For some of us, the 2020 election cycle may be our first time voting in a presidential election. This can be exciting, terrifying or a little bit of both — especially if you don’t quite understand how the process works.

Dr. Sarah Burns, an associate professor of Political Science, recognizes just how convoluted it can be.

“If [the process] seems confusing, it’s incredibly confusing and we are the only developed democracy that has a selection process this weirdly democratic and complicated,” Burns said. 

“If [the process] seems confusing, it’s incredibly confusing."

It’s Au Naturel to Me

Before diving into how the president is elected, it's important to know who can actually run.

“The requirements [to become president] are actually, if you look at the constitution, quite minimal,” Burns said.

Presidential candidates must be at least 35 years old, have been a U.S. resident for 14 years and be a natural-born U.S. citizen. What it means to be a ‘natural-born’ citizen is contested. 

According to Harvard Law Review, all of the sources we consistently use to interpret the constitution say a natural-born citizen is “someone who was a U.S. citizen at birth with no need to go through a naturalization proceeding at some later time.” This can apply to a child born outside the United States to a U.S. citizen or on American territories, such as a military base or Puerto Rico.

The requirements also apply to vice-presidential candidates. Should the vice president succeed the president, they must also fulfill the basic constitutional requirements, Burns said. 

Time to Debate

In case you don't pay attention to politics (you're not alone), it's important to know that there have been multiple Democratic Party debates leading into the primary and caucus season (don’t worry, we’ll get into what those are soon). 

“The purpose of the debates is in part to give a public platform where the candidates are all together so the American people can really sit there and say, ‘What’s Joe Biden in comparison with Elizabeth Warren?’ and ‘How do they perform in this sort of pressurized situation?’” Burns explained. 

However, she suggested that debates aren’t the best test of whether a president is a good fit for office.

“This is not a task of the presidency, so it’s not teaching you whether they’re going to be a good commander in chief, a good executive," Burns said. "It’s just telling you a little bit about how they perform under pressure.”

Only select candidates make it on stage. Like auditions for a play, candidates must meet certain qualifications to get a callback. The requirements change for each debate but typically revolve around donor numbers and poll rankings.

For the Feb. 7, 2020 debate, Democratic contenders not only had to have 225,000 unique donor contributions to show broad support, Burns said, but also meet one of two polling requirements. Candidates either had to be polling at least seven percent in two polls in New Hampshire, South Carolina or Nevada, or at least five percent in the three states or national surveys, the New York Times reported.

Primaries and Caucuses

You might’ve heard of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary but don’t know what they are. Essentially, this is where the election process really kicks off (and gets confusing). Primaries and caucuses are methods for narrowing down candidates before choosing the official presidential nominee. Let’s dive a bit deeper into each.


“Primaries are fairly straightforward, it’s what you expect from voting,” Burns explained. “You just walk in [to your polling location], you get a ballot, you go to your little booth, you check your little person and you’re done.”

There are two types of primaries employed for presidential campaigns — open and closed. In an open primary, voters need not have registered with a party. This means that independent voters — registered voters not committed to either party — and voters from other parties can vote in primaries. 

Closed primaries, on the other hand, are restricted to registered Democrat or Republican voters. Independent voters and voters from other parties are not able to participate. 

The type of primary varies from state-to-state and started with the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11, 2020. New York’s closed primary will occur on April 28, 2020. 


“Those [caucuses] are much more fun. What you do is you go to a local church or school or gymnasium or meeting hall and all of the candidates [or their representatives] are there and you go to the corner of your candidate. You literally stand there with them,” Burns explained. “Then after a certain period of time … they call a vote and you have to have at least 15 percent of the people who are in that room with you as a candidate [to move on to the next round].”

If a candidate doesn’t make it to their state’s threshold, those voters become “up for grabs,” Burns said, and candidates scramble to convince people to support them until all voters are taken. 

According to Voice of America, the main difference between Democratic and Republican caucuses is that Democrats physically huddle to show support whereas Republicans vote privately. 

The Iowa caucus — the first of the season — is considered a candidate’s chief indicator for potential success. It happened on Feb. 3, 2020. Issues with the smartphone app used for reporting results caused troubles with gathering precinct totals, leading to delays in determining a winner. As of February 9, The New York Times reported that they and other news organizations have refrained from calling the caucus due to possible results errors. See? The process can get complicated.

Divvying Up Delegates

Once each state’s voters have cast their ballot or stood committed in a corner, all the votes are added up and delegates from each state are assigned to each candidate. 

