How do elections in the US work?

So even in Australia, we’re hearing a whole lot about primaries and the like, and I realised that I do not understand at all how the US electoral system works, other than it seems to be very, very different to the Australian system.

To questions:

What are primaries and why are they being held now? I kind of get that this will ultimately lead to who the candidates are whenever the real election is, but how does that happen?

Why is it all such a big deal now when the real election isn’t until the end of the year?

How does the whole state based thing work - it seems that we’re not going for absolute number of votes, but number of votes per state, right? Are all states equal or are some more equal than others?

You guys don’t have to vote if you don’t want to, right? What decides who gets to vote?

There’s probably more, but I’ll think of it later, no doubt.

The American’s are currently selecting the candidates for the November election. Think of all this as very large, simultaneous leadership campaigns for the national parties. Each party has regional (State) delegates they need to accumulate to win the chance to represent the party at the Federal level.

The federal election however is based on States selecting the executive, not the popular vote. Each state, based on population, contributes votes (or electors) to the Electoral College and the person with the largest block of votes wins. Since the electors represent States it is possible to win the election without winning the popular vote.

Unlike Canada and Australia where winning a majority in the legislature ensures winning the executive the US has purposefully designed their system to put the two at opposition to each other. So the race for the executive stands on its own.

So how does the state delegate thing work? Do you mean that people aren’t actually voting for the candidates themselves, they’re voting for delegates who will vote for the candidates? If that’s the case, what’s the stop these delegates changing their minds later?

Is the Electoral College a bit like all these delegates but on a grander scale? And again, these electoral College people - where do they come from? What’s to say they don’t change their minds too?

The stuff that’s going on now is a long way removed from the actual election, what happens in the meantime?

The equivalent in Australia of primaries is preselection. However, preselection in Australia is done entirely inside political parties, without any involvement of the state (or the States). Generally candidates for members of parliament in Australia are chosen by committees or councils within the party that have been elected by the members of the party, though in some cases there is direct rank-and-file preselection. However, only financial members of the party take part, and that’s generally a very small percentage of the party’s supporters.
The other big difference in Australia is that generally the leaders of parties (at federal and state level) are elected by members of parliament belonging to the party.; and the leader of the majority party becomes Prime Minister or Premier. If the US had a parliamentary system, the person who is now the Speaker of the House of Representatives would be the Prime Minister.

These differences explain why Australians, and others from countries with the Westminster system, find it so hard to understand the US system.

I believe the delegates are bound to vote for the candidate they’re voted in with. Two complications you should know about.

Superdelegates - these delegates are high party officials of one sort or another, they are not voted in by the public, their votes are equal to the regular delegates, and they are not bound to any one candidate. In a close race, these folks will provide the swing vote. While we put it to the vote, it is still simply the manner in which the party selects its candidate, so party officials get to have their say.

Proportional vs. winner takes all - The democrats use a proportional method of assigning delegates. If you win 60% of a state’s votes, you get roughly 60% of their delegates. The republicans use winner takes all, if you win the state’s vote by 1%, you get 100% of their delegates. The republican way will often get you a winning candidate faster, because a bunch of small wins means a big delegate lead. The democrats, even if you “win” a bunch of states, it takes a long time to outpace your opponent, and the superdelegates can have much more impact. At least, that’s how I see this democrat primary turning out.

Actually, the proportional vs winner take all is not exactly democrat vs republican. In looking the results over again, it appears that it’s not WTA in all republican state primaries. In the non WTA states the differences in elector results can go from very proportional to a wide disparity. The numbers for the democrat primaries are showing much closer elector results overall.

State delegates seem to work the same way that a federal party’s regional delegates would. For example in Canada the Liberal Party held a leadership convention a year or so ago. Each candidate had to collect delegates, selected as representative from party defined regions, and then have ballots cast to determine the eventual winner. It seems very similar to what the US Democratic and Republican parties are doing right now – collecting regional delegates.

The main difference is for us would be that we would wind up with a new Prime Minister or Opposition Party leader. The Americans wind up with party representatives for the final election to the head of the executive branch.

As for Electoral College, check here

The important thing to remember here is that there really is no such thing as a national political party in the US. Political parties are statewide organizations, and the big ones belong to national umbrella organizations like the Democratic and Republican national committees which provide unity and direction. Every elected office in the United States – and there are thousands of them – are chosen in elections that happen at the state or municipal level, except for President and Vice President. (ETA: And even those elections are a function of the various state governments, even though they happen all on one day.)

So, every four years there is a Presidential election. The major parties get together and hold national nominating conventions to choose their candidates. The national committees assign a number of delegates to each state based on its population and influence, and each state’s party organization chooses its delegates and sends them to the convention. Originally, these delegates were chosen by the local party bosses and were not pledged to any particular candidate. This made conventions interesting, since you often didn’t know who was going to get the nomination. Often, the convention would have to go through multiple rounds of voting, cutting backroom deals all the while, to come to an agreement.

Beginning in the late 1960s, most states switched to the primary election system, which is somewhat modeled on the Electoral College system. Members of each party vote for a slate of delegates pledged to their favorite candidate, and those delegates get to attend the national convention. Nothing prevents them from changing their minds – indeed, many of them will have to change their minds if their candidate withdraws from the race. (Typically, they’ll vote for whoever the withdrawing candidate endorses.)

