United States presidential elections determine who serves as president and vice president of the United States for four-year terms, starting at midday on Inauguration Day , which is January 20 of the year after the election. The elections are conducted by the various states , and not by the federal government .
Constitutionally, the election is by United States Electoral College electors , who are chosen by methods each state individually establishes. The electors can vote for anyone, but with rare exceptions they vote for the designated candidates and their votes are certified by Congress in early January. The Congress is the final judge of the electors; the last serious dispute was in 1877.
The election of the president is governed by Section 1 of Article Two of the United States Constitution , as amended by Amendments XII , XXII , and XXIII . The president and vice president are elected on the same ticket by the Electoral College , whose members are selected from each state; the president and vice president serve four-year terms.
Elections take place every four years on the first Tuesday in November (although in many states early and absentee voting begins several weeks before Election Day ). The elections are run by local election boards who ensure the fair and impartial nature of the election and prevent tampering of the results.
Neither the constitution, nor the XII , XXII , and XXIII amendments describe the manner for states to select their electoral college representatives. This means then that individual citizens are not granted the right to vote for president by the federal government but rather by their respective state or local governments. This does not mean the current system is unconstitutional; it is just not constitutionally protected and individual states do have a right therefore to bar their citizens from voting for President.
Voters are required to vote on a ballot where they select the candidate of their choice. The presidential ballot is actually voting "for the electors of a candidate" meaning that the voter is not actually voting for the candidate, but endorsing members of the Electoral College who will, in turn, directly elect the President.
Many voting ballots allow a voter to "blanket vote" for all candidates in a particular political party or to select individual candidates on a line by line voting system. Which candidates appear on the voting ticket is determined through a legal process known as ballot access . Usually, the size of the candidate's political party and the results of the major nomination conventions determine who is pre-listed on the presidential ballot. Thus, the presidential election ticket will not list every single candidate running for President, but only those who have secured a major party nomination or whose size of their political party warrants having been formally listed. Laws are in effect to have other candidates pre-listed on a ticket, provided
that a sufficient number of voters have endorsed the candidate, usually through a signature list. Never, however, in U.S. history has a 3rd party candidate for president secured a place on the election ticket in this fashion.[ citation needed ]
The final way to be elected for president is to have one's name written in at the time of election as a write-in candidate . This is used for candidates who did not fulfill the legal requirements to be pre-listed on the voting ticket. It is also used by voters to express a distaste for the listed candidates, by writing in a ridiculous candidate for president such as Mickey Mouse or Darth Vader . In any event, a write-in candidate has never won an election for President of the United States.
An 1824 scenario occurs when no candidate receives enough electoral votes to win the election. In such a case, the president and vice president of the United States are chosen per the 12th Amendment . The selection of president is decided by a ballot of the House of Representatives . For the purposes of electing the president, each state only has one vote. A second ballot of the Senate is held to choose the vice president. In this ballot, each senator has one vote. The 1824 scenario is named for the presidential election of 1824 , in which Andrew Jackson received a plurality , but not a majority, of electoral votes cast; when the presidential election was thrown to the House of Representatives , John Quincy Adams was elected to the presidency. The year 1824 is not the only time in which the vote has gone to the House of Representatives: in Jefferson's 1800 election, Aaron Burr, Jefferson's vice presidential candidate, received the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson and challenged Jefferson's election to the office. In the end, Jefferson was chosen as the president thanks to Alexander Hamilton's sway in the house of representatives. This created a deep rivalry between the two statesmen resulting in the famous 1804 duel .
In recent decades, one of the presidential nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties has almost always been an incumbent president or a sitting or former vice president. When the candidate has not been a president or vice president, nominees of the two main parties have been state Governors or U.S. Senators. The last nominee from either party who had not previously served in such an office was General Dwight D. Eisenhower , who won the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency in the 1952 election .
Contemporary electoral success has favored state governors. Of the last five presidents ( Jimmy Carter , Ronald Reagan , George H. W. Bush , Bill Clinton , George W. Bush ), four have been governors of a state (all except for George H. W. Bush ). Geographically, these presidents were all from either very large states ( California , Texas ) or from a state south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of Texas ( Georgia , Arkansas ). The last sitting U.S. Senator to be elected president was John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960 . The only other sitting senator to be elected was Warren G. Harding in 1920 , whereas major-party candidate Senators Andrew Jackson ( 1824 ), Lewis Cass ( 1848 ), Stephen Douglas ( 1860 ), Barry Goldwater ( 1964 ), George McGovern ( 1972 ), Walter Mondale ( 1984 ), Bob Dole ( 1996 ), and John Kerry ( 2004 ) all lost their elections.
Voter turnout in presidential elections has been on the decline in recent years, although the 2004 election showed a noticeable increase over the turnout in 1996 and 2000. While voter turnout has been decreasing, voter registration has been increasing. Registration rates varied from 65% to 70% of the voting age population from the 1960s to the 1980s, and due in part to greater government outreach programs, registration swelled to 75% in 1996 and 2000. Despite greater registration, however, turnout in general has not greatly improved The voting age population includes all persons age 18 and over as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau , which necessarily includes a significant number of persons ineligible to vote, such as non-citizens, felons, and the mentally incompetent. The actual
number of eligible voters is somewhat lower, and the number of registered voters is lower still. The number of non-citizens in 1994 was approximately 13 million, and in 1996, felons numbered around 1.3 million, so it can be estimated that around 7-10% of the voting age population is ineligible to vote.
Note that the large drop in percentage turnout between 1968 and 1972 can be attributed (at least in part) to the expansion of the franchise to 18 year olds (previously restricted to those 21 and older). The total number of voters grew, but so did the pool of eligible voters, so total percentage fell.