American Politics 101
January 29, 2004 6:13 PM   Subscribe

Girl came to my door asking if I wanted to vote in the caucus or whatever for Howard Dean. I said no because I am one ignorant American when it comes to the election. Would someone explain caucuses, the party system, how the president gets elected, the electoral college and everything?
posted by banished to Law & Government (5 answers total)
Google Directory for "Voter Education". (Of course, sometimes the Supreme Court just pulls the whole thing out of their asses.)
posted by nicwolff at 6:57 PM on January 29, 2004

Congress for Kids Election site covers it basically (and no insult intended at all)--

My longish version: So primaries determine who gets the most delegates (each state has a certain amount, determined by the population of the state, so states like NY and CA have tons, and ND and Montana have almost none). Delegates are actually people, usually people who are active in the party organization in the state--they get to go to the convention and vote there for who they want, and they can change their votes at the convention if they want to support someone else. Often the second place guy gives a speech and tells his supporters to go with the 1st place guy, so they can get on with defeating the opponent. So The winner of the primary gets most of the delegates, but second place and third get delegates too, depending on how many votes they get (as a percentage of the total vote in the state, I think).

So the candidates are going from state to state, collecting delegates (or not) in each primary or caucus. The one with the most almost always becomes the party's nominee. (Bush, who's in office now, automatically is his party's nominee, unless he goes to jail or decides not to run again.)

Just like the delegates, electoral votes are automatically awarded to whoever wins in the general election. Second place gets nothing this time, and it's not based on Party or anything, but winner takes all. So if the Democratic nominee wins in NY in the general election in November, he gets every single electoral vote in the state. When you have a certain number of electoral votes (a simple majority) you're the new president (i think it's 270 or something close to that amount).

Also, you have to register in your state, so if you want to vote in the primaries or election in November, do a google search for "(whatever state) Board of Elections", or go to Rock The Vote. They have a list of websites for each state. It's really simple to register, and the people at polling places are usually old ladies, and really really helpful I've found. They can show you everything you need to know, and there's usually printed sample ballots showing you how too. (they're volunteers, and have been doing it a long time).

(sorry if this is too long) : >
posted by amberglow at 7:14 PM on January 29, 2004

Some states have caucuses. Here is a description of the precinct caucus system in Minnesota, from the MN League of Women Voters.
posted by gimonca at 7:41 PM on January 29, 2004

I found the BBC elections glossary exactly what I needed in getting to grips with some of these ideas. Some of the key areas: -


A private meeting of party members designed to seek agreement on delegates for a state or national nominating convention based on which candidate they wish to support.

Participants in presidential caucus meetings generally elect delegates to county conventions who in turn, at a later date, choose delegates for a state or local congressional convention. The delegates selected are not bound, but usually follow the wishes of caucus-goers. It is at these later meetings that the delegates will usually be chosen for the party's national nominating convention at which the presidential candidate will be declared.

Critics of the caucus system argue that its laborious nature tends to mean it is dominated by political activists, unrepresentative of popular feeling, who will nominate candidates with little real chance of winning.

Just under a dozen states use the system - the number is different according to party.

Electoral College

The collective term for the 538 electors who officially elect the president and vice-president of the United States.

Presidential candidates require a majority of 270 college votes to win the presidency. The number of electors each state is allocated is equal to the combined total of its senators and representatives in Congress.

The college system was originally conceived before the existence of political parties and was designed to allow the electors to act as independent voters. Electors are now considered expected to follow the wishes of the majority of voters in each state.

However, there have been a number of cases in recent elections where at least one elector has voted for a candidate other than the one they were pledged to.

Two states, Nebraska and Maine, have eliminated the "winner takes all" process and instead now divide their electors in accordance with the proportion of the popular vote given to each candidate.


A state-level election held before a general election to nominate a party's candidate for office.

Primaries are held for both the presidential and congressional races, although the exact regulations governing them and the dates on which they are held vary from state to state. In some states voters are restricted to choosing candidates only from the party for which they have registered support.

However 29 states permit "open primaries" in which a voter may opt to back a candidate regardless of their nominal affiliation. In this case strategic voting may take place with, for example, Republicans crossing over to back the perceived weaker Democratic candidate.

Primaries first emerged as a result of the so-called "progressive movement" of the early 20th Century, which argued that leaving the nomination process purely to party bosses was inherently undemocratic.

posted by nthdegx at 4:31 AM on January 30, 2004

'What is a Caucus-race?' said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that somebody ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

'Why,' said the Dodo, ‘the best way to explain it is to do it.' (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)
posted by steef at 5:54 AM on January 30, 2004

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