Party members vote in a state election for the candidate they wish to represent them in the general election during primaries. Following the primaries and caucuses, each major political party (Democratic and Republican) organizes a national convention to choose a presidential contender. People in every state cast ballots on election day. The two candidates who receive the most votes become the president and vice president of the United States.
In some states, governors or other officials can decide which party's ballot to include in elections. For example, in Oregon you can only vote for Democratic or Republican candidates in federal elections; you cannot vote for independents. In such states, politicians may place limits on what parties can require of voters by law or through executive order. Or they may use their influence behind the scenes to ensure that certain candidates are selected by default. That is what happened when Oregon began allowing citizens to vote for individuals rather than parties: Most people did not know this change had been made until it was too late to affect the outcome of the election!
The choice of candidates is one of the most important functions of a political party. If you don't like the people chosen by your party to run for office, you have several options for changing things around. You could work to get more candidates on the ballot through petition drives or other means. You could try to persuade existing candidates to run against them in primaries. Or you could look for new candidates who would help your party win elections.
Most presidential candidates participate in a succession of state primaries and caucuses prior to the general election. Although primaries and caucuses are conducted in different ways, they serve the same function. They let the states pick the nominees for the major political parties in the general election. States have the option of holding primary elections or using a "caucus" process like Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus system.
The two main methods for selecting delegates to a national convention are the primary system and the caucus system. In a primary election, each voter selects one candidate by marking an index card or voting electronically. In a caucus, voters gather in groups known as "clusters" or "wards" and then vote on candidates by saying which position they want that person to hold on the ballot. The cluster leader can say what role he or she wants played by other candidates in the race, but cannot vote against himself or herself. Delegates will be selected by party leaders at state conventions held after the primary/caucus season ends.
State laws vary as to whether voters can choose more than one candidate by marking more than one index card or voting more than once. Some states allow this form of "bullet voting," while others do not. However, since most states require candidates to receive 10 percent of the vote to be included on the ballot, many of these multi-choice ballots will not be counted.
The voters must be members of the party with which the individual desires to identify. The individual will then be included as a candidate on the ballot for the state's primary. In several states, the main political parties employ candidate selection to pick their congressional candidates. These are called "primary elections" because the only way to become the party's nominee is by winning votes in a primary election.
In other states, such as California and New York, any qualified voter can run for office regardless of party affiliation. In these cases, there is a general election where all voters vote for both Democratic and Republican candidates. Before 1990, most states did not have primary elections; instead, candidates were chosen by state committees or elected officials who were members of the same party as the position being filled.
Primary elections are held on various dates throughout the year. The date is usually published at the beginning of a legislative session. The order in which districts carry out their primaries is typically determined by lottery. This prevents one group of voters from holding a competitive advantage over others - for example, voters in an area with more schools might have a better chance of having their district come first.
All across America, local politicians hold meetings where they discuss who should be selected to fill open positions. Sometimes groups within a community (such as businesses or interest organizations) will hire people to work on campaigns for them.
Individuals now engage in primaries or caucuses in 48 states to elect delegates who support their preferred presidential candidate. The presidential candidate with the most state delegate votes wins the party nomination at national party conventions. In some states, such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, the majority of delegates are elected by voters; in others, such as Wyoming and South Dakota, the majority are appointed by the party leadership.
The first presidential nominating convention was held in Philadelphia in 1796. It was a purely political organization then known as "Republicans" that united under one banner candidates from different states where they would select the single nominee. The first true modern-style primary election took place in 1856 when two politicians ran against each other for the Republican nomination. They were Stephen Douglas of Illinois and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Neither man won a majority of votes, so they both entered the general election against Ulysses S. Grant.
In 1872, members of the Greenback Party met in Cincinnati and selected former Senator Henry Wilson as their standard-bearer. However, after several candidates withdrew from the race, no one challenged President Grant, who easily secured the nomination at the next convention in 1880.
State laws governing how delegates are chosen vary widely.