of California and Texas. According to this, the candidate with the most votes has a good chance of actually running for the office of US president in the end.

Nominating national conventions

The delegates elected in the primaries meet at the national convention of their respective parties in the summer to vote for the final presidential candidate, who in turn chooses his vice-president. These days have become pompous events, usually held in large sports stadiums or arenas. Each state sends a fixed number of delegates, usually depending on the number of its population.

Delegates should base their votes on the results of the primary elections in their state. A special case are the so-called superdelegates of the Democrats, who are sent by their party and are free to vote as they wish. Due to the months of pre-elections, however, the respective candidate is basically already determined before the national convention and is only officially confirmed there.

Election day (Election of the electoral college)

On election day in early November, the US population does not elect the president directly. On the ballot paper they select (in most states) the respective presidential candidate with the corresponding vice president. However, these votes are given to the Electoral College, which then elects the president in December.

The electoral college consists of a total of 538 electors, with each state being allocated a certain number of electors depending on its population (or its representation in Congress). For example, the most populous state, California, has 55 electors, while small Vermont has only three.

Who elects the electors?

The Electoral College meets every four years for the sole purpose of electing the president and vice president of the United States. An absolute majority of at least 270 electors is required to win the election. According to Article Two of the Constitution, each state determines the procedure for appointing the state electors. They may not be members of Congress.

In some states, voters nominate their electors in primaries, just as presidential candidates are nominated. In other states they are nominated at party conventions. Depending on the state, the electors can also be elected by the legislators or appointed by the parties themselves. Parties often select electors to honor their service and commitment to their party. The electors usually have a personal or political connection with their party's presidential candidate.

Are the electors bound to the people's vote?

In 24 states (as of 2016), the electors are free to choose the presidential candidate, i.e. they could also vote against the will of the US voters, but this only happens in exceptional cases. In this case the elector would be a so-called "faithless elector". However, in 26 states and Washington D.C., voters are legally obliged to vote for only one particular candidate. In practice, however, it appears that in each state only the supporters of a presidential candidate are appointed as electors.

What are Swing States?

In some states, it is basically clear even before the election which party will receive the votes, as the result has remained unchanged for years. California, for example, traditionally votes Democrat, while Texas has been going to the Republicans for decades. In some states, however, the so-called swing states, neither of the two major parties has a general majority. For this reason, the candidates' election campaigns take place mainly in those states. The states of Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin are considered swing states.

Zusammenkunft des Electoral College

In December, exactly 41 days after the election day in November, the electors gather in the capital of their respective states to vote for the new American president and vice president. In 48 of the 50 states, the "Winner takes it all" principle applies to the election. This means that the candidate with the majority of votes in a state is automatically assigned all the votes ("electoral vote" of the electors) of that state. Only in Maine and Nebraska are the electoral votes distributed proportionally to the voters.

As a result, it can also happen that a candidate wins although he was actually in a minority in the popular vote. This happens very rarely but was last the case in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected. To become President of the United States of America, 270 of the 538 electoral votes are needed. In the unlikely event that both candidates receive exactly 269 votes, the president is elected by the House of Representatives. The Electoral College votes are counted by Congress in early January on the first day of its meetings.

Inauguration of the US president

On January 20 at 12 p.m. the new president of the USA and his vice president will be officially inaugurated in the capital Washington D.C. and allowed to move into the White House. Thus, the lengthy election is considered to be completed and the new term of office begins. Thousands of Americans gather in front of the Capitol to attend the inauguration ceremony and the usual inaugural speech of the new US president.

What political parties exist in the USA?

Unlike in Germany, there are actually only two major political camps in the USA - the Democrats and the Republicans. The biggest difference between the two parties is the perception of autonomy and centralism. For example, the Democrats are in favor of bundling as many competencies as possible in the government in Washington D.C., while the Republicans are more in favor of stronger self-governance of the individual states.

Although American politics has been dominated by the two-party system, several other political parties have emerged in the course of the country's history.

Democratic party

The Democrats are less conservative and more liberal than the Republicans. In Congress, however, the party has influential centrist, progressive and conservative wings.

Its unofficial party color is blue and the election symbol is a donkey. The Democratic voters are diverse and mostly consist of urban people, women, college graduates and millennials, as well as sexual, religious and ethnic minorities. These come primarily from the states along the Pacific coast, the northeastern United States and the Great Lakes region.

History of the Democratic Party

The Democratic Party is the oldest active party in the world. Its foundation goes back to the Democratic Republican Party of 1792 by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Around 1828, supporters of Andrew Jackson founded the Democratic Party, which is the form it takes today.

In its early days, the Democrats were considered to be more like the conservative party. But by the beginning of the 20th century it increasingly supported progressive reforms and opposed imperialism. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal reforms in the 1930s, the Democratic Party has represented a social liberal platform. From then on, the party's conservative wing largely shrank outside the southern states.

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Democrats increasingly turned to social-liberal ideas such as the abolition of racial segregation and equality for minorities. The once powerful labor union element became smaller after the 1970s, although the working class remains an important part of the democratic base.

What are the views of the Democratic Party?

The philosophy of the Democratic Party is a modern liberalism that combines ideas of civil freedom and social equality with support for a mixed economy. At the core of its economic agenda are above all:

  • the reform of corporate governance
  • environmental and climate protection
  • the support of the organized labor force
  • the maintenance and expansion of social programs
  • Financially affordable tuition fees
  • universal health care
  • equal opportunities and
  • consumer protection.

On social issues, the Democrats advocate abortion, reform of campaign financing, LGBT rights, reform of criminal justice and immigration policies, stricter gun laws and the legalization of marijuana.

