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Text: Jörn Seidel
Redaktion: Rainer Kellers (WDR Newsroom), Stefanie Fischer (planet schule)
Grafik: Henri Katzenberg, Wiebke DeckartÜbersetzung: Vincent Abbate
Fotos: WDR/dpa/UPI/laif/AP

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US Election 2024

How Americans choose their president

In mid-January 2024, the first of many primaries for the presidential election in the USA took place. How exactly does the election work? Who runs for the office of president? What are electors? And which swing states could potentially decide who wins? These and other questions are answered in the following overview.

By Jörn Seidel (text), Henri Katzenberg (graphics), Vincent Abbate (translation)

In the USA, the presidential election takes nearly a whole year. Many people in Germany also pay close attention to the American election because the result has a significant effect on Germany, too. The USA is the most important military and economic power in the world. Decisions made by the American president can affect our security and our standard of living.

In this article, we explain how the voting system works in the United States.

What you'll find here:

🗳️ Key dates in the 2024 US election

🗳️ How the primary process works

🗳️ How the general election works

🗳️ Criticism of the US election system

🗳️ Key dates in the 2024 US election

An overview of the most important dates

  • January 15th until June 8th: Political parties' primary elections in the US states
  • March 5th: Super Tuesday – the most important day during the primaries
  • Mid-July and mid-August: Parties' national conventions
  • September and October: Four TV debates
  • November 5th: Election Day – the decisive day
  • December 17th: Electoral College – the electors are chosen
  • January 6th 2025: Official announcement of the election winner

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🗳️ How the primary process works

Before presidential candidates go head-to-head in the general election, they must first win the nomination within their respective political parties. In other words, the US presidential election is actually two elections. In fact, the election process is even more complicated than that. But let's take it one step at a time.

Which candidates compete in the primaries?

When the 2024 primaries began, dozens of candidates were competing for the nomination. As the weeks passed, many of them chose to leave the race as they realized, after each primary, that they had no chance of winning.

Some presidential candidates don't belong to any political party, while others are members of small parties like the Green party or Liberal party. However, in order to have a realistic chance of becoming president, a candidate must belong to one of the two major parties, the Democrats or the Republicans.

Primaries and caucuses: How do the US primaries work?

Each political party uses the primaries to determine which of its many candidates will move on to compete in the general election for the office of president. The primary elections take place over a period of several months and have different formats that vary widely depending on the election laws of the individual states.

There are two basic forms: primaries and caucuses. In a primary, voters cast ballots to select their favorite candidate from a particular political party. In a caucus, party members and supporters meet to select a presidential candidate in a multi-stage process. For example, a Republican caucus was held in mid-January in the state of Iowa.

Unlike in Germany, US citizens first have to register to vote before they can go to the polls on Election Day. This also applies to the primaries. To vote in so-called closed primaries, voters must name their preferred political party when they register. Only then do they officially belong to the "closed" circle of party members who are permitted to vote for their favorite candidate via secret ballot.

By contrast, in open primaries, all registered voters are allowed to select their favorite presidential candidate from the Democratic, Republican or other party. The results of the open and closed primaries are not final in all cases; sometimes a party committee must officially nominate a candidate following the primary.

Caucuses are made up of local party meetings where party members and supporters first debate about and then later vote for candidates, often in a public vote. The caucus is a long process with several stages that may take months, which gives party committees greater influence on the nomination of candidates than in the primaries.

Whether it's a primary or a caucus – the votes go to delegates and not the actual presidential candidates. It's not until summer, when the parties hold their national conventions, that the delegates officially cast their votes for a specific presidential candidate. By that time, however, the results of the individual state primaries have already made clear which candidate the party has chosen to compete in the general election.

By the way: In the Democratic party, so-called superdelegates (e.g. state governors or congress members) also take part in the nomination process. Each superdelegate has one vote and is free to give that vote to whichever candidate he or she chooses.

Super Tuesday: What's so special about this day?

A large number of primaries are held on what's known as Super Tuesday. In 2024: Tuesday March 5th. The primaries in California and Texas were especially important because these two states have the highest populations of any US states, meaning candidates can add large numbers of delegates to the total they need to win the nomination.

