Primer on the U.S. Election System

Publication Date: 
16 Nov 2012

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This primer provides an overview of all aspects of the American electoral process, from how campaigns are conducted to the mechanics of the voting process. One key difference between the United States and other countries is the level to which American elections are governed in a decentralized manner. In the U.S., there is no central election body. No single federal government agency is in charge of reporting the results of federal elections, adjudicating federal election disputes or setting the rules for federal elections. Instead, American elections are run by states – within a basic framework of anti-discrimination laws set by federal law – and almost all states, in turn, delegate the actual conduct of elections to local election officials. It is in the almost 10,000 counties, cities or townships (local election jurisdictions) that elections are implemented in the U.S.

American elections are complex affairs, involving the expenditure of almost $10 billion (USD) to advocate for the election of candidates at federal, state and local levels. More than 120 million people will vote – through by-mail absentee voting, in-person early voting and polling place voting on Election Day. These voters will choose candidates for dozens of races – from president to local government officials – and will vote on referenda and initiatives. Even with all of this complexity, it is likely that, in the very late evening of November 6, 2012, we will know who the next U.S. president is and which political party will control the U.S. Congress.

IFES has developed a comprehensive program for international election officials, which provides a full understanding of the American electoral process. This booklet is one resource among many that you will receive during your stay here in the U.S. and we hope you find it to be a helpful starting point to understanding the complexity of the U.S. electoral process.