Democratic Presidents of the USA

To date, 15 Democrats have served as President of the United States. Among them were, for example:

Republican Party

The Republicans are the conservative of the two major US parties. It is also known as the Grand Old Party (GOP). The unofficial party color is red, and the election symbol is an elephant. The Republican Party's voters consist primarily of men, the "Silent Generation", white Americans and Protestant Christians from the suburbs, rural areas, and the business community. These live primarily in the Northwest of the United States, the Southern States or in the Great Plains.

History of the Republican Party

The Grand Old Party was founded in 1854 by opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the potential expansion of slavery into the western territories. Initially, the party was the more liberal of the two, supporting classical liberalism, rejecting the expansion of slavery, and advocating economic reform.

Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president. Under Lincoln's leadership and a Republican Congress, slavery was banned in the United States in 1865. After 1912, the party underwent an ideological shift to the right. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 shifted the party's core base, and the southern states became increasingly Republican in presidential policy.

What are the views of the Republican Party?

The ideology of the Republican Party in the 21st century is American conservatism, which encompasses both economic policy and social values. The GOP advocates the following points:

  • lower taxes
  • the capitalism of the free market
  • immigration restrictions
  • higher military expenditure and gun rights
  • restriction of abortion
  • deregulation and restrictions on labor unions

Social concerns or environmental protection are rather secondary. Republicans reject the marriage of same-sex couples or abortion.

Republican Presidents of the USA

The Republicans have so far brought forth 19 US presidents, more than any other party. These include, for example:

Third parties in the USA

Since 1852, Democrats and Republicans have won every US presidential election and have to some extent dominated the Congress of the United States since at least 1856. Nevertheless, there are also numerous smaller or third parties. Examples are the Libertarian, Green, Reform or Independent Party. However, presidential candidates from these parties have de facto no chance of winning a majority for office.

Libertarian Party

The Libertarian Party was founded in 1971 and since 2016 it is the largest third party in the USA. The party's core task is to reduce the influence and spending of all levels of government. To this end, it advocates a self-regulating free market economy, a less powerful federal government, strong civil liberties, drug liberalization, open immigration, the right to own arms, neutrality in diplomatic relations or free trade.

Election campaign in the USA

The actual election campaign of the candidates already starts almost 2 years before the US elections. That is when they start collecting donations, traveling around the country, and giving speeches. Later, the TV debates as well as radio and television commercials follow. The individual candidates are rather independent and must take care of their own publicity and the financing of their election campaign. As a result, even political outsiders such as Donald Trump, for example, can succeed in the end.

Election campaign financing

Campaign financing in the United States takes place at the federal, state, and local levels. At the federal level, campaign financing legislation is passed by Congress and monitored by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent federal agency.

Although the majority of campaign expenditures are privately funded (mostly by donors operating in subsidized industries), public funds are available to qualified candidates for the US presidential office during both the primary and general elections. To qualify for a government grant, eligibility requirements must be met, and those who accept government funding are usually subject to spending limits on the funds.

Campaign donations

US members of parliament depend on campaign contributions to be (re)elected and therefore spend a lot of time collecting donations. With two court decisions (including the Citizens-United ruling) in 2010, the law on campaign financing in the USA has changed fundamentally. These decisions led to an increase in so-called Super PACs (Political Action Committee), which "only make independent expenditures".

Super PACs can collect an unlimited amount of funds from individuals, unions and corporations and use those funds for election campaigns, provided that the Super PAC does not coordinate with or transfer money directly to a candidate. However, since these Super PACs are usually run by former employees of the candidates, in practice the situation is often different. Almost all relevant presidential candidates are supported by a Super PAC. In total, several billion dollars are spent on the US election campaign, which is why accusations of corruption arise from time to time.

Criticism of the US electoral system

The indirect election via the Electoral College electors has been heavily criticized for a long time. Several polls for decades have concluded that the majority of the population prefers a direct election of the US president. One major point of criticism is that the election campaign focuses mainly on the highly contested swing states. As a result, the concerns of the voters in these states are prioritized and thus only a few voters decide on the political future of the entire country.

In addition, millions of votes are literally forfeited due to the "Winner takes it all" principle. For example, Democratic supporters in unmistakably red (Republican) states have little motivation to vote, since their vote will most likely have no influence on the final result. It seems grotesque that a president can win the electoral vote by a majority of electors, even though he received fewer popular votes nationwide.

Moreover, the number of voters in a state depends on the size of the population and not on the actual number of citizens who vote in that state. However, proportional representation of the population by state is also only possible to a limited extent, so the number of citizens per elector varies greatly. Consequently, the allocation of electoral votes gives citizens in less populous states (e.g. Wyoming) up to four times more voting power than those in more populous states (e.g. California).

Since the right to vote is anchored in the American constitution, this procedure could only be changed by a three-quarters majority of all states, but there is little reason to do so, especially in highly contested swing states.

National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC)

An alternative to changing the electoral system is the NPVIC initiative since it does not require a constitutional amendment and would nevertheless implement a majority voting system. All states joining the pact commit themselves by law to vote for the presidential candidate with the national majority, so that the candidate with the actual majority among all US voters will win.

However, the pact only comes into force when so many states join the initiative that at least 270 voters are bound by it, which corresponds to the required majority to win the election. To date, 16 states have already joined the pact, bringing the total number of electoral votes to 196. However, this does not yet mean that a majority is achieved. Whether the swing states see a motivation to join in the future remains questionable, since they have some power over the electoral decision.