By Contributor Molly May

It’s a new year, a new decade, and finally an election year. In just ten months, the nation’s electorate will take to the polls to determine the fate of our country for the next four years – or more. As Donald Trump runs for reelection, a multitude of enthusiastic Democrats are competing for the chance to run against him this November. The process of these next ten months leading up to the election is complicated and can be intimidating to many infrequent or first-time voters. Hopefully, by breaking down and explaining the process, we can spread awareness of what goes into a presidential election and how we as citizens can be involved in ways more than simply casting a ballot this fall.

In the spring of 2019, various candidates began to announce their campaigns for the 2020 election. They then began the process of consolidating their message, rallying, and fundraising, and forming a base of supporters to help spread their policy visions to the rest of the country. Throughout the spring, the number of Democratic hopefuls began to grow and grow, at one point exceeding 25 visible contestants, and was notorious for its diverse makeup; at one point there were six women, seven candidates of color, and a wide range of ages from 37 to 77. Additionally, the candidates encompassed a wide scope of backgrounds, opinions, values, and visions – and not all were popular. 

This brings us to the next step: narrowing down the field in the televised Democratic debates. The Democratic National Committee scheduled twelve official debates spanning from June 2019 to the spring of 2020, twice the amount as in 2016. In the seven debates conducted so far, candidates have discussed policy, compared visions, and advertised their messages to possible supporters. Far from the twenty candidates we started with on stage last summer, this week’s debate was narrowed down to six leading contestants: Former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Businessman Tom Steyer, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. From a field that was originally exceptionally diverse, no candidates of color managed to qualify for the January 2020 debate. It was exclusively white, much to the disappointment of many who were inspired by candidates of color who have since dropped out of the race or were unable to meet the debate threshold.

As debates continue to play out on screen, the election process carries on. Currently looming on the immediate horizon are individual states’ caucuses and primary elections. People often fail to differentiate between the two processes, which are quite different. Both primaries and caucuses begin in February and continue until June and are state-level votes for selecting the Democratic presidential nominee. Thirty-four states conduct primary elections in which voters cast a ballot for the candidate whom they wish to represent the party in the general election. Many states hold closed primaries, meaning that only those who are registered voters under the Democratic Party are able to vote in their state’s primary. (However, regulations for who can vote vary by state. Additionally, while the national voting age is 18, there are many states that allow 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election to vote in the primaries. This information is not very widely known and is critical for an informed electorate and can be viewed here). 

As opposed to primary elections, sixteen states, including Iowa, Nevada, and Minnesota, hold caucuses. A caucus is not a primary election, but rather a private event hosted by a political party during which party members meet in some sort of a public venue, such as a gym or a restaurant, and are split up by which candidate they support, as well as those voters who are undecided. Depending on the state, caucuses are either closed to voters of that respective party, open to anyone regardless of party affiliation or mixed, including unaffiliated voters. Over several hours, voters listen to speeches by the supporters of the various candidates and debate issues and policy. Finally, once voters have decided on their preferred candidate, candidates will fight to earn delegates from that state. Each candidate must earn 15% support to be awarded delegates, who are either previously pledged or unpledged to a certain candidate. Based on their support, candidates earn different numbers of delegates who will then go on to represent the state in the National Party Convention.

Every state has a different number of designated delegates based on its population size. These delegates are elected during the state’s primary election. Once all the delegates have pledged their loyalty to a specific candidate, they will meet in Milwaukee this July for the National Convention to elect the Democratic nominee. It is also around this time after all states have concluded their primary elections and caucuses, that nominee hopefuls will announce their running mates. This helps solidify their vision to voters and can help diversify a campaign. For example, many of the male candidates have mentioned that they would be likely to choose a woman as a running mate. At the Convention, each delegate casts their vote for a candidate, and a majority must be reached in order to solidify the nominee choice. This is when the Democratic nominee, along with their chosen running mate, will be officially announced to the public.

At this point, the final battle commences between the nominees of both parties, Donald Trump and his unknown Democratic contender. Each candidate will campaign around the country, continue to spread their message, and hope to win over the crucial votes that they need to secure the presidency, such as African-American populations and swing states.

On November 8th, American voters will take to the polls to select their preferred candidate. Whoever wins the majority vote from each state will be awarded that state’s electoral votes, a number based on population size. While forty-eight states and Washington D.C. use this winner-take-all method, Maine and Nebraska award electors based on the outcomes both at the state level and the various Congressional districts.

This results in the electoral vote which determines the presidency. Out of the 538 electors in the Electoral College, an absolute majority of 270 is needed to win the presidency. Additionally, of course, there is also a popular vote, which is simply the count of who Americans voted for. Historically, the results of both elections have usually been the same; however, there have been some anomalous elections (1876, 1888, 2000, 2016) in which the results contradicted each other. This brings us to a valid argument that some people believe that abolishing the Electoral College would help protect our democracy and allow the presidential election to be a more direct representation of the people.

Either way, the outcome this year will be determined by whichever candidate secures a majority of electors. During the transitional period from November 8, 2020 to January 20, 2021, if a Democrat is elected to replace Donald Trump next year, he or she will start attending events and learning from President Trump about how to take on presidential duties. Then, on January 20th, if a new president is elected, they will be sworn in at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. directly after the Vice President, and both will recite the Oath of Office.

An election is not simply heading to the polls on November 8th to cast a single ballot and receive an enthusiastic sticker to brag that “I Voted!” The election process is long, tireless, and complicated. Although voters’ support is crucial at the polls, it does not begin there. By learning, campaigning, donating, caucusing, and engaging in productive conversation, you can support candidates that catch your eye long before this fall. Educate yourself – when are your state’s primaries? Are you able to vote or register to vote? Which delegates support the candidate you want to see in office? It’s time to start being involved in the process because that’s the only way we can get to the results we want.