Breaking down the US elections: Your biggest questions answered

Breaking down the US elections: Your biggest questions answered
Just like with the Olympic sport of curling, the US presidential election is full of rules and terms that need to be relearned every four years. The race for the White House isn’t the only one happening, though, and each contest has its own set of rules.


The US is a constitutional republic with indirect democracy. When people go to the polls this year, they won’t just select who they want to run the country, but they will also choose who they want to serve their congressional district in the House of Representatives. A third of the country will also vote in senatorial elections, while state and local positions may also be on the ballot, as well as ballot initiatives and referendums.

The people will not directly elect the president, however, and that can lead to a lot of confusion. First, each political party selects its nominee, usually through the primary and caucus system. Then the citizens vote. Finally, the Electoral College selects the next US president, based on how people vote in each state.

Who gets to vote?

At the federal level, any naturalized or native-born US citizen at least 18 years of age is eligible to vote, as long as they are registered to do so. Beyond that, each state has its own rules regarding  the eligibility of convicted felons, whether voters are required to show a photo ID and more. Americans living abroad and in the military are still able to vote, usually by an absentee ballot that is mailed in. Registered voters who cannot go to the polls on November 8 can also vote via absentee ballot or, in some states, in person during an early voting period that begins up to 46 days before Election Day. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, early voters are able to change or “spoil” their votes under specific circumstances.

What is the Electoral College and how does it work?

The candidate who wins the election may not be the person who won the popular vote, which is based on the total number of votes cast throughout each country. George W. Bush in 2000 was the most recent example of an election winner who lost the popular vote. Instead, victory is based on the 538 members of the Electoral College, each of whom represent a state or the District of Columbia based on population. The number of electoral voters a state gets is equal to its representation in Congress, with a minimum of three (Delaware, DC, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming) and a maximum of 55 (California). The winning candidate must receive at least 270 votes in the Electoral College.

Although representation in the Electoral College is based on a state’s representation in Congress, the Constitution specifically prevents any “Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States” from serving as an elector. Instead, the political parties choose a slate of electors for each state. Voters then choose the electors that will represent their state in the Electoral College. Electors’ names may or may not appear on the ballot below the presidential candidates, depending on the state, according to the National Archives.

In Maine and Nebraska, the electoral votes are split by congressional district, with the winner of the state’s popular vote gaining the two statewide votes. Traditionally, any districts that opt for the losing candidate will cede their votes to the winner. In the remaining 48 states, the electoral votes are winner-take-all. There are no federal laws that require electors vote with their state’s popular vote, but several states have enacted such requirements. In other states, electors are bound by pledges to the political parties to do so. No elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as they pledged, according to the US National Archives, but at least two electors have done so, once in 1972 and once in 1976.

What’s a “swing state”?

A swing state, also known as a battleground state, is one that does not historically vote with one major political party or the other. The current swing states (and their electoral votes) are: Colorado (9), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18) and Virginia (13). Although they have voted for the Democratic candidate since at least 1992, some political analysts consider Michigan (16), Pennsylvania (20) and Wisconsin (10) to be current battlegrounds as well. Candidates tend to spend a lot of time and money in those states, as they are often the deciding factors in the election. In fact, no Republican has won the White House without also winning Ohio since the party was established in 1854.

What happens if no one gets 270 electoral votes?

Historically “blue” states ‒ those that have voted for a Democrat in at least the last five presidential elections ‒ total 247 electoral votes, while “red” states ‒ those that historically vote for a Republican ‒ total 191 electoral votes. Swing states have a total of 100 electoral votes up for grabs. It is possible, though improbable, that neither candidate will snag the required number of votes to win the presidency. At that point, it heads to Congress to decide who will enter the White House, according to the 12th Amendment of the Constitution.

The House of Representatives will vote for the next president from among the top three candidates. The Senate will vote for the next vice president from among the top two candidates. This has happened once in US history: In 1824, no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College, so the House elected John Quincy Adams as president. At that point in time, candidates did not run as a combined presidential and vice presidential ticket, and John C. Calhoun won the vice presidency outright.

What about these “third parties” I keep hearing about?

As mentioned above, if no one wins a majority in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives will select the next president from the top three vote-getters. Although much of the focus has been on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, there are nearly 1,800 people who have filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as candidates. There are a total of 31 individuals who are on at least one state ballot; of those candidates, 13 are on multiple ballots and only three (Clinton, Trump and Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson) are on the ballot in all 50 states. Green Party nominee Jill Stein is on the ballot in 44 states and has achieved write-in status in another three. Constitution Party Darrell Castle nominee is on the ballot in 24 states and is a write-in candidate in 22 other states. Another candidate to watch is Evan McMullin, an independent, who could make a play for his home state of Utah and its six electoral votes.

The popular vote does matter when it comes to third parties, however. If a third-party candidate receives 5 percent of the vote, then their party is eligible to receive federal grants from the FEC in the 2020 general election. Candidates may retroactively qualify for public funds if they receive 5 percent of the popular vote this year.

Are US representatives and senators on the ballot?

Presidents are elected to four-year terms; they are limited by the 22nd Amendment from serving more than two terms. They have to deal with the legislative branch, which has different terms. In the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, lawmakers serve two-year terms, with all 435 seats up for election every two years. In the upper chamber, the Senate, lawmakers serve six-year terms, and only a third of seats are up for election during any one election cycle. Neither chamber has term limits. Representatives serve congressional districts within each state that are based on population, while two senators represent each state.

During this election cycle, seven Democratic and 22 Republican senators are running for reelection, while another three Democrats and two Republicans are retiring and leaving their seats up for grabs. Only 12 of the races are considered competitive, and the Democrats need win just five of them to take control of the Senate.

What about people in DC and in US territories?

US citizens living in the nation’s capital or in the American territories of American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands do not have voting representation in Congress. DC residents, however, are eligible to vote for president, and receive three votes in the Electoral College. Those living in US territories are not eligible to vote for president, but they are able to participate in the primary process.

Tim Kaine is a senator. What if he becomes the vice president?

If Clinton wins the presidency, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) would become the vice president and will have to resign his Senate seat. Governor Terry McAuliffe, another Democrat, would be able to name Kaine’s replacement. The state would then hold a special election in 2017 ‒ aligned with the Virginia gubernatorial race ‒ to fill the remainder of what would have been Kaine’s term, which ends in 2018.

Mike Pence is a governor. What if he becomes the vice president?

If Trump wins the presidency, Governor Mike Pence (R-Indiana) would become the vice president. Pence was running for reelection until Trump tapped him to be his VP nominee. At that point, he withdrew his gubernatorial candidacy. Win or lose, Indiana will elect a new governor on November 8.

What other positions are up for election?

Like Indiana, many other states have gubernatorial elections this year. Local, county and state positions are on ballots across the country, and ballots differ down to the precinct. To view what a specific ballot looks like, visit that state’s election office website.

What are ballot measures and initiatives?

A ballot measure ‒ also called a proposition, referendum or question ‒ is an issue or piece of legislation put to the voters as a measure of direct democracy. A referendum can be used to enact or repeal a statute passed by the legislature. An initiative is an issue or constitutional amendment that makes it onto the ballot after a petition is signed by a certain number of registered voters.