Electoral Process

Ballot Access

All 50 U.S. states, and many U.S. territories, limit or regulate access for parties and independent candidates to the election ballot in some way. Typically, these limits require that a candidate, or political party, obtain a certain number of signatures on a ballot access petition. The specific number is determined by taking a certain percentage of the votes cast in the prior election, or by a statutory number set by a state legislature. There is also frequently a filing fee for submitting the petitions and filing as a candidate.

Click here to see the list of petition requirements for each state

In order for a political party to maintain ballot access for subsequent elections, a candidate from that party needs to obtain a certain percentage of the votes cast in the election that they petitioned for access in. If the party does not obtain the required number of votes then the party losses access to the ballot in subsequent elections, and must re-complete the petitioning process to re-gain ballot access. This is the reason why the Republican and Democratic Parties automatically retain ballot access in all 50 U.S. states; they typically receive over the required threshold (typically 3% - 5%; 20% in Alabama) in every election that occurs. If an individual chooses to repeatedly run as a independent candidate, in multiple elections, they must always petition for access to the ballot, as only parties can maintain ballot access.

Candidate Petitioning

Petitions are commonly used in the U.S. to determine which candidates will appear on a ballot. The actual act of petitioning is the process where candidates, or those they hire, go out and collect signatures from voters for their ballot access petitions.

Petitions are also frequently used by political parties for candidates to gain access to their party's primary ballot. They are also required for political parties and independent candidates who do not already have ballot access in the specific state they are trying to gain access for. These ballot access drives, as they are called, can frequently be burdensomely expensive; particularly for smaller parties and independents. In fact, the process can sometimes cost tens of thousands of dollars for each state the candidate wishes to obtain ballot access in. Once the candidate obtains the required amount of signatures, the petition is submitted to the state's Secretary of State for verification.

Ultimately, ballot access and petitioning permits a candidate to have his or her name appear on printed ballots, and other official election materials, while anyone can be a write-in candidate and run a campaign. While write-in campaigns cost significantly less to start, as there is no need to spend money gather signatures and paying filing fees, there is a much larger up-hill battle to convince voters to enter the candidate's name manually on to the ballot.


Political campaigns have existed for centuries. As long as there have been citizens to campaign amongst, there have been political campaigns. The first modern-type of campaigning is thought to be by British politician William Ewart Gladstone in the 1880s.

Major campaigns in the United States are often much lengthier than those in other countries. Political campaigns can start anywhere from several months to several years before election day. The initial part of any campaign for a candidate is to decide to run for election. Prospective candidates will often speak with their family, friends, professional associates and the leaders of political parties before making their final decision. Candidates are also often drafted by political parties and lobby groups concerned with electing like-minded politicians. During this period, people considering running for office will consider their ability to put together the money, organization, and public image needed to get elected. Many campaigns for major office do not develop past this point, as people often do not feel confident in their ability to win.

Once a person decides to run they will typically make a public statement regarding their candidacy. Shortly following their announcement, candidates begin to travel around the area they are running in and meet with voters. This permits voters to get a better idea of who a candidate is rather than reading about them in the paper or seeing them on television. Larger campaigns sometimes launch expensive media buys during this time to introduce the candidate to voters, although most wait until closer to election day. In contrast, campaigns for minor offices may be fairly simple and inexpensive. In these cases, campaigning can be as simple as talking to newspapers, giving out campaign signs, and greeting people in public places and at local, county and state fairs.

At this point, campaigns often dispatch volunteers and staffers into local communities to meet with voters and persuade people to support the candidate. The staff is also responsible for finding new supporters, recruiting them as volunteers or registering them to vote, if they are not already registered. The identification of these supporters will be useful later as campaigns remind voters to cast their votes.

Later on in the election process, campaigns will often launch expensive television, radio, and direct mail campaigns, along with intensifying their grassroots campaigns, in an effort to persuade voters to support the candidate. Closer to election day, candidates will often run two campaign messaging programs; one that is aimed at mail-in voters, as voters in the United States are often able to start voting weeks before election day via mail-in ballots, and another aimed at the more traditional poll voters.


Debates have been one of the most important aspects of each election cycle. The process of candidates debating the issues has been a tool used by many voters to learn more about each candidate. While general presidential debates were not held until about 1960, several other debate-like events are considered predecessors to the modern-day presidential debates. In 1858 there were a series of seven debate-style speeches delivered by Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen A. Douglas for the Illinois U.S. Senate seat. These "debates" were held in a way where the first candidate delivered a one-hour speech, then the other candidate had an hour and a half to rebut, and finally the first candidate closed the debate with a half-hour response.

These debates slowly evolved over the years to what we now have today. The primary debates for the Republican and Democratic parties are produced under a coalition of each party's national committee, media outlets, and co-sponsors, while congressional, state, and local debates have been produced solely by local media outlets, and non-profit organizations, such as the League of Women Voters. The minor parties (such as the Libertarian Party, Reform Party, Green Party, and Constitution Party) typically produce their own debates, with limited budgets and no sponsors, because of the lack of interest from media outlets, and also because these parties typically nominate their candidates without the use of affiliated voter primaries.

The nationally televised general election debates are currently produced by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is a private non-profit organization co-chaired by the Republican and Democratic parties, and sponsored by private enterprises. Historically, the League of Women Voters sponsored and produced the national Presidential debates until 1988, when the two major political parties jointly decided to produce the debates on their own. They proceeded to set-up their own non-profit (Commission on Presidential Debates) in 1987 to do just that.

