A Foreigner’s Guide to U.S. Presidential Elections

If you are lucky to study in the USA during a presidential election year, you will get a crash course in US politics! The best way to learn about politics is to talk to locals, read, and watch different media sources.

Here’s a quick guide to get you oriented to the basics of US presidential elections, so you will know where to start:

Political Parties

The modern political system in the USA is a two-party system dominated by the Republican and Democratic parties. Major Third Parties that exist in the United States include the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, although neither has succeeded in winning significant influence.

Electoral College

US Citizens do not directly elect the president. Instead, the citizens directly elect “electors,” intermediaries who pledge to vote for a specific candidate. Most states follow a “winner-takes-all” policy to assign electoral votes. For example, if Hillary Clinton wins the popular vote in Massachusetts, the state’s electors will vote for Clinton. Each state’s number of electors is equal to the number of members of congress that state has.

In some cases, a president can win the electoral vote and not the popular vote. This happened recently in 2000, in which Al Gore won the popular vote and George W. Bush won the presidency by electoral votes.


Who votes?

You must be a US Citizen 18 years of age or older to vote in an election.

Where do people vote?

Registered voters will be notified of a polling place to vote. You must vote at your designated polling place; you cannot show up anywhere and vote. On election day, you will show up at your polling place with a photo ID and you will be directed through the voting process.


The US Presidential Election Process

The US Presidential Election happens every four years, and follows a cycle that lasts over a year! Here’s a look at an election timeline:

  • Spring of the year before an election: Candidates announce their intentions to run.
  • Summer – spring of the election year: Primary and caucus debates take place.
  • January – June of election year: States and parties hold primaries and caucuses.
  • July – early September: Parties hold nominating conventions to choose their candidates.
  • September and October: Candidates participate in Presidential debates.
  • Early November – Election Day
  • December – Electors cast their votes in the Electoral College.
  • Early January of the next calendar year – Congress counts the electoral votes.
  • January 20 – Inauguration Day


These are the basics of US presidential elections. Still confused? Don’t worry, the majority of US citizens are confused by the electoral college. But that’s another issue in itself, and a good question to bring up if you want to get the locals going in a political debate.

Either way, if you are here on an election year, enjoy the excitement of watching the US democratic system in process!