On every Super Tuesday, more delegate votes are awarded than on any other day in the time leading up to the party conventions in summer. This means it often becomes clear which of the candidates has the best chance to represent his or her party in the general election. For many of the candidates who originally entered the primaries, the dream of becoming the president of the United States ends on Super Tuesday.

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🗳️ How the general election works

In the general election, the winners of the primary elections compete directly against one another. One presidential candidate from each political party, as well as independent candidates, take part. The way the majority voting system works, including the use of electors, makes the election process a little bit difficult to understand.

On the campaign trail: TV debates and the battle for the swing states

In principle, the election campaign starts as soon as it becomes clear – during the primaries –which candidate will win the nomination in his or her party. As already mentioned above, the nomination does not become official until the national convention in summer. But since it's usually quite obvious which candidates have won long before the respective conventions, these events become the first highlights of the election season. At these carefully planned political celebrations, each party presents its presidential candidate on the big stage.

But election season also means campaigning on the streets and going door-to-door, lots and lots of advertising, especially on social media, as well as four TV debates in September and October 2024. One of the four televised debates is between the two vice presidential candidates.

The presidential candidates also make public appearances at traditional campaign events. Because the US has so many states and the distances between them are so great, the parties and their candidates focus on the so-called swing states. These are states in which the race between the two major parties is usually very close. They are decisive for the outcome of every election, which is why they are also known as "battleground states."

There is no clear definition of which states are swing states. As of January 2024, major US media outlets list Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as swing states in the current election.

Ich bin damit einverstanden, dass mir Diagramme von Datawrapper angezeigt werden.

"The winner takes it all": How does the election system work?

The US presidential election is an indirect election. Here, as in the primaries, voters vote for delegates. Not until after the election do these delegates, or electors, officially vote for the president and his or her vice president. In recent decades, very few electors have cast their vote in a way that did not conform to the results of the public vote on Election Day and it has not affected the outcome of any election. That's why the presidential election is considered to be a:

quasi-direct election

Emil Hübner, Ursula Münch

Political scientists

The total number of electors in each of the 50 states as well as the federal district that serves as the nation's capital, Washington D.C., depends on the population of that state or district. In all, there are a total of 538 electors. To win the election, a candidate must have an absolute majority, i.e. at least 270 electors.

However, the total number of electors who later elect the president in accordance with the Election Day result does not correspond exactly to the popular vote. That's because the states use a majority voting system. In other words, the candidate who gets the most votes in a particular state on Election Day receives all the electors from that state. "The winner takes it all." Votes cast for a "losing" candidate in that state have no further relevance.

Eligible voters elect the president – but not directly. The votes they cast help decide which candidate receives the electors.

For example, one voter might vote for the Democratic candidate.

Another one chooses the Republican candidate.

The candidate with the highest number of votes receives all the electors from that state. The rest of the votes have no relevance.

Later, the electors elect the president in accordance with the result of the popular vote in the state they represent.

Let's use California as an example to show how the majority voting system works. California has the highest population of any state in the USA. This is reflected in its total of 54 electors – more than any other state. Of course, the Republican candidate does get some votes in California. But traditionally, the majority of the state's voters choose the Democratic candidate. This year, too, the Democratic candidate for president will almost certainly receive all 54 electoral votes. By the way: Two states with relatively small populations, Maine and Nebraska, use a different system for distributing their electoral votes.

The majority voting system that applies in most states is precisely the reason why candidates focus their campaigning on the swing states. In the other states, the result of the election is clear beforehand – at least in most cases.

The majority voting system is also the reason why only two parties are really relevant in the presidential election:

A voter doesn't want to waste his vote on a candidate who has no realistic chance of winning. So instead of voting for a third-party candidate who may be his or her favorite, the voter votes for the lesser of two evils.

Birgit Oldopp

Political scientist

What happens on Election Day?

On the first Tuesday in November (in 2024: November 5th), American citizens have the opportunity to vote for president. The first polling stations open at 6 a.m. German time. Due to the different time zones in the USA, they don't close until 6 a.m. the following day. It's also possible to vote by mail prior to Election Day.

While the votes are being counted, all eyes turn to the results in the decisive swing states. In which states will the Democrats win the race? Where will the Republicans come out on top? Which candidate will reach the magic number of 270 electors? The preliminary result is usually available in the early hours of Wednesday (German time).

