Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Voting and Election Guide

Guide to the U.S. electoral system with a focus on upcoming elections and how to register and vote.

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 of the Constitution 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 a video below. 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 videos provide more detailed explanations of federal elections.

The Electoral College

When US citizens vote in presidential elections they're actually voting for a group of officials who make up the Electoral College. These people are known as electors and their job is to choose the president and vice-president of the United States.

Each state gets as many electors as it has lawmakers in the US Congress (The Senate and the House of Representatives). California has the most electors (55), while a handful of sparsely populated states like Wyoming, Alaska and North Dakota (and Washington DC) have the minimum of three. There are 538 electors in total. Each elector represents one electoral vote, and a candidate needs to gain a majority of the votes - 270 or more - to win the presidency.



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, African Americans, and people aged 18-21. Other amendments altered the mechanisms by which senators are elected and limited the president to two terms.