How Elections in the United States Work

The United States has a long and storied history of democracy, and elections have been a critical part of that story. Today, elections in the United States are held at the federal, state, and local levels. Federal elections, held every four years, select the president and vice president. State elections, held every two years, elect state governors and legislatures, and members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Local elections, held every year, select city councilors, school board members, and other local officials.

There is a process for determining the candidates appearing on the general election ballot for each of these elections.  

Qualifying for Elections 

To qualify for an election in the United States, candidates must meet certain qualifications set by federal and state laws. These qualifications vary depending on the office being sought but generally include the following:

Age: Candidates must be of a certain age to run for certain offices. For example, candidates for the U.S. Senate must be at least 30 years old, while candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old.

Citizenship: Candidates must be U.S. citizens to run for office.

Ballot access: Candidates must also meet the requirements for getting on the ballot. These requirements vary by state but generally include a certain number of signatures on petitions, a filing fee, or a combination of both.

Residency: Candidates for state and local offices must typically be residents of the district or state where they are running for a certain period before the election.

Political Party Affiliation: There are also qualifications for candidates to be affiliated with a political party.

Additionally, candidates for public office must comply with campaign finance laws, which limit the amount of money that can be raised and spent on campaigns and require the disclosure of campaign donations and expenditures.

It’s important to note that while these qualifications are standard, they can vary depending on the jurisdiction.

Primary Elections 

Primary elections are used by political parties in the United States to select their candidates for public office. They are typically held before the general election to determine which individuals will represent each party on the ballot.

There are two types of primary elections: closed and open. Only registered political party members can vote for candidates in a closed primary. In an open primary, any voter can participate.

In some states, a “caucus” system is used for their primary elections, where voters attend a meeting to discuss and vote for candidates. In other states, secret ballots are used, and the winner is decided by the popular vote.

The primary process ensures that the party’s voters can choose a party’s nominee rather than the general electorate. The primary winner is then the party’s nominee in the general election.

General Elections 

General elections in the United States are held to select federal, state, and local officials. These elections are typically held on the first Tuesday of November in even-numbered years. The candidates who win the general election are elected to office.

All eligible voters in a district or state can vote for candidates running for office in the general election. The candidate who receives the most votes wins the office. The only exception is electing the U.S. president, who is elected through the Electoral College.

The general election is the final stage of the election process, and the outcome determines who will hold office for the next term. The general election is open to all voters and is a secret ballot.

The two main political parties in the United States are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Other parties, such as the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and others, also participate in the elections but tend not to be as influential.

Runoff Elections 

Some states require the winner to receive the majority of the votes (more than 50%) and not just a plurality (the most votes).  A runoff election is held when no candidate in a primary or general election receives a majority of the votes cast. The top two candidates who received the most votes proceed to the runoff election.

In a runoff election, voters choose between the two remaining candidates, and the candidate with the most votes wins. Runoff elections are typically held several weeks after the initial election. They are open to all eligible voters, regardless of whether they voted in the first round.

Runoff elections are most commonly used in primary elections to determine a party’s nominee for a general election. However, some jurisdictions require the winner to receive a majority of the votes (50% of the votes plus 1) cast rather than just a plurality (receiving the most votes).

What is Ranked Choice Voting? 

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is a method of voting in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. Instead of choosing just one candidate, voters can indicate which candidate is their first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on. Ranking allows voters to express a greater level of nuance in their preferences and can help to ensure that the winner of an election has the support of a majority of voters.

Under RCV, if a candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, that candidate wins the election. Suppose no candidate receives the majority of first-choice votes. In that case, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the votes for that candidate are redistributed to the remaining candidates based on the voters’ preference. This process repeats until a candidate receives a majority of votes.

RCV is used in some cities and states in the United States, and it’s most commonly used in primary and special elections where there are multiple candidates. 

RCV is often used as an alternative to traditional “plurality” voting systems, which can lead to “spoiler” candidates who split the vote and allow a candidate to win with less than a majority of votes. Ranked choice voting aims to address this problem by allowing voters to indicate their preferences among multiple candidates and ensuring that the winner has support from a majority of voters.