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Presidential Elections

Thursday, May 02, 2024

Every four years, the U.S. holds elections for the president. Throughout the year, primary elections determine the final candidates on the general election ballot. Each state has their own laws and practices to conduct elections, and state and local election offices are the trusted sources for that information. The information on this page is intended to provide an overview of questions and answers regarding how presidential elections are run. 

Select from one of the categories to navigate to a specific topic:

  1. Presidential Primaries
  2. Delegates and Conventions 
  3. The Electoral College 

Presidential Primaries

How are presidential candidates chosen? 

  • Presidential candidates are chosen by each political party, and the parties set their own rules about how president and vice president are selected.  Party rules can change from year to year, but both the Republican and Democratic parties currently use a series of state primary elections and party caucuses during the year of the presidential election to allow voters to express their preferences. Delegates representing the winners of these contests then attend nominating conventions to select the candidates who will represent the party on voters’ ballots in the November general election.  
  • The modern primary and convention process began following the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where significant unrest and violence highlighted the distinction between popular participation demands and the “smoke filled back rooms” where the nominees for president and vice president had formerly been chosen. 

What are primaries? What are caucuses? 

  • Primaries are elections to choose which candidate will represent a political party for a given office in the general election. Some states have “open” primaries, where voters may choose which party’s primary to vote in regardless of their own party affiliation, while others have a closed, semi-closed, or semi-open primary, where participation is more limited. Sometimes elections for nonpartisan offices and ballot issues are voted on the same ballot as primary elections. 
  • An open primary is a primary election in which voters of any partisan affiliation are welcome to vote. Voters may only vote in one party’s primary per election. Some states require voters to publicly declare their choice of party ballot at the polling place, after which the poll worker provides or activates the appropriate ballot. Other states allow the voters to make their choice of party ballot within the privacy of the voting booth. 
  • A closed primary is one in which only voters affiliated with the political party holding the primary are eligible to participate. In general, closed partisan primary elections are elections in which voters receive a ballot listing only those candidates running for office for the nomination of the political party with which the voters are affiliated. For example, only registered Republican voters may participate in a closed Republican primary, and will likely only see Republican candidates on their ballot. 
  • Some states also hold modified or semi-closed primaries, in which individuals may participate if they are either affiliated with the party or unaffiliated, but voters who are affiliated with a different party may not participate. For example, a semi-closed Democratic primary would permit Democratic or unaffiliated voters to participate, but not Republican voters. 
  • Some states hold semi-open primaries, in which voters may change their partisan affiliation at the polling places and subsequently cast a ballot in that party’s primary. 
  • Some states also hold “Multi-Party” primaries, where candidates from all political parties appear on the same ballot and voters may choose whomever they wish to vote for.  Depending on the state, either the top two or top four candidates then proceed to the general election, regardless of their political affiliations. 
  • Some states set rules regarding whether primaries must be open, closed, or semi-closed, whereas other states permit the parties to set their own rules. 
  • Primaries may be state-run or party-run. A state-run primary will utilize traditional voting equipment that voters use at the general election in November. 
  • For more information, including which states use which type of primary, visit 
  • Caucuses are meetings of a group of people belonging to the same political party used to select candidates.  Caucuses are party-run, generally held on a single day, and require a voter to be physically present to participate.  However, they may also be multi-day events and some even allow voters to participate via mail. 
  • Like primaries, some caucuses are open to unaffiliated voters, whereas others are only open to members of a political party. 
  • Caucuses can look like a miniature election, where participants hear speeches from representatives of the various campaigns and then cast their vote. They can also include opportunities to change your vote over the course of the event, often when your initial candidate receives too few votes to continue. 
  • Some caucuses directly allocate delegates to the national convention, whereas others select delegates to state conventions, where the national delegates are selected. 

For More Information on Primary Election Types, click here


Delegates and Conventions 

What are delegates? What are super delegates or unpledged delegates? 

