Election Process

One of the most important rights of American citizens is the franchise — the right to vote. Learn how we elect our President.

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Learn about the country retreat of the President of the United States and his guests.

The Election Process

Follow the election process from the primaries to the White House. From caucuses to primaries to the general election learn what it takes to get elected President.

One of the most important rights of American citizens is the franchise — the right to vote. Originally under the Constitution, only white male citizens over the age of 21 were eligible to vote. This shameful injustice has been corrected and voting rights have been extended several times over the course of our history. Today, citizens over the age of 18 cannot be denied the right to vote, regardless of race, religion, sex, disability, or sexual orientation. However, in every state except North Dakota, citizens must register to vote, and laws regarding the registration process vary by state.

The path to full voting rights for all American citizens was long and often challenging. The franchise was first extended to African Americans under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, passed during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. These guaranteed that all male citizens, regardless of their race, would receive equal treatment under the law and not be deprived of their rights without due process. The Fifteenth Amendment is specifically dedicated to protecting the right of all citizens to vote, regardless of their race.

For practical purposes, this was not the end of the voting rights struggle for African Americans. Because of widespread discrimination in some states, including the use of poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests, African Americans were not assured full voting rights until President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. Prior to that, women had only been able to vote in select states.

Federal elections occur every two years, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Every member of the House of Representatives and about one-third of the Senate is up for reelection in any given election year. A presidential election is held every fourth year.

Federal elections are administered by state and local governments, although the specifics of how elections are conducted differ between the states. The Constitution and laws of the United States grant the states wide latitude in how they administer elections.

But before you can be elected President of the United States, you must first be eligible. No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years, and been fourteen years a resident within the United States. Serious candidates for president must begin preparing for the election years in advance. The first decision potential candidates and their families face is whether or not they are suited for the demands of the office and willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary to win the election. The next step usually involves forming political action committees to broaden a candidate's visibility, to test the candidate's appeal nationwide, and to raise money for increasingly expensive campaigns. Candidates also establish exploratory committees whose job it is to 1) seriously consider the candidate's chances of becoming president, 2) suggest possible campaigns themes and slogans, 3) write speeches and position papers, 4) seek endorsements from powerful individuals and groups, 5) recruit professional and volunteer staff, 6) begin organizing state campaigns in key states, 7) hire pollsters and consultants, and 8) develop media appeals.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC), created by Congress to administer and enforce the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) - the statute that governs the financing of federal elections, defines the process of registering a candidacy for President in the following manner:

"If you are running for the U.S. House, Senate or the Presidency, you must register with the FEC once you (or persons acting on your behalf) receive contributions or make expenditures in excess of $5,000. Within 15 days of reaching that $5,000 threshold, you must file a Statement of Candidacy authorizing a principal campaign committee to raise and spend funds on your behalf. Within 10 days of that filing, your principal campaign committee must submit a Statement of Organization. Your campaign will thereafter report its receipts and disbursements on a regular basis."

Presidential campaigns today are grueling marathons that take candidates by air from New York to Chicago to San Francisco and back again in a single day. On the campaign trail they typically make speeches, kiss babies, shake hands, pose for photographs, and find other ways to connect with the 'average' American. Candidates must raise millions of dollars from the party faithful and corporate leaders, ride buses through the hinterland, and rub shoulders with farmers, factory workers, veterans, and soccer moms. They must paint pictures of a better America, make passionate appeals to reason, and stake a claim for moral leadership. Not for the faint of heart, the modern presidential campaign tests the mettle of those who would live in the White House.

A Presidential campaign is lengthy and demanding, and there can be only one winner. Nevertheless, recent nominating campaigns, except those in which an incumbent president is seeking reelection, have attracted a half-dozen or more contenders. They begin planning their campaigns almost as soon as the last presidential election is over and hit the campaign trail six to twelve months in advance of the first primaries and caucuses.

In the early twentieth century there was a movement to give more power to citizens in the selection of candidates for the party's nomination. The primary election developed from this reform movement. In a primary election, registered voters may participate in choosing the candidate for the party's nomination by voting through secret ballot, as in a general election.

There are two main types of primaries, closed or open, that determine who is eligible to vote in the primary. In a closed primary a registered voter may vote only in the election for the party with which that voter is affiliated. For example a voter registered as Democratic can vote only in the Democratic primary and a Republican can vote only in the Republican primary. In an open primary, on the other hand, a registered voter can vote in either primary regardless of party membership. The voter cannot, however, participate in more than one primary. A third less common type of primary, the blanket primary, allows registered voters to participate in all primaries.

Caucuses were the original method for selecting candidates but have decreased in number since the primary was introduced in the early 1900's. In states that hold caucuses a political party announces the date, time, and location of the meeting. Generally any voter registered with the party may attend. At the caucus, delegates are chosen to represent the state's interests at the national party convention. Prospective delegates are identified as favorable to a specific candidate or uncommitted. After discussion and debate an informal vote is taken to determine which delegates should be chosen.

In some states a combination of the primary and caucus systems are used. The primary serves as a measure of public opinion but is not necessarily binding in choosing delegates. Sometimes the Party does not recognize open primaries because members of other parties are permitted to vote.

A key part of the American political process has included party conventions held every four years to determine the major parties Presidential candidates. The first party to introduce nominating conventions was the Anti-Masons. Delegates from 13 states met in Baltimore Maryland on September 26, 1831 were they selected Attorney General William Wirt of Maryland to be there candidate. The Democrats followed in 1832 re-nominated President Jackson. Since that time many of the conventions have been places of great drama, where it has taken multiple votes to elect a parties Presidential candidate. In recent years with the current system of primaries in which most of the convention votes are decided the drama of the conventions has been lost as the outcomes have been predetermined. Instead the conventions have been used as a tool by the parties to market their candidates and unveil their parties platform. In recent years the only true disagreements at the conventions have been negotiations over party platform.

presidental seal of the president of the United States of AmericaAmerican Presidents looks back at all the Presidents of the United States of America. Get to know the American Presidents, and find out what made them great. Learn how we elect our Presidents, what political parties have been president, and who have been America's Vice-Presidents.