A User's Guide to U.S. Elections

Who's responsible for the Electoral College? (Hint: There's a wildly popular Broadway musical about him.) We'll dish on that and everything you need to know about the U.S. election process in the inaugural episode of our Unknown History miniseries, A User's Guide to Democracy.

Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy
11-minute read
Episode #88


After you listen to this episode of A User's Guide to Democracy on Unknown History, quiz yourself on your U.S. elections knowledge for a chance to win a copy of the book! (Enter by Sunday, September 20, 2020.)

What are general elections and when do they happen?

Every even year in the U.S., we have a general election. Congressional elections take place every two years, but state and local elections happen annually. These general elections take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

You might be surprised to know that the election date isn't actually mandated by the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it was the day picked by Congress in 1845 for presidential elections. And then elections for representatives in the House followed suit to make it the same day in 1872.

You might be surprised to know that the date for general elections isn't actually mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

But why Tuesday? Well, some people had to travel quite a bit to cast their votes and they didn't want voting in elections to interfere with religious services on Sunday. And why the first Tuesday after the first Monday? That was to avoid having elections fall on the first of the month because lots of merchants and landlords were tallying up their books on that day.

Elections for the federal government

Every two years in the general election, we fill whatever seats are open in the federal government. We just don't fill all of them at the same time. Here's how it works.

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House of Representatives

Each member of the House of Representatives (yes, all 435 of them!) is up for election every two years.


Senators have six-year terms. Their elections are staggered. When they're elected, every senator is assigned to a class: one, two, or three. So, elections are held every two years for one-third of the Senate seats. (Senators in class two are up for election in November 2020.)

The president

Every four years, the president is up for election. And given all the campaigning and the activity in the news, it's hard not to notice!

When the president is up for election, we call that (surprise!) a presidential election. And when the president is not up for election, it's called a midterm election.

Other types of elections

It's worth mentioning primaries and caucuses. These are the elections before the general elections where we choose who we're going to have on the ballot in November.

Presidential primaries are run by each U.S. state. Caucuses (which are rarer these days) are run by the political party.

Lots of states have closed primaries—you can only vote in them if you're a registered member of the party. And some have open primaries, where anyone can vote, but you can only vote in one party primary. Other States have what's called a nonpartisan blanket primary—sometimes called a qualifying primary, a jungle primary, or a top-two primary.

What is the Electoral College?

When you vote for a presidential candidate in November, you are not voting for a candidate; you're voting for a group of electors who belong to that candidate's party. And they, in December, will cast their vote for the party.

Why do we do it this way?

This system was designed by none other than Alexander Hamilton. There were "so many things he hadn't done," but he did create the Electoral College. He wrote about its benefits in "Federalist No. 68," an essay that was part of a collection of op-eds we now refer to as The Federalist Papers.

Hamilton wanted to create a bulwark of moral, manly men between the people and the presidential candidate.

Hamilton wanted to create a bulwark of moral, manly men between the people and the presidential candidate. This was in response to the fear that the framers of the Constitution had for democracy—or "mobocracy," as they sometimes called it. Because what if—and we're purely inhabiting the mindset of the framers here—what if the voters were uneducated? What if they voted for a candidate of no virtue who lied and cheated to win the hearts of the masses? The electoral college is a barrier to that. The electors would surely see the faults in the candidate and cast their vote for someone else, right?

How many electoral votes does a state get?

Every state gets a certain number of electoral votes, and these are based on the number of representatives the state has in Congress. So, if you add your state's two senators to the number of representatives your state has in the House, you have your state's total number of electoral votes.

Two States—Maine and Nebraska—do it differently. Their votes can be based on their congressional districts.

And how do we decide how many reps a state gets? It's based on the state's population and therefore the census.

For example, Pennsylvania has 18 representatives in the House. And with their two senators, that makes 20 electoral votes. Whichever candidate wins the plurality of votes in the state of Pennsylvania, that candidate's party casts all the electoral votes for the candidate. It's a winner-take-all system.

What are "faithless electors"?

The framers of the U.S. Constitution made the Electoral College as a barrier. So technically, an elector in December could cast their vote for someone other than the winning candidate. It has happened a couple of hundred times in U.S. history. These electors who vote for someone other than the candidate chosen by their state's popular vote are called "faithless electors."

In the last month, the Supreme Court has ruled that states can pass laws to force electors to vote for the candidate that won in the state.

Will the Electoral College be abolished?

