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Election 2016

Federal Elections: How Do They Work?

The Constitution established the following guidelines for federal elections:

  • House of Representatives: Members serve for 2 years; they are elected by popular vote.
  • Senate: Members serve for 6 years. These terms are staggered so that one-third of Senate seats are open for election every 2 years. Article I directed that senators be selected by state legislatures. The 17th Amendment, which was ratified in 1913, transformed this process to direct election by voters, the same system used to elect members of the House.
  • President: The chief executive is limited to two 4-year terms. Although people vote for their preferred candidate, the winner is actually determined by the Electoral College, which is explained in another box. Each party selects a presidential and vice presidential candidate who run as a team, a system that emerged following the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804.

Although the Constitution established the foundations for federal elections, specific laws and rules that shape the actual voting process and determine who is eligible to vote are created by the individual states. However, the federal government can challenge and sometimes overrule state election policies that it considers unconstitutional.

The following links and video provide more detailed explanations of federal elections.

Constitutional Amendments and Elections

The Constitution created the formal structure of the federal government, and it established the original rules governing national elections. Since its ratification, however, it has been amended numerous times in ways that fundamentally affect national elections. Perhaps the most significant amendments were those that extended the right to vote to populations such as women and people aged 18-21. Other amendments altered the mechanisms by which senators are elected and limited the president to two terms.