Dummies guide to the US election 2016

Things are heating up in the US presidential election with January 2017 all set to get a new leader –not only the head of the state but also the head of the government and a commander in chief of the largest military.

Did you always wanted to know the process of the US election, who votes, how are public officials elected and requirements to hold the federal office, among others? Read on to know everything about the US elections.

Who votes?

The US Constitution states that all the US citizens over the age of 18 can vote in federal (national), state and local elections. In 1789, when George Washington was elected the first president only 6% of the population could vote as only landowning men over the age of 21 had the right to vote.

Which public officials are elected?

The only elected federal officials are the President, Vice-President and the members of Congress. The members of the Congress comprises of 435 members of the US House of representatives and 100 senators.

Each of the 50 states has its own constitution and its own rules for state offices. For instance, in some states governors serve four years term while in others two years.

Requirements to hold federal office

A federal office holder must meet certain requirements.


  • At least 35 years old
  • A resident of the US for at least 14 years.

Vice President

  • At least 35 years old
  • Resident of the US for at least 14 years
  • Must reside in a different state than the President
  • Has not served two terms as President


  • At least 30 years old
  • Resident of the US for at least 9 years
  • Legal resident of the state from which they wish to represent


  • At least 25 years old
  • Resident of the US for at least 7 years
  • Legal resident of the state which they wish to represent

When are elections held?

The elections for federal office are held only in even-numbered years. The presidential election is held every four years on the first Tuesday of November.

The representatives serve two-year terms. The elections of the US senators are held every six years.

How many times can a person be President?

The 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits a person from being elected the President of the US more than twice.

During World War II Franklin D Roosevelt won a fourth presidential term. But soon after completing one year in the office he passed away. This led Americans to the conclusion that two terms in office are enough for any President.

Why only two major political parties?

Two major political parties, Republican and Democrat, are dominating the US elections since 1852. Since then every President has either been a Republican or a Democrat. Donkey and elephant have been the symbols of the two parties. A party can win elections only if the candidate gets more votes, making it difficult for smaller parties to survive.

What about voters who don’t prefer any political parties?

In recent years, many voters have started calling themselves ‘politically independent’. Sometimes voters feel that neither of the parties is capable enough to fulfill their preferred policies and belief. And this is when the formation of the new party comes in. The new party can express the popularity of the idea.

For instance, in 1892 Populist Party was formed by few Americans. The party demonstrated graduated income tax, direct election of senators and eight-hour workday. Though the party never captured the presidency, major parties adopted ideas from them.

How are presidential candidates chosen?

Both the major parties hold a national convention during the summer of the presidential election, discuss the policies and nominate their candidates for President and Vice President. The candidate getting a majority of delegates’ votes capture the nomination.

Votes needed to win US congressional election

11 states –Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Vermont- follow runoff elections if no candidates receive a majority of votes. Whereas the rest of the 39 states follow ‘single member’ district system where the candidate receiving a plurality of votes wins the election.

Are polls really important?

Public opinion polls are not part of any rules and laws governing elections but it has always been an important part of electoral process. Polling helps the candidate to know their performance in relation to their competitors’ while it helps the citizens to understand the issues and policies of the candidates. Today many candidates hire pollsters to understand the performance. Besides, internet and news channel also conduct polls for analysis.

Who conducts the elections?

Thousands of administrators –civil servants or city officials- organize and conduct the elections. These administrators are responsible for setting the election date, checking the eligibility of the candidates, registering eligible candidates, designing ballots, tabulating the votes and most importantly certifying the results.

The constitution allows citizen above 18 years of age the right to vote. The citizens are asked to register themselves as voters to prevent fraud. If someone fails to register and wants to vote then the citizen can cast the votes using the provisional ballots. These votes are taken into consideration only after the officials check the eligibility of the voters.

How do the citizens vote?

Different localities have different types of ballots and voting technology. Some localities prefer manual paper ballots while the others mechanized paper ballots. Several states provide the voters with ballots to citizens who are away from the voting place on Election Day. There are states which allow citizens to register as ‘permanent absentee voters’ where the ballots are mailed to the voters’ residence.

Oregon and Washington conduct the election entirely by mail.

Recently, the citizens are also allowed to vote three weeks before the Election Day using the voting machines in shopping malls and other public places. These votes are not publicized until the polls are closed and are tabulated only on the election night.

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