  • Delegates are individuals who represent their state at a political party’s national convention.  
  • Each state, territory, and voters abroad are assigned a number of delegates based on a formula established by the political party.
  • Some delegates are elected through party primaries or caucuses, while others are selected by party leadership based on position or other criteria (for example, it is common for former presidents to serve as delegates to their party’s respective convention). 
  • Once selected, many delegates are bound by party rules to support the presidential candidate(s) that won their state’s primary or caucus. Party rules also decide how delegates must vote if their assigned candidate withdraws from the presidential race, as well as for how many rounds of voting they must cast their vote for the assigned candidate before they are allowed to vote as they wish. 
  • Which candidate these delegates must support at the party’s convention can be complicated.  Some jurisdictions allocate their delegates to the respective candidates based on statewide vote total; others allocate their delegates based on district-level results (most often Congressional districts). Some use proportional allocation, some use winner-takes-all allocation. Some delegates are never assigned to a specific candidate (sometimes referred to as “super” or “unpledged” delegates). These are most often party leaders, but some state parties have chosen not to bind any of their delegates or some portion thereof. These individuals may cast their votes at the convention for any candidate they choose, though party rules may limit when they are permitted to vote. 

What is a convention? 

  • A convention is a meeting of a political party where party business is conducted and the party’s nominee for president and vice president are officially selected. Conventions are typically held during the summer prior to the November presidential election. Delegates attend the convention and cast their votes based on the rules of the political party. 
  • Generally, one candidate for president will have accumulated a majority of delegate votes prior to the convention, and the first round of voting will produce a party’s nominee. A convention where this is not the case is known as a brokered convention. 
  • Political parties also set the rules for how to address a candidate for president who dies or otherwise become unable to serve either between the primary/caucus process and the convention or following the convention and before the general election. 

The Electoral College 

Under popular conception, Americans proceed to the ballot box every four years and cast a ballot for who we believe should be president of the United States for the next four years. However, this understanding fails to include an integral component of the process – the Electoral College. 

For a quick two-page summary of the Electoral College, view the EAC’s Infographic: "How the Electoral College Works"

What is the Electoral College? 

  • The Electoral College is an indirect way of electing the president and vice president. 
  • The Electoral College is made up of representatives selected in every state and the District of Columbia who, in mid-December of each presidential election year, cast their votes according to the laws in their states for one of the nominees for president and one of the nominees for vice president. These votes are then transmitted to the National Archivist and Congress where, on January 6 following the election, they are read and ratified by the new Congress. The presidential and vice presidential nominees that receive more than 270 of these Electoral College votes then officially become the president-elect and vice president-elect, and, on January 20 (or 21, when January 20 falls on a Sunday), are sworn into office.  

How are the Electors selected? 

  • Each state is allocated Electors equal to the number of its U.S. Senators plus the number of its U.S. Representatives (which may change each decade according to state's following the Census).  
  • Presidential candidates in each state submit to the state's chief election official a list of individuals pledged to their candidate equal in number to the state's electoral vote. Usually, the major political parties select these individuals either in state party conventions or through appointment by state party leaders while third parties and independent candidates designate electors. 
  • On the Tuesday following the first Monday of November in presidential election years, voters in each state cast their ballots for the slate of Electors representing their choice for president and vice president (although as a matter of practice, general election ballots normally say "Electors for" each set of candidates rather than list the individual Electors on each slate).  
  • Whichever slate wins the popular vote in the state becomes that state's Electors. In effect, whichever presidential ticket gets the most popular votes in a state wins all the Electors of that state (except for in Maine and Nebraska, where one elector is decided per Congressional district and two are allocated to the winner of the statewide vote).   

When does the Electoral College meet? 

  • On the first Tuesday following the second Wednesday of December, each state's Electors meet in their respective state capitals and cast their electoral votes-one for president and one for vice president.   

What happens after the Electoral College votes? 

  • The electoral votes are then sealed and transmitted from each state to the President of the Senate who, on the following January 6, opens and reads them before both houses of the Congress.  
  • The candidate for president with the most electoral votes, if it is an absolute majority (one over half of the total), is declared president. Similarly, the vice-presidential candidate with the majority of electoral votes is declared vice president.  
  • In the event no one obtains an absolute majority of electoral votes for president, the U.S. House of Representatives selects the president from among the top three contenders with each state casting only one vote and an absolute majority of the states being required to elect. Similarly, if no one obtains an absolute majority for vice president, then the U.S. Senate makes the selection from among the top two contenders for that office. 
  • At noon on January 20 (unless on a Sunday, then on January 21), the duly elected president and vice president are sworn into office.   

For important dates related to the 2024 Electoral College, click here.

For more information on the Electoral College, view the EAC’s White Paper discussing its historical roots, important elections that have shaped its functions, vulnerabilities in the system, and how despite being tested, the Electoral College has continued to endure. 


Archived Electoral College Resources

2010 Electoral College White Paper