US election 2024: This is how the electoral system in the United States works

The US electoral system could be so simple, but it has its pitfalls. Such as that of the Electoral College and the phenomenon of swing states. A brief overview of the US electoral system.

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It actually sounds simple and democratic: The President of the United States is elected by the people by vote. Whoever gets the most votes wins. But unfortunately it’s not that simple. If you want to get into the White House, you have to get the most people behind you, but above all you have to win over the most people in the right states. If it sounds strange, it is, because the US electoral system is old and has its pitfalls.

Here we explain how the USElectoral system works and what happens on election day and afterwards:

Who can vote?

Any of the approximately 332 million US citizens who are at least 18 years old is initially eligible to vote. That’s about 240 million. Illegal immigrants and prisoners are excluded, among others. Because there is no registration requirement, voters have to register, which can be complicated. In some communities, this requires a large number of documents that are often difficult or impossible for poorer people to obtain.

What are the area codes?

The actual US elections won’t take place until November, but the whole spectacle starts at the beginning of the year, when the two major parties, Democrats and Republicans, choose their candidates in their primaries. State after state will go to the polls by early summer. Iowa starts on January 15th, with the next votes following roughly every week. The winner of these so-called primaries is usually decided after “Super Tuesday”. On this day, March 5th, elections will take place in 15 states at the same time – including the two most populous US states, California and Texas.

You can view the area election calendar here (“New York Times”, English)

How high will the voter turnout be?

In 2020, voter turnout was 66 percent – a whopping increase of seven percentage points compared to 2016. Four years ago, the renewed candidacy of then-incumbent Donald Trump drove people to the polls. The irony of the election outcome: Trump received significantly more votes than in his first election and still clearly lost to Democrat Joe Biden. He was elected by more people than any presidential candidate before him. This year voter turnout is likely to be rather high.

Why does the US vote on a Tuesday?

Since 1845, the presidential election has always taken place on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The decision was made at the time through the exclusion process: Sunday was excluded as the Lord’s Day, Saturday as market day, and Thursday because the British, who were hated at the time, voted there. Additionally, voting was supposed to take place after the harvest, but not in the winter because many Americans had to travel long distances to vote at the time. That’s why Monday was canceled as the arrival day. So only Tuesday remained.

What does majority voting mean?

For decades in the USA, only two presidential candidates have actually had a chance of moving into the White House. The reason is the majority voting system, which favors large parties. The applicants’ goal is to win over the electors of a state, who in turn elect the head of state as the “Electoral College”. Only the winning candidate ultimately receives a state’s electorate (“the winner takes all”). Unlike proportional representation, candidates from smaller parties (this year there are four) have almost no chance of winning the US presidential election.

What role do the electors play?

In the USA, the head of state is elected indirectly via electors. Each state sends a fixed number of electors depending on its population size. The minimum number is three (e.g. North Dakota and Washington DC). In California, the largest state, 55 electors are up for grabs. In total, the Electoral College consists of 538 delegates. Whoever wins more than half of them (270) becomes president. The candidates fight to win in the individual states, because the winner gets all the electors available, while the loser comes away empty-handed.

Why are the swing states important?

The presidential election is actually decided in a few states, as in most states it is clear long before the election which of the two candidates will win. California, for example, is traditionally in the hands of the Democrats, while Texas votes Republican. But there are a number of states that sometimes vote like this. Pennsylvania, for example. But since there are a lot of voters up for grabs there, they are particularly hotly contested. Most of the major election campaign events therefore take place in these swing states, also known as “battleground states”. This year these include: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and possibly the actually conservative Georgia again.

What do the polls look like?

At the beginning of the primaries, with which the parties choose their candidates, ex-president and now-renewed challenger Donald Trump is ahead in almost all surveys. Very clear among his Republicans, but also nationwide in the duel against Joe Biden. The latter still has to be nominated by the Democrats, but that is considered a formality.

The general rule with surveys is that they are always just a snapshot. In addition, a survey average always gives a better picture than individual surveys.
Two US sites offer good survey overviews:

  • Realclearpolitics
  • Fivethirtyeight

What else are Americans voting on?

In addition to the presidential election, members of Congress are also being re-elected. At least partially. All 435 members of the House of Representatives (comparable to the German Bundestag) will be reappointed, as will more than a third of the 100 seats in the Senate. New governorships are also being awarded in eleven states.

When are the presidential elections over?

The US presidential election begins on November 5th in the small towns of Dixville Notch and Millsfield in New Hampshire, where the result will be announced shortly after midnight Eastern time. Because the U.S. spans six time zones, polling stations in the eastern states open and close many hours earlier than on the West Coast. The citizens of Hawaii and Alaska are at the bottom of the polls. Usually around midnight German time, the TV stations publish the first forecasts. Once the polls close on the Pacific Coast, there is usually enough data to declare a winner. In 2020, the result was not known until long after the election because in some states such as Michigan and Georgia the votes had to be counted multiple times.

What happens after the presidential election?

41 days after the election, which is December 16th this year, the members of the Electoral College meet and elect the new president. At the beginning of January, the current vice president confirmed the election results. The last time, on January 6, 2021, the Capitol was stormed that day. The new head of state will take the oath of office on January 20, 2025 at 12 noon local time. The time between the election and the swearing-in is called the “Presidential Transition.” These two and a half months serve to familiarize the new president and his staff. During this transition period, the outgoing head of state also loses privileges, such as exclusive access to information affecting national security.

Sources: Ballotpedia, FiveThirtyEight, DPA, AFP, Reuters, “New York Times”, Realclearpolitics, 270towin. com, NHPR, FEC