The presidential candidate for each party is nominated by a Nominating Convention. The Convention convenes about three months before the election. Delegates from all the states assemble and nominate a President/Vice-President ticket. They also decide on a party platform: the issues the president will represent in the election. Often, the President and Vice-President will be two people who have different yet complimentary backgrounds. This is done to "balance the ticket," or appeal to the largest possible amount of people.
Go to the People
For eight to ten weeks between the Convention and Election Day, the Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates "go to the people." The candidates state their thoughts on the party platform and make promises on behalf of the government. They also make speeches and appear at rallies to present their philosophies and views on current issues. On the first Tuesday in November (or the Tuesday after the first Monday in leap years) the voters are invited to the polls. They vote for electors, which in turn vote for candidates.
Gather Electoral Votes
The electoral system is unique to the United States. The Electoral College refers to the group of electors who vote for the President, each elector having one electoral vote. Each state has an number of electors equal to the number of their Senators and Representatives. The District of Columbia has the minimum three electors by the 23rd Amendment. Today, there are 538 electors: 535 from the 50 states (100 Senators, 435 Representatives) plus 3 from the District of Columbia.
On Election Day, the ballot has the phrase "electors for" followed by the names of the President and the Vice President. The winning slate of electors is the one that receives the majority or the plurality of popular votes from the state (A plurality occurs when a someone has the largest number of votes, but the number of votes is less than fifty percent of all the votes). After Election Day, the electors meet and officially vote on the President.
Contrary to popular belief, an elector is not obligated to vote for the candidate he or she originally indicated. Electors are free to vote for whomever they wish when they gather to officially vote. However, it is extremely rare for an elector to not vote for whom he or she originally indicated.
Majority ? Plurality
A candidate must receive a majority of votes (over 50%) to become President. If no one has a majority, the person with the most votes has a plurality, but is not President.
The constitution includes a clause that guides the selection process in the event of a plurality. Article II, Section I states that "If the Electoral College does not give any candidate the necessary majority, the House of Representatives chooses the President from among the top three candidates in electoral votes. In such a situation the House votes by states, with each state having one vote. To be elected president, a candidate must receive the votes from a majority of the states."
This clause has been used twice in the history of the United States. In 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the presidency with 69 electoral votes each. After 36 ballots, Thomas Jefferson was elected the president of the United States. In 1824, Andrew Jackson led in electoral votes, but he did not have a majority. The House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams as President after Henry Clay gave Adams his support.