In recent years many have criticized the televised debates, both primary and general election, for being nothing more than "political theater".


The primary election process is a process used to help the delegates of each political party decide who will be the party's nominee. Whichever candidate the delegates select will be the one to take part in the general election process. Each political party chooses, on their own, how they will complete the primary process to select their nominee.

The Republican and Democratic parties select their nominee through a primary process that permits party affiliated voters to vote for their preferred candidate. These party affiliated voters take part in a party-specific election, casting votes for their preferred candidate, from a list of candidates within their own particular party. The outcome of this election has a direct impact on which delegates are sent to the party's convention. In fact, each candidate hand picks a slate of delegates for each state, and if they win a state's primary election, then their personally selected delegates are the ones that are sent to the convention to represent that state's vote. Thus results of the primary elections directly determine how many delegates each candidate will receive at the party's national convention.

Minor political parties (such as the Libertarian Party and Green Party) typically skip the affiliated voter primary step (largely because they do not qualify for taxpayer funded primaries) and simply have delegates, which are picked by each party's state affiliates, elect the nominee at the party's national convention.

General Election

After the parties have their national conventions, each party is left with one candidate who is officially termed the party's nominee. This candidate then continues with their campaign, but now they focus their campaigns on new challengers; the candidates from the other political parties and independent (non-party affiliated) candidates, as opposed to those candidates who are in the same political party as themselves.

This is the part of the campaign where candidates try to appeal to voters more polarized view points, drastically setting themselves apart from those candidates in the other parties. It is also the part of the campaign process where the most money and time is spent on advertising and getting the candidate's message out to the voters. Presidential candidates typically spend nearly $1 billion dollars on their campaigns. Senate and House of Representative campaigns typically spend much less, with campaigns typically costing $15 million and $2 million, respectively.

On election day, voters head to their designated voting location and cast their votes. Throughout election day the candidates await the final results at their campaign headquarters. By night time on the day of the election the media will typically have received all vote totals from the voting locations and have reported who the presumed winner is. Following the declaration of the winner, the winning candidate will typically give a victory speech which the media networks will show live to their viewers. Shortly later, many of the losing candidates will deliver concession speeches acknowledging their loss and congratulating the winner.

Electoral College

The Electoral College is the institution that elects the President and Vice President of the United States. Voters do not actually vote for the Presidential candidate, instead they are voting for a slate of electors, who in turn will vote for the President. These electors are nominated by their state political parties in the months prior to Election Day. In some states, such as Oklahoma, Virginia and North Carolina, electors are nominated in party conventions. One notable exception to this is Pennsylvania, where the campaign committee of each candidate names their electors, which is an attempt to discourage faithless electors. There are no formal qualifications for who may act as an elector, however, Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution does disqualify any person holding a federal office, either elected or appointed, from being an elector.

The electors of the Electoral College never actually all meet together in person. Instead, electors chosen on Election Day meet in their respective state capitals on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December, at which time they cast their electoral votes on separate ballots for president and vice president.

The meeting of electors is opened by the election certification official who reads one of the seven Certificates of Ascertainment, which were prepared shortly after election day. This document sets forth who was chosen to cast the electoral votes. When the time for voting arrives, the electors choose one or two people to act as tellers. Each elector submits a written ballot with the name of a candidate for president.

Once voting has reached completion, the electors of each state must complete six Certificates of Vote. Each Certificate of Vote must be signed by all of the electors and each of the remaining six Certificates of Ascertainment must be attached to each of the six Certificates of Vote. Then the Certificates are sent to their destinations: One is sent by registered mail to the President of the Senate; Two are sent by registered mail to the Archivist of the United States; Two are sent to the state's Secretary of State; and One is sent to the chief judge of the United States district court where those electors met.

Once the Certificate of Vote, along with the attached Certificate of Ascertainment, of each state is received by the President of the Senate’s staff, they prepare them for the joint session of the Congress. The Certificates are arranged, unopened, in alphabetical order (by state) and placed in special mahogany boxes.

The meeting is held at 1:00 pm in the Chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives. The existing vice president and the newly elected Speaker of the House sit at the podium. Senate pages bring in the two mahogany boxes containing each state's certified vote and place them on tables in front of the senators and representatives. Each house appoints two tellers to count the vote. Relevant portions of the Certificate of Vote are read for each state, in alphabetical order. After the certificates from all States are read and the respective votes are counted, the candidate that receives an absolute majority of electoral votes (currently 270) for the office of president or of vice-president is elected to that office.

The 12th Amendment provides for what happens if the Electoral College fails to elect a president or vice president. If no candidate receives a majority for president, then the House of Representatives will select the president, with each state delegation (instead of each representative) having only one vote. If no candidate receives a majority for vice president, then the Senate will select the vice president, with each senator having one vote.

Oath of Office

The oath of office of the President is an oath required by the U.S. Constitution before the President-Elect may start serving as President. The wording is specified in Article Two, Section One, Clause Eight:

"Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: - "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Frequently the oath is taken by swearing on a bible. It is, however, uncertain how many Presidents have done such, or added the words "So help me God" at the end of the oath, as neither is required by the constitution. Many Presidents have chosen to not do so, instead opting to take the oath by swearing on a book of law or to solely take the oath without swearing on any physical object.