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Because the upcoming presidential election this year will play a defining role in America’s political future, it’s essential to understand both the election system and the structure of the Electoral College. The American election process is complex, and its intricacies may be unfamiliar to international students who are better versed in the political processes of their home countries.

What is the primary election?

Primary elections, also colloquially known as “primaries”, allow eligible voters in a particular state to vote for their preferred party candidate. This year, 16 primaries started later than usual due to the pandemic. The primaries for each state are run by respective state and local governments, and voting occurs through a secret ballot.

What is the general election?

After the primaries conclude, each party names its presidential nominee, after which the nominee announces his or her choice for vice president. For instance, Joe Biden recently announced Kamala Harris as his running mate. The presidential and vice presidential candidates then begin campaigning to win popular opinion, to in turn win the general election. The presidential election is held on the first Tuesday of November every four years. The upcoming general election will be held on Nov. 3.

What is the Electoral College?

What’s interesting about the U.S. electoral system is that the president is not decided by a national popular vote. Citizens belonging to each state cast a ballot that votes a group of representatives from a party into the Electoral College, whose responsibility is to elect the President after Election Day. There are 538 possible electoral votes, encompassing the 435 representatives, 100 senators, and three votes from the District of Columbia. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win.

Each state has a different number of fixed electoral votes based on population size; for instance, California, with its population of 39.5 million, has 55, and New Mexico, with its population of 2.1 million, has five. Virtually all states give their electoral votes to the majority party that wins, except Maine and Nebraska, who split electoral votes.

Critiques of the Electoral College

People have critiqued this voting system for being unrepresentative of actual public opinion, citing the fact that in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes but lost the election, marking the fifth time this has happened in US history. A point of contention is the number of electoral votes allotted to smaller states. Per capita, individuals in smaller states may feel as if they have a greater say in who gets elected, whereas individuals in bigger states may feel like their vote counts less, although it is disputed whether or not the small state bias has actually made a difference in election outcomes. This alleged imbalance in voting power has led to people arguing that states with smaller population sizes should have less of a say in the deciding vote of the president, since the imbalance doesn’t accurately represent the voice of the people.

Swing states, or states that could be reasonably won by either the Democratic or Republican presidential candidate, could be crucial to the success of a candidate. These states are usually targeted by both party campaigns competitively.

The  “winner takes all” principle, in which all electoral votes go to whichever candidate wins the majority vote, can sometimes cause candidates to ignore noncompetitive states during the general election and direct their efforts toward the few states that swing between Democrats and Republicans.

Who qualifies to be a presidential candidate?

Top presidential candidates typically come from two major parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. There may also be candidates who represent special interests and third parties, though they rarely make it to the general election. Any candidate for president must be a natural-born citizen (someone who is born in the U.S. and is a U.S. citizen at birth), at least 35 years old, and a U.S. resident of at least 14 years.

What is a caucus?

The election process kicks off with primary elections and caucuses. There are two ways a state can elect a presidential nominee, a caucus and a primary. Each party holds its own caucus, where eligible local voters gather to discuss, debate, and vote on who they think will be the best party candidate. After a caucus, the members of that party choose which candidate they want to unite behind for the election. Caucuses do not occur in every state, and don’t allow the general public to vote for who the party candidates for president and vice president are. Iowa, Nevada, and Wyoming are among some of the states that still adopt caucuses, while most states use primary elections.

Where does your vote go?

Although the voter may be the one casting the ballot, the outcome is decided by the Electoral College. Rather than directly electing a candidate into office, an individual’s vote goes toward deciding the vote of the electoral college representative.

Although students spread across the globe might feel distanced from the elections, there are still ways to get involved. If you’re looking for ways to be more politically active on campus, make sure to check out this article.

Staff writer Nandini Talwar can be contacted at with thoughts about this article or book recommendations. If you are qualified, she strongly encourages you to vote. Follow Nandini on Twitter @nanutaps. Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.

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