The American election explained

or What the heck is going on down there?!

For Canadians, the American electoral process is mind boggling. So we've whittled down the confusion to just what's important. And we added cute drawings to make it palatable.

Can I run for president?

Well, no, you can’t. Not if you’re Canadian (unless you’re the Ted Cruz kind of Canadian, then you’re fine).

Here in Canada, potential prime ministers aren't technically subject to a set of qualifications—there are no official age restrictions and no citizenship requirements, for example. In practice, prime ministers are members of Parliament, which means they're Canadian citizens who are at least 18 years old. South of the border, however, Americans apply three stringent criteria to their presidents: be a natural-born citizen; be 35 years of age or older; and have been a resident of the U.S. for 14 years.

That’s just what’s in the legal books. In reality, you’re unlikely to become president unless you’re also male, white (present White House occupant notwithstanding), Christian, over 50 ​years old​, ​have earned a​ post-secondary ​degree​, and either ​served​ in the military or ​practiced​ law.​ With the exception of military service, that pretty much describes most Canadian prime ministers, too.

American presidents: common characteristics

And then there’s the prohibitive cost. Once the Canadian campaign period begins, candidates must adhere to spending limits. But in the U.S. there is no such legislation. By the end of the (very, very, very long) campaign, presidential candidates can spend up to near $1 billion (all amounts in US$). To get near the office, you'll need friends in high places, a lot of money, and superior fundraising skills.

Presidential election spending, 2012

The candidates

Once you decide to run, you join a pool of other interested contenders. At the beginning of the current primary period, for instance, 23 Republican and Democratic party candidates had declared themselves. By July, each party will have chosen just a single nominee.

These candidates will almost always fall into one of two parties — Republican (red) or Democratic (blue). American political ideology tends to trend to the right of Canadian politics. This electoral season, the front-runner Republicans (Trump and Cruz) don't differ much from one another and are ideologically far to the right. On the other hand the "left-ish" party players (Clinton and Sanders) differ significantly — with one presenting as even more left-leaning than current Canadian politicians.

American and Canadian political ideologies

The long road begins

If there’s one good thing about the excessive length of the American campaign period, it’s that it makes Canadians feel better about the relative brevity of ours. Campaigning usually starts almost two years before Election Day, when the first candidates declare their intentions to run.

National election campaign length

Jammed into the middle of this drawn-out process is the ever-confusing season of state primaries and caucuses. This is how 23 candidates dwindle down to just two.

American election timeline

Primaries and caucuses

Beginning in February, a series of elections are held in every state and overseas territory. In some states these are called primaries, in others they are caucuses. The point of both practices is to apportion pledged delegates among candidates in each party. Pledged delegates are party members who have the power to vote for that candidate at their respective national party convention, typically held in July. Basically, a primary is an election open to registered voters in the state (sometimes all, sometimes just party members), and a caucus is a series of small gatherings of party members who often raise their hands or gather in groups to show their support.

In order to secure the party nomination for president, candidates need to have a majority of delegates. This number is different for both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Delegates needed for party nomination

The mechanisms for both primaries and caucuses differ widely by state, and even by party. Suffice to say that almost no two contests are alike. One major difference separates Democrats from Republicans: superdelegates.

Only the Democrats select superdelegates. That group comprises 719 delegates who don’t pledge their candidate allegiance in advance of the convention. They include former presidents, current legislators, and elected party officials.

At the end of this five-month-long process are the party conventions. This is where each party’s presidential nominee—typically, the one with the most delegates—is formally nominated. Barring extraordinary circumstances, nominees are known in advance and conventions are foregone conclusions. Keep an eye on the Republican convention in July, which may not be so ordinary.

Campaigning and swing states

You’ll notice that once the party nominees hit the campaign trail in autumn just before the general election, a handful of states receive a lot of attention. These are swing states, where razor-thin polling margins mean anyone could win. Most states are “safe," in that voters’ preferences are generally predictable. Candidates don’t waste resources on states where the outcome is certain, win or lose. Strategically, it makes sense to focus campaigns on trying to swing the undecided states.

2016 most-likely swing states

Election Day and the Electoral College

Only 538 people vote directly for the president. Wait. What? We'll try to explain. But trust us, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for a modern democracy.

These 538 people form the body of electors, known as the Electoral College, that ultimately vote on behalf of millions of Americans who cast ballots. On Nov. 8, when Americans head to the polls, their choices don't directly pick the president, but instead they determine which candidate each state’s electors will support. Each state is allotted a certain number of electors who are nominated in advance. On Election Day, a vote for a presidential candidate is actually a vote for a slate of electors who’ve pledged to vote for that party. In many states, ballots only list the names of presidential nominees, so it's not surprising that so many people think they're voting directly for the president.

Each state gets the same number of electors as it has congressmen and senators. Each state has two senators and the number of their congressmen is based on population. So, the more populous a state, the more electors it gets. No state has fewer than three.

States with the most Electoral College votes

How are the electors in a state distributed between candidates? They’re not. It’s winner-take-all (in every state but Maine and Nebraska), and the candidate who wins the most votes gets all the electors—also known as electoral votes. This is how entire states go blue or red. A candidate must win at least 270 of the 538 electoral votes across the U.S. in order to declare victory. It isn’t until December, however, that the electors head to their state capital to cast their pre-determined votes.

Uh, could you repeat that please?

Who's running this ship?

You know Elections Canada? Its sole responsibility is administering Canadian federal elections—enforcing legislation, monitoring spending, producing maps of electoral districts, training election officers, and much more. They make sure elections run smoothly across the country. The United States, however, has no such governing body. In fact, there are thousands of independent local entities that manage elections without uniform procedures. Every single state does things slightly differently.

Decisions made state-by-state (by government, local entities, or state political parties) include whether to hold a primary or caucus, how to select delegates, how to select electors, whether ID is required to vote, or if you need to register in advance, what the ballots say and look like, how votes are counted, and on and on.

No wonder it's so confusing.

Now what?

Congratulations! Now you understand American politics! ... right? That's okay, millions of Americans struggle through this process every four years. Luckily for the rest of us, it's just an interesting read.





Correction: This story originally stated that the Prime Minister of Canada is not subject to any test of qualification. Of course, constitutional convention dictates that, in practice, prime ministers are members of Parliament—and therefore subject to the same qualifications as every MP. Maclean's regrets the error.


By Amanda Shendruk, with research assistance from Nick Taylor-Vaisey
Do you see something that needs a fix? Email amanda.shendruk@macleans.rogers.com