Here’s how a U.S. presidential election works

Story by CBC Kids News • 2020-10-26 11:00
UPDATE:This article originally published on July 22, 2020.

Here’s what political parties, the primaries and voting day are all about

From Kanye West’s campaign speech to Donald Trump’s potential re-election, you may be hearing more and more buzz about the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Americans head to the polls on Nov. 3.

But how does a president actually get elected?

It’s a complicated process of narrowing down candidates until one person (a.k.a. the winner and new president) remains standing.

Here’s a bit about how it works and who’s running this year.

What’s the difference between Republicans and Democrats?

First off, it’s important to understand that there are two main political parties in the U.S: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

The Republican Party is associated with the colour red and uses an elephant as its symbol. States that traditionally vote Republican are known as

There are third-party candidates who run for smaller parties, and there are independents who run on their own. Usually these types of candidates don’t get many votes.

The Republicans and Democrats are usually at odds with each other when it comes to major issues such as taxes, health care and the environment. 

Hint: Trump is a Republican, and former president Barack Obama is a Democrat. Kanye West is an independent.

Donald Trump, who was elected president in 2016, pointing at something during a speech.

Donald Trump, who was elected president in 2016, made promises to lower taxes, limit immigration and increase jobs. (Image credit: Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock)

Who leads each party and how is that person chosen?

About a year before the actual presidential election, people who want to run start campaigning for their party (think: speeches and online advertisements).

To be eligible as a presidential candidate, you must: have been born in the U.S., be a minimum of 35 years of age, and have been a U.S. resident for at least 14 years. 

They try to convince members of their party why they think they should be considered the best candidate.

Eventually, one person is chosen through a series of primaries (a voting system) and caucuses (gatherings where you discuss and vote).

In some states, voters can only vote in the primary of the party they have affiliated themselves with. To be affiliated with a party usually means registering as a Democrat or a Republican when registering to vote.

In some states, primaries are ‘open,’ which means that all voters can participate even if they are unaffiliated or have registered for another party.

The winners of those votes become the chosen candidates for each party, and each has their own platform (i.e. ideas for how to run the country). 

Presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to increase jobs, while expanding medical care and reducing carbon emissions. (Image credit: Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

The candidates are confirmed at national conventions (there’s one for each party).

In 2020, Trump was chosen to represent the Republicans and former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden was chosen to lead the Democrats.

The presidential candidates then chose candidates for vice-president.

Trump chose current Vice-President Mike Pence as his running mate and Biden chose Senator Kamala Harris.

Each team then campaigned around the country, trying to win the support of the population.

What happens on election day?

On election day, people in all 50 states and the District of Columbia get the chance to cast their votes.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Following the national election, there's another vote: the electoral college vote.

The final vote

The electoral college is a group of people that cast their votes and have the final say on who becomes president and vice president.

Each state gets a certain number of electoral votes based on the number of representatives they have in Congress (House and Senate). This is based on population numbers that are tracked every ten years.

That’s why candidates often want to win the electoral votes for big states (such as New York or Texas) because they make up a large amount of the overall electoral votes across the country.

A presidential candidate needs more than half of the electoral vote to win.

Because of the electoral college, it is possible for a candidate to win the presidency even if they didn’t win the most votes, called the popular vote, during the national election, like Trump back in 2016.

The winners (i.e. the new president and vice president) are inaugurated in January, which is when they officially start governing the country.


CLARIFICATION: This article was updated July 31, 2020 to include the electoral college voting process.

CORRECTION: This article was updated on Oct. 22, 2020 to correct some errors in describing the primary process. Voters do not have to pay dues to a party to vote in a primary and not all states require party affiliation to participate in primaries. The definitions of third-party candidate and independent candidate have also been updated for better accuracy.

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