You may have heard a good deal of talk about abolishing the electoral college in favor of going with the popular vote. Is that even possible?

Frankly, it seems unlikely because it would require a constitutional amendment, which would require not only approval by two-thirds of both houses (which is doable) but also approval by three-fourths of all the states. And some states with smaller populations might not want to relinquish their electoral power.

A little about the history of U.S. voting

The history of voting in the U.S. is fraught. At least in a general sense, we wouldn't have had a Women's Suffrage movement or the 15th amendment or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 if voting were easily accessible.

Just take the briefest glance at the headlines surrounding voting in the U.S. and you can see that it has been an uphill battle for many, many Americans. Voter disenfranchisement has a long legacy in the United States. And some would say it's still alive and well, especially for certain minority groups, even if it's not explicitly codified in our laws.

We wouldn't have had a Women's Suffrage movement or the 15th amendment or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 if voting were easily accessible.

To get the whole picture and understand how voting became what it is today, you have to go back to a time when voting looked completely different. Has it ever crossed your mind that election day should be a holiday—not just a day off work, but also a day for revelry, parades, overindulgence, and celebration, not unlike the 4th of July?

It is hard to picture election day being a party for anybody but the winning political candidate, because these days it involves waiting in a long line, solemnly picking up your ballot, stepping into a booth or behind a partition, and secretly making your selections, or doing that by mail. It's a stifled, private act. Some people won't disclose their vote to their own spouse or child because they consider that privacy so sacrosanct. But it wasn't always that way. Let's look at the history.

Why do we have a secret ballot?

Back when we were colonies, the most common form of voting was viva-voce—voting by voice. Although actually, it was probably more like showing up to the town common. People who are voting for Jebidiah Jones would stand to the right of the public well, and people voting for Elias Edwards would stand to the left. Then someone in charge would count the polls—the tops of people's heads.

Yes, poll count literally means headcount. And ballot—another all-important tool of the secret American vote—originally referred to a little token or kernel of corn that you would toss into a box representing your chosen candidate.

So, was this just a colonial thing? When did voting start to become more private?

We know that voting is barely mentioned in the Constitution. In fact, the framers explicitly left the "times, places, and manner" of holding congressional elections up to the individual states. And the only thing the states really agreed on back in the early days was that election day should be a holiday for partying in the streets.

What actually happened to encourage changes to the voting process is that we, as a nation, started to get bigger. In the 1790s, the U.S. population was around 4 million souls. Jump ahead about a century, around the time when we really started to rethink voting, and the population would have been closer to 40 million—a tenfold increase in a hundred years!

We started to introduce paper ballots in part because tens of thousands of people throwing a little ball into a box could get messy. But elections in states were still—forgive the idiom—all over the map. Some state constitutions mentioned ballots, but not all. And in those that did have paper ballots, you had to bring your own paper and make sure you spelled your candidate, and their hopeful job, correctly.

What if you didn't have paper? No problem! Certain 'helpful' folks would pre-print ballots and hand them out. They'd even pay you to vote for their candidate.

But what if you didn't have paper? No problem! Certain "helpful" folks would pre-print ballots and hand them out. They'd even pay you to vote for their candidate. Of course, that's corruption—it's considered an undue influence on a democratic system.

More and more States entering the union with fewer and fewer voting restrictions meant that way more poor and illiterate people were voting, which opened the door for intimidation and bribery. Newspapers started printing ballots for one party (or candidate) or another. These ballots were big and brightly colored. Now, if a party boss had paid you to vote for a certain candidate, you can bet they were going to notice if you voted for someone else.

So, a debate started swirling about the power of suffrage—the people's voice in the voting process—and whether a vote could be bought. Buying votes was clearly a tool of power and corruption.

That debate was hitting a fever pitch around the time that a journalist and political economist named Henry George published a couple of articles about money and bribery in elections. He argued for something called the Australian ballot, also known as the secret ballot. And political reformers liked what they were reading.

Australia had some corruption of their own until they started issuing government-printed ballots that weren't dead giveaways as to who you were voting for.

So was the movement Henry George helped kick off the death knell for the circus that was election day? It did happen pretty fast. The Australian ballot called for an official ballot printed at public expense on which the names of the nominated candidates of all parties and proposals appeared. The ballot was to be distributed only at the polling place and—very importantly—marked in secret.

There was some predictable pushback from politicians in power who were not super keen on the idea of elections that could not be bought, but Massachusetts caved first and other States followed suit. Gone were the days of reveling in the streets while strong-arming voters.

