When is the presidential election?
The presidential elections are held every four years, in years divisible by 4. The election is always on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In 2008, the election was held on November 4.
Who can run for president?
A person must be at least 35 years old, and a native-born American citizen in order to run for President. He or she also has to have lived in the U.S. for at least 14 years. A President can only hold the office for two terms, or eight years.
How are the candidates chosen?
The campaign usually starts the year before the presidential election, when candidates make public their desire to become President; for example, Barack Obama announced his candidacy in February, 2007, and John McCain announced his in April, 2007, before the 2008 election.
The interested candidates of all the parties spend time going to different states, appearing on TV, making speeches, raising money, advertising their candidacy, and getting ready for the primaries.
All political parties make their own rules about how to select their candidates. Individual states can choose to use a primary election or a caucus system to select delegates to the party's national convention, where the presidential candidate is selected. There are different rules about how to choose the winner of a caucus, depending on the state.
The Democratic and Republican parties are the two large mainstream political parties. In 2008, the Democratic Party used a proportional system to select delegates, and the Republican Party used a winner-take-all system.
The primary season for the 2008 election started on January 3, 2008 in Iowa. Some states moved their primaries earlier than in past years, and in the end there were more than 20 states that voted on February 5, 2008, on Super Tuesday. The primaries continued up until June 3 for the Democrats, and July 12 for the Republicans. In addition to the delegates selected in the primaries who were pledged to a specific candidate, both major political parties selected unpledged delegates who could choose to vote for whomever they wanted. The Republicans had some top party officials in this category, while the Democrats had more superdelegates who were drawn from both party leaders and elected officials.
The presidential candidates are selected at the party conventions after a vote by the delegates. Usually the number of delegates is known ahead of time, so the presidential nominee has time to select a vice-presidential running mate. The selection of a running mate is important because it is used to balance the ticket. The vice-presidential candidate may be used to shore up the base or to appeal to a different demographic group. The candidate hopes that the vice-presidential selection will make more voters interested in voting for that ticket. The traditional role of the vice-presidential candidate is that of attack dog. Using the vice-presidential candidate to attack the other side makes the presidential candidate look more sensible and responsible.
What happens after the conventions?
Some people make up their minds about who to vote for very early in the process. Other people stay in the undecided category for a long time. Sometimes people talk about red states and blue states. Blue states vote Democratic and red states vote Republican. Click here to see a map of the 2008 election results by state. It will open in another window.
After the nominating conventions are over, the candidates campaign all over the country, trying to convince more people to agree with their positions and to vote for them. The Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 as a nonprofit, nonpartisan group, whose primary purpose was to sponsor presidential and vice-presidential debates. In 2008, there were three presidential debates, on September 26, October 7, and October 15, and one vice-presidential debate on October 2. At the first and third presidential debates the candidates appeared with a moderator who asked the questions. The vice-presidential debate was in the same format. The second presidential debate, however, was in a town meeting format, and included questions from the audience present at the debate, as well as asking for questions on the Internet.
Who is allowed to vote?
In order to vote in the election, a person has to be at least 18 years old and a United States citizen. He or she cannot be in prison or on parole for a felony, or can't have been declared mentally incompetent by a court. In addition, he or she has to register to vote. In order to be eligible to vote in the November, 2008 election, for example, the voter registration had to be postmarked no later than October 20, 2008. You can even get a registration form online here (choose your county).
If you know you will be unable to get to your polling place on Election Day, you can also vote by absentee ballot. You can fill out an application online, or on the back cover of the Voter Information Pamphlet. You can also vote early at City Hall. Beginning 29 days before each election, you can vote at the office of the Department of Elections in City Hall. The hours for the 2008 presidential election were from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. the last three weekends before the election.
After the election, how are the votes counted?
The Presidency of the United States is decided by how many electoral votes each candidate gets, not by the popular vote. In 2000, in fact, Al Gore received 543,816 votes more than George Bush, but he lost the election because George Bush received more electoral votes. The Electoral College is the group of 538 elected representatives who meet to select the President and Vice-President of the United States. Each state has a number of electors equal to the number of Senators and Representatives it has in the United States Congress. Since the number of Representatives changes every ten years after the census, the number of electoral votes that a state has changes too. The District of Columbia is also given three votes. Look at the map below to see how many electoral votes each state had for the 2008 election.
A candidate needs 270 votes to win the election. In each of the state presidential elections, the people are really voting for a slate of electors who are pledged to vote for a certain candidate. It is up to the states to decide how their electoral votes will be given to candidates. At the present time, all the states except Maine and Nebraska have a winner-take-all system. The other two states have one elector chosen in each congressional district and two electors chosen in a statewide popular vote.
The electoral college meets on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, when the chosen electors from each state assemble in their state capital and cast their ballots. The votes of the electors are then sent to Congress where the President of the Senate counts the votes. This takes place on January 6. On January 20, the President-elect and the Vice-President-elect take the oath of office and are inaugurated in Washington, D.C. The oath is: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."
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