I am not from the USA and I find that election system confusing. Recently, during a conversation with another person (also not from the USA), I was informed that presidential elections in the US have two "phases".

Roughly, in the first "phase" (don't know when that was), voters can choose any party, while in the second "phase" (in the 2016 presidential election, this was November 8th), voters can choose one of the two major parties only, while third parties are not participating.

I can't find information that confirms or denies this, because most information on American politics is so heavy on terminology that I simply can't follow. I'd like to know if the above statement, about there being only two options on November 8th, was accurate.

  • 3
    Did you read Wikipedia article on Presidential elections (including in your native langiage)? If so, you should base your question on that instead of what someone told you. If there are specific technical terms you don't understand, you should ask those specifically.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 23:37
  • 1
    @user4012 The Wikipedia article in my native language for the 2016 presidential election is free of unknown terminology but it's rather short and doesn't shed any light on the issue. There is no native article for US presidential elections in general. I think I have a good grasp of the English language, but the same articles in English are too opaque for me (and, I suspect, to many people who aren't already somehow familiar with the US system).
    – T. C.
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 23:47
  • 1
    @user4012 I refrained from asking about the terminology and focused on what I actually want to know, otherwise this would be a case of the XY problem, where I'm asking about my attempted solution (reading the Wikipedia article) instead of my actual problem (wanting to know if my specific question has an answer of true or false).
    – T. C.
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 23:49
  • I was thinking of the general article about elections, not 2016 specific. There was no 2016 specific details on the election rules, for most part, except for debates.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 0:02
  • 1
    For what it's worth, the system that you describe (while not the system in use in the US) does sound similar to the system used in France. So it's not an entirely fictitious system and -- while not directlly an answer to your question -- may be of some interest (see, for example, el.wikipedia.org/wiki/… )
    – owjburnham
    Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 10:57

3 Answers 3


This is all very wrong.

The "first phase" that person appears to be speaking about seems to be the pre-election (primaries and caucuses) where people vote who will run as presidential candidate for each party. This phase decides which candidates get endorsed by the parties, but not which parties run at all.

In the United States, every state has a slightly different election law with slightly different registration requirements. So during the actual presidential election, the number of available candidates listed on the ballot varied from state to state. Some states even allow write-in votes: There is a blank line on the ballot where the voters can write the name of whoever they want. In 2016 there were three candidates which were on the ballot in every single state:

  • Donald Trump (Republicans)
  • Hillary Clinton (Democrats)
  • Gary Johnson (Libertarian)

Also worth mentioning is Jill Stein of the Green party who ran in almost every state (45/51).

Then why do many people speak of the United States as a country with a two party system? That's because the presidential election system of the United States is extremely unfriendly towards smaller parties and has the effect that only the candidates of the two largest parties, Republican and Democrats, are really worth talking about. But that's a different topic for a different question.

  • 3
    This was almost precisely what I thought all along. But since my knowledge on US politics is rather limited, I had to at least consider the possibility that another person may know more than me on this one. Thank you for clearing this up.
    – T. C.
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 0:10
  • Well, if the people were evaluating candidates based on their merits instead of the legacy of the parties then the system would not be that much unfriendly to other parties. The problem is that people tend to support a party and will most likely vote for that candidate independently of how good or bad he is, just to prevent the other parties to rule...
    – Bakuriu
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 7:41
  • I think I had twenty choices on my ballot for President. Most of the choices got on the order of 100 votes in my state except for Trump, Clinton, Johnson and Stein. Mullen, another third party candidate, also got almost as many votes as Clinton in Utah, but was not on the ballot in more than a handful of states.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 1:14
  • 1
    You might want to clarify the 51 number in this, as anyone looking for a simple clarification of the US election system isn't likely to understand that you mean DC even though it isn't technically a state.
    – AHamilton
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 10:51

@Phillip's answer is correct, but there's a bit more to add...

In the US, there really isn't any "national election" except for the "meeting" of the electors in early- to mid-December.