If the result of the presidential election is already clear on Election Night, the drama traditionally ends with a friendly gesture: In a concession speech, the losing candidate admits his or her defeat and congratulates the winner. Today this day, Donald Trump has never publicly admitted that he lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden.

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After the election: What happens before the inauguration?

The winner of the election is now clear. Nevertheless, the US presidential election is not yet over officially. On December 17th, the electors gather as part of a process known as the electoral college. This does not take place at a central location, but rather in the individual federal states. Even then, the winner of the election cannot yet be declared.

The votes of the electoral college are not counted until January at a joint session of the US senate and House of Representatives. In this election, the votes will be counted on January 6th 2025. Following the count, the name of the person who will be president for the next four years is officially announced.

The official inauguration of the president takes place shortly thereafter. In this election: January 20th 2025. This day marks the beginning of the president's four-year term of office – roughly a year after the first round of primaries.

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🗳️ Criticism of the US election system

The system used to elect the president of the United States is often criticized. Sometimes basic elements of the system, such as the use of electors and the majority voting system, are called into question. The way candidates finance their election campaigns is another source of criticism. Here is some background information:

Why is the US presidential election so complicated?

There are historical reasons. Today, the American election system may seem old-fashioned to us. But when it was introduced in 1789, it was modern. When George Washington began his term as the first president of the United States, the French Revolution had not yet begun, while in the heart of Europe, an emperor was still ruling over the Holy Roman Empire.

At the time, the drawn-out and indirect process used to elect the American president made sense. It was a huge country where news travelled no faster than the stagecoaches that delivered the mail, so it was impossible for everyone to vote at the same time. Besides that, especially in the most rural parts of the country, people had little or no access to national politics – the electors were entrusted with the responsibility of voting in their interests.

Today, however, other problems with the election system have arisen that did not exist in former times. One example is the way candidates' election campaigns are financed.

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Are the rules regarding campaign financing still acceptable?

Any candidate who wishes to participate in the primaries needs a lot of money. That applies even more so to the general election campaign. While public funding is available, any presidential candidate who accepts the funds is subject to certain spending limits. In 2012, for example, a candidate who accepted the maximum public funding amount of 22.8 million US dollars was allowed to spend no more than double that amount on his or her campaign. Twelve years later, that number has increased significantly: The general election grant for 2024 is 123.5 million US dollars.

Nevertheless, running for president has become incredibly expensive. For that reason, the candidates from the two major parties choose not to accept public funding for the primaries and the general election. Instead, they rely on their supporters to make large-scale financial donations.

During the 2020 election campaign, the two main candidates – Donald Trump and Joe Biden – each collected and spent enormous amounts of money. According to research conducted by non-profit media organization NPR, Trump received 300 million dollars more than Biden. Ultimately, Trump reached a total of:

$ 0

While campaign financing laws do exist, candidates may accept unlimited donations from any organization that wants to support them, including corporations and trade unions. This is a source of criticism. For one, it causes doubt about whether a president can act independently in his/her decision-making. It also hurts the chances of candidates in the primaries whose budgets are much smaller.

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What is the future of the US election system?

Campaign financing is not the only point of criticism of the election system in the United States. Sometimes the old "winner takes it all" principle is called into question – especially when one of the candidates actually wins the popular vote but receives fewer electors than his/her opponent. This is exactly what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016 when Trump was elected president. In 2000, the same thing happened to Al Gore in his race against George W. Bush. Both Clinton and Gore earned more votes in the popular vote, but lost anyway.

In the race between Bush and Gore, there were also voting irregularities in the state of Florida. It is suspected that African-Americans were denied their chance to vote in certain cases, e.g. because the lines at the polling stations were too long or they were told there were not enough ballots. Bush wound up winning the key state of Florida by just 537 votes, so these accusations are very serious.

Another source of criticism is that the voting districts in the elections for the US House of Representatives, which are held simultaneously, are changed in a way that affects the election results.

Nevertheless, experts say that the US election system does not need to be reformed completely.

The American system may be suffering … especially due to its organizational and financing mechanisms, but less so from the way its institutions were originally structured.

Jan Techau, author and political advisor