1: How It Starts
Before the general election can take place, American political parties must trim the list of candidates to one, since no more than one candidate from any one political party may appear on the ballot for President. (It used to be the case that the Vice-President would be the second-highest vote-getter, no matter which party he or she represented. This is no longer the case. Common practice now is for one candidate to choose a running mate, who would serve as Vice-President if both candidates were elected as a team.)
The main way that the two major American political parties choose their final candidate is by having a series of initial elections, in the various American states. These initial elections can take one of three forms: primary elections, caucuses, and conventions.
A primary election is a sort of "first-round" election, for which candidates campaign throughout the various states, according to a set schedule. Each of the states that has a primary election will set a date for that election, and candidates will try to convince voters in that state to vote for them on that day. On primary election day, registered voters in a state will go to a polling place and cast their ballots, meaning that they write or use a machine to select which of the candidates listed on those ballots they would most like to see in office. The winner of the primary election is the candidate who gets the most votes. Unlike the general election, however, it's not winner-take-all. Candidates win a certain amount of support based on how many votes they have. That support takes the form of delegates, people who are pledged to arrive at the political party's national convention and cast their vote for that candidate.
Here's an example: Mei-Ling, Fred, and Raoul are three candidates on the ballot in a primary election. When the 1000 votes are counted, Mei-Ling has 500, Raoul has 300, and Fred has 200. Because Mei-Ling got 50 percent of the votes, she gets 50 percent of the delegates to vote for her at the convention. Raoul gets 30 percent of the delegates, and Fred gets 20 percent.
Each state that has a primary election will have a similar experience, with candidates "winning" but really getting a majority of the delegates to the national convention. Then, in August or September, long after the primary elections are done, all the delegates gather at the national convention and cast their votes for the candidates to whom they are pledged. The result is that the candidate who got the most votes in the primary elections is officially named as that political party's candidate for President in the general election.
The previous description is of a closed primary election. A closed election is one in which only voters registered for a certain political party can vote for the candidates of that party. In other words, if you are a registered Democrat, when you go to vote, your ballot will contain names of only Democratic candidates. An open primary election has no such restrictions. Even though all the candidates are of one political party, anyone can vote for them (Republicans or members of other political parties or even people who are not registered with any political party.) You don't need to register with a political party in order to be able to vote. However, most states' primary elections are closed; so if you were unregistered, you wouldn't be able to vote in those closed elections.
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