Around the 1890s, we started to see things like selective literacy tests, which were designed to turn voters away from the polls. Specifically, Black voters.

But something else was gone, too. By "cleaning up" Election Day, states made it so that you had to know how to read what was printed on the ballot in order to vote. And that eliminated a large swath of the eligible voting public. Around the 1890s, we started to see things like selective literacy tests, which were designed to turn voters away from the polls. Specifically, Black voters.

The Reconstruction Amendments had outlawed slavery. They gutted the three-fifths compromise, which allowed states to count enslaved people as three-fifths of a person (or counted three out of every five slaves) when determining proportional representation. The amendments also prohibited disenfranchisement based on race or "previous condition of servitude."

Voter turnout in the U.S. in the earliest days of the secret ballot was around 80%, but it's been declining since.

These amendments should have, and initially did, make it possible for Black men to vote in the United States. But Black voter turnout plummeted after the reconstruction era in the south as states began to implement things like literacy tests and poll taxes. And the secret ballot didn't help things. Generally, voter turnout in the U.S. in the earliest days of the secret ballot was around 80%, but it's been declining since.

It's ironic that a secret private protected vote came at the expense of widespread suffrage. Before the secret ballot, with the 11th-hour campaigning, throngs surging the ballot box, and the thrill of getting slipped a fiver for a vote (corrupt though it was), more people were lured to the polls.

How to make your vote count in 2020

Speaking of being lured to the polls, that's something that's going to be especially fraught in the 2020 election. Before we bounce, a few words to the wise.

Many States are allowing mail-in voting for all voters due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You can check your Secretary of State's website for the details. Your state may send you a ballot in the mail, or you may have to apply for one. Still, many millions of voters will need an excuse beyond their coronavirus fears to receive a mail-in ballot.

If you're of voting age and meet your state's residency requirements, then register!

If you're of voting age and meet your state's residency requirements, then register! Some states allow you to do this online, but for many, registration happens by mail or in person. When you register, bring an ID. And even if you think you're registered, check your status, also at your Secretary of State's website.

Now, doggedly locked down those election dates. Know when your mail-in ballot needs to be postmarked, or know where your polling place is. Know the date of the election, which for the presidential election is what? Yep, the first Tuesday, after the first Monday in November. In 2020, that's November 3rd.

What if you get turned away at the polls?

And one last thing—there is a chance that someone will try to turn you away at the polls. Even if you're registered, even if you got your ID. (Which, by the way, please bring with you no matter what.) So, here are some magic words:

"I request a provisional ballot and receipt as is required by law."

Except in states where you can register to vote on Election Day (or in North Dakota, where you don't have to register), you're entitled to a provisional ballot and the poll worker has to provide you with one. Period. A provisional ballot is used to record your vote in the event there are questions about your voting eligibility. Your eligibility is then verified after you actually vote.


An excerpt from "A User’s Guide to Democracy: How America Works" by Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy, illustrated by Tom Toro (Celadon Books, 2020)

Take a look at this.

This is a map of the total number of campaign visits Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump made to each state in 2016.

California, Texas, and Illinois, which provide a whopping 113 electoral votes, got one visit each! And New York got no love. This is because there was no chance (in 2016 at least) that California, New York, or Illinois would elect a Republican, or Texas a Democrat. That hasn’t always been the case, and it could change again soon, but currently there’s just no reason for candidates to spend money and time there.

But what if we didn’t have this system? What if we just had a popular vote to pick the president? Over 60 percent of Americans live in cities. New York City’s metropolitan population alone (which includes counties in New Jersey and Connecticut) is 23 million people. This is three times the combined number of people who live in the ten smallest states! A switch to a popular vote would force candidates to spend all their money in those big cities. Different regions of the country, including many that already feel left out of current American cultural and economic influence, would be ignored.


About the Author

Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy Unknown History

Hannah McCarthy is the co-host of Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public Radio. She came to New Hampshire by way of Brooklyn where she worked as a radio producer and writer. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Nick Capodice is the co-host of Civics 101. Before coming to NHPR, Nick worked in the Education Department at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where he wrote and led tours, trained educators, and helped design digital exhibits. He also led beer history and tasting tours for Urban Oyster in Brooklyn.

Nick and Hannah are the authors of A USER'S GUIDE TO DEMOCRACY: HOW AMERICA WORKS, with illustrations by Tom Toro.