Delegates are divided up proportionally or in a winner-takes-all method, according to HowStuffWorks. Say there are 100 delegates and Candidate A wins 55 percent of the vote, Candidate B wins 25 percent and Candidate C wins 20 percent. In a proportional state or party, each candidate would win the total amount of delegates as the vote denotes. In a winner-take-all state or party, Candidate A would receive all 100 delegates. 

Delegates can end up at the convention candidate-less if their candidate drops out of the race. If a candidate steps down, they can endorse another party candidate and reassign their delegates. There are also superdelegates  — prominent Democratic politicians or members of the Democratic National Committee — who can decide who to vote for regardless of primaries and caucuses.

Let’s Vote

After delegates are divided, everyone heads to the national convention. Delegates cast their votes at the convention and voila! New presidential candidates announced. Just kidding, it’s never that simple.

“There is a genuine contest leading up to the convention,” Burns said. “But once one person gets over the limit [of required votes] to be the nominee … then in order to show party unity, everyone votes for that person.”

If all the delegates go to the convention and the majority vote for Candidate A, the delegates who were planning to vote for Candidate B or C vote for candidate A instead. This is to show party unity, even if some delegates go against what their state voted a majority for. There have been times where delegates have voted in protest, Burns remarked, “But that is, in the party’s eyes, bad for the party.” 

However, if no one candidate has the necessary amount of delegates to win the nomination, there is a brokered convention, or contested convention. There is a 15 percent chance of this happening with the Democrats this year, according to FiveThirtyEight.

“In that situation, delegates would, from each state, vote for who their state voted for and it would then be up to the candidates at the convention to sway people to their side and get them to vote for them at the convention," Burns said.

Back to Debates

Yes, there are more debates. Their purpose is largely the same as the first ones. Televised debates started in 1960 with the famous Kennedy and Nixon square-off. Now, there are three presidential and one vice presidential debates. Candidates decide what topics to debate and, based on those, the moderator(s) decide which questions to ask, Burns explained. 

In 1987, the Commission on Presidential Debates was created by the Democratic and Republican parties to ensure that only candidates with a sufficient amount of support can debate. 

“In order to be part of the debates ... you have to have at least 15 percent of the vote,” Burns said. “Almost no third party has been able to get to that level of recognition which is why we very rarely have seen third parties in presidential debates.”

More Voting

The upcoming election day is Nov. 3, 2020. Election day always happens on the first Tuesday after Nov. 1. To vote, you must register in your state and either vote early, show up to your designated polling location on election day or send in an absentee ballot

While I’d love to provide step-by-step instructions, the registration process varies by state. To learn how it works in your state, visit your state's government website. 

After voting, most people eagerly await the results to find out who will be our next president. But once again, it’s not that simple. Enter the electoral college.

Electoral College, Apply Today!

After placing the “I voted!” sticker on your shirt, your vote goes to a statewide tally to determine who your state’s electors will vote for in the December electoral college vote, USAGov explained. There are 538 electors in total. States get one for each of their senators and representatives and Washington D.C. gets three. 

To win the presidency, a candidate needs 270 electors to vote for them. Generally, electors have been faithful to their state’s majority; however, the constitution doesn’t require them to be. 

“You can have unfaithful electors,” Burns said. “There was ... a lot of talk in 2016 about the possibility of a lot of unfaithful electors just taking the presidency from Trump and giving it to Hillary Clinton, and that obviously didn’t happen.”

Clinton won the popular vote whereas Trump won the electoral vote “due to the statistical disparity between vote totals in individual state elections and the national vote totals,” the National Archives detailed. Some people argue that we should abolish the electoral college, but we won’t get into that here.

"The 18–29 demographic is the one that votes the least and the over 65 demographic is the one that votes the most."

After the electoral vote officially decides our next president, they sit tight until inauguration day on January 20. If the current president is reelected, they keep doing their job until they are inaugurated again.

We Made It

“You know how they elect leaders in Britain? Everyone who’s in the party says, ‘We want that guy.’ That’s it. End of story,” Burns said.

While we can’t be like Britain and have less complicated presidential election processes, we can congratulate you on having a basic understanding of what’s going down this year. No matter your political views or party loyalties, Burns said, it’s important to vote come Nov. 3, 2020.

“The 18–29 demographic is the one that votes the least and the over 65 demographic is the one that votes the most,” Burns concluded. “If you think about who is going to be dealing with the problems that are created by whoever gets into office, it’s going to be the 18–29-year-olds, not the 65 plus. It’s very hard to have a say in things and be upset about things if you aren’t actually participating in the process.”