There are 51 distinct per-state elections for President and Vice President (one for each of the 50 states and one for the District of Columbia). Like all other elections in the US, these are run using state-specific rules (although elections for Members of Congress, Senators, the Vice-President and the President, the state-specific rules need to follow the rules laid out in the constitution (for example, the President and VP candidates must be at least 35 years old and "natural born citizens")).

Each of the state presidential elections elects a group of "electors". The number of electors in each state is set by the number of Members of Congress (varies by population) and the number of Senators (always 2) from the state.

Most states have a rule that the full slate of electors associated with the candidate who receives the largest popular vote in that state are "elected" (Maine and Nebraska have different rules). This whole "elector" thing is mostly hidden from voters. Voters don't see any elector information on the ballot; they see the presidential/vice-presidential combinations and they vote for one of them.

The main election is in early November. A little more than a month later, the winning group of per-state electors meet in each state capital and vote for a president and a vice-president. In most states (I think), there's no obligation for the elector to actually vote for the candidate he/she represents - and this past election had a large number of so-called "faithless electors".

Those per-state vote counts are sent to Washington (actually, the signed ballots are sent). They are counted up, and if there is a majority vote for president, that person is president (same rule for VP). If there isn't a majority, well, look it up, it gets complicated.

So, the process is:

In each state:

Phase I:

  • The state has a process for parties to be recognized (this may include a process for individuals to get "on the ballot" without party affiliation (usually via petition))
  • The state parties have a process for deciding who the "winner" is from the state (following state rules). This usually involves primaries or caucuses (or both)
  • The parties have a national nominating convention where the winners from each state run against each other to become the party's national candidate. In these conventions delegates from each state vote for the winner. The number of delegates from a state is loosely proportional to the population of the state (California gets many more delegates than Wyoming, but it's not strictly proportional, and the rules are set by each party).
  • The winner of the party national convention becomes the party "nominee" in all states where that party is on the ballot.
  • The party's nominee submits a list of elector candidates to each state's election officials. At the end of the November election, the state's electors are drawn from the winner's list (in Nebraska and Maine, it's more complicated)

At this point, we now have the ballot set in each state. One state may have only 2 candidates (a Republican and a Democrat), another state may have many more.

Phase II:

  • In November, the 51 presidential elections happen - everyone sees this as a "national election"
  • Once the results from each state's presidential election are established, the electors from that state are fixed
  • About a month later, each state's electors meet and "vote"
  • The tallies from each state's elector vote are combined and, if there are majorities, a winner is declared

If there's no majority, count on all hell breaking loose, and everyone reading up on Article II and the 12th amendment of the constitution.

So, yes, there are roughly two phases, but it's very complicated.


There is one key fact that is not properly explained in either answer. As was mentioned in @Flydog57's answer the people are not actually voting for the president but who the states electors are going to vote for. In most states this means that who ever wins the majority of the vote gets all the electors votes. However in two states the elector votes are broken down by congressional district with and two votes for senate go to the majority.

Currently there are 538 electoral votes in the country and in order to win the office you need to secure >50% of them or 270. Now the issue comes up with what happens when no candidate reaches that goal.

If this was to happen then the house of representatives would go into session to vote for the president and they could chose from the top 3 candidates in the electoral college. At the same time the senate would go into session to vote for the vice president and they could chose from the top 2 candidates in the electoral college. Both of these votes must be won with a majority in order to pass.

One issue with this process is you can have a candidate win the president with a very low vote count from the population if there was a 3 way race and the 3rd place candidate was very popular (or has lots of influence in the house of representatives).

Another issue with this is the possibility of having a president and vice president from different parties which could cause conflict (and used to be possible but was changed and they both run on the same ticket).

In the end the two party system boils down to the fact that the winner needs to have 50% of the electoral college or the decision gets removed even further away from the will of the people.

  • This describes my "If there's no majority, count on all hell breaking loose, and everyone reading up on Article II and the 12th amendment of the constitution" scenario. One thing worth noting is that the vote in the House of Representatives isn't "One representative-One Vote". Instead, it's "One State-One Vote" (i.e., California and Wisconsin each get 1 vote. From the constitution: "the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote"
    – Flydog57
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 22:40

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