It’s not actually grander as there are far fewer Electors (535) than convention delegates at the party conventions. (But that’s because the party conventions are private affairs and can have any number of delegates they want, while the number of Electors is fixed at the total number of Senators and Representatives in Congress. The Constitution mandates two Senators for every state (100), and federal statute assigns 435 Representatives proportionally among the states. Each state gets a number of Electors equal to its Representatives plus Senators, giving smaller states a slight advantage as a check on their small influence in the legislature.)

The Electors are chosen by the state party organizations from loyal volunteers, workers, and former office holders. Similar to primary elections, when one votes for President, he votes for a slate of Electors from his state who are pledged to vote for a particular President and Vice President candidate. Again, nothing prevents an Elector from changing his mind. However, it’s rare, and the few times when it has happened, it has never actually affected the outcome of a Presidential election.

The candidates annoy us on television for a while with ads, media coverage, and formal debates.

They can change, after the second round of voting during the convention (if there are two rounds). Or, a delegate for someone who’s withdrawn, can change if their candidate say so.

I think only the Democrats, though, have superdelegates.

Yes. This time around, many things are different, because the parties have decided to change their method of selecting their candidate, especially the Democrats. It’s the first time when so many states are so important in nomination at the same time. It used to be that CA had its primary in June, and by then the candidates were already determined, for practical purposes.

The most important way in which the U.S. is different from just about every other country in the world is the whole state by state thing. This applies not just to the primaries but also the general election. (But don’t confuse the delegates from primaries with the Electoral College, which ultimately determines who becomes president in November. The Electoral College is pretty much a winner-take-all system.) And even within a state, different counties can use different voting systems, though California’s Secretary of State said no county in the state could use electronic voting.

If you’re seeing a lot of press about the primaries, it’s probably because in the Democratic party it’s been uncertain who will get the nomination. Usually this is determined by February. After yesterday, though, it seems that McCain will the the Republican.

I’ve probably made some erroneous statements here, because the fact is that few people in the country now really understand completely all the details of what’s going on right now in this election system.

Here’s a recent thread started by an Australian asking the same question: Presidential Election - help for a non-American.

I liked post #14 that makes the analogy that American parties are like semi-permanent coalitions in other countries.

*** Ponder

As a quick correction, at least in the Democratic party I believe the delegates are bound by candidate loyalty (unless the candidate drops or something of course) after the McGovern reforms (following the 1968 Democratic National Convention which pretty much went to hell).

Some of the other posters have given answers that are unnecesarily complicated. Let me see if I can simplify it a bit.

The election for president takes place in November. Each of the two major parties will have one candidate; there may also be some minor party candidates, but these usually do not affect the outcome.

In July each of the two major parties has a national convention which selects the candidate for that party. Each state sends delegates to those conventions, the exact number differing from state to state based on the states size, past voting record, and other party rules.

The primaries we are having now are the way the states select the delegates to the conventions. (The states hold their primaries of varying dates.) Each potential candidate is vying to have delegates committed to him or her elected to the convention. When the convention delegates vote to select their candidate, the winning candidate has to get at least 50% + 1 of the delegages. As of right now Clinton and Obama are pretty much tied for the number of delegates each has won in the Democratic primaries while McCain in way ahead in the Republican primaries.

(The actual winner of the election in November is not determined by popular vote nationwide (Gore, for example, got more votes than Bush yet lost the election), but that’s a whole other story which I can speak to if you have found this discussion of the primaries helpful.

In a nutshell, right now the parties themselves are determining who will be their candidates for the November election. The parties choose the system for such selection. Formerly, the selection was made at the convention itself. These days, it is through a combination of primary elections and party caucuses (each state affiliate of the national party and the state legislature sdecide what procedure to use). The delegates chosen at these primaries and caucuses will meet at the summer party convention to cast their votes.

The rules for delegates are set by the parties themselves. In most cases, the delegates are required to stick with their candidates, at least for the first ballot at the convention. And it has been a long time since there has been a second ballot at any convention.

Most states forbid by law such “unfaithful” electors. It occasionally does happen that an elector votes for someone. But these electors are chosen by their parties in the first place – they are party loyalists – it’s rare that they will want to do this.

A lot of advertising.

Actually, only 24 states have laws forbidding faithless electors, and they’re widely held to be unenforceable, anyway. No elector has ever been sanctioned for casting a different vote.

The primaries and caucuses are organized at the state level. Traditionally, Iowa and New Hampshire have held the first two. Because of the publicity given to the winners, candidates compaign agressively and often there. In fact, visits by a politician to either of those states, even during the middle of a term, are considered a harbinger of that politician running for the presidency.

In terms of population, Iowa and New Hampshire are rather small. Coupled with the extra attention those states receive, people who live there have much greater access to the candidates, and exert greater influence, than the rest of the country. I gather it’s possible to hear each of the candidates multiple times, and even meet with them in small groups. A poor showing can cause a candidate to drop out of the race; a good showing can elevate a dark horse to national prominence. The nominations are almost always decided before some states have their say.

The other states realize this, and have moved their primaries earlier in the year, to gain a voice in the nominating process. Iowa and New Hampshire guard their positions by moving their contests forward as well. The process moves earlier each cycle.