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Political Education

If you’re new to voting, there may be a lot of terminologies that you are unfamiliar with. Polls and precincts, primaries and ballots, it can all be a little confusing to the uninitiated. Luckily, we are here to help you decipher all of it.

Here we will talk about the difference between primary elections and general elections, you can find out more about our political system using the navigation sidebar tool on this page of the RTT website.

In a primary election, voters determine which candidates from each party will be on the general election ticket the following fall. Each party holds its own primary. Similar to a primary is a caucus. The main difference is that a primary election is administered by the state, while a caucus is administered by a political party. The party leaders gather to debate the primary candidates from their party and ultimately vote (caucuses cannot be by secret vote) for who they want to represent their party in the election.

Primary elections are held in the spring before the general election, which is held the following November. Each state holds its own primary elections, so each state decides the exact date that primaries are held. States also set their own primary rules, but the biggest difference is open primaries vs closed primaries.

In an open primary, voters are not required to declare their party affiliation when they register to vote. Most open primary states have laws against voting in more than one party’s primary election, although this can be difficult to enforce, especially if one party has a runoff election.

A closed primary means that voters will declare their party affiliation prior to voting, and can only vote in a runoff election for the same party that they declared. Closed primaries make it more difficult for voters to change the party they vote for from year to year (they need to register with the new party prior to voting), but it also cuts down on “crossover” voting, or voting in a runoff election for the opposite party that you voted for.

By comparison, the general election is much simpler than the primary. The general election is always held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. (That just means that if November 1st is a Tuesday, the election will be the following Tuesday.) The general election pits the primary winners from each party against each other. In most states, there is only one candidate from each party for each elected position. Some states, such as Louisiana, put all qualified candidates for state and local positions on the general election ballot.

General elections can have a feel of more importance than primaries, but that’s not really true. Every election is important. The best thing that you can do is educate yourself on the candidates and their positions before you head to the polls.

The Electoral College can be confusing if you’re new to voting. Even people who have voted for years may still not fully understand the process.

What Are Electors and How Are They Chosen?

The Electoral College isn’t a place, it’s a group of people called electors. Each political party in each state designates its own electors. Electors are usually highly respected members of the party in that state, such as the Party Chairman or former high officeholders. The Constitution does not say who can be electors, but it lists who cannot be. “No Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.” States appoint their electors differently, but most states vote for their electors at the state party convention. Other methods of appointing electors include by the state party committee and by appointment by the governor. It’s important to remember that each state appoints two (or more) sets of electors, one for each major party in the state. Usually, that means Republican and Democrat electors.

When Does The Electoral College Vote?

In the general election for president, citizens vote for the candidate of their choice. The total number of individual votes is called the popular vote. The popular vote in each state determines which set of electors will vote in the Electoral College. For example, if Pennsylvania has more votes for the Republican candidate for president, the Republican electors will vote at the Electoral College. The actual Electoral College vote happens on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. Each state’s electors meet separately in their state on that day. The results of their votes are then confirmed by a joint session of Congress on January 6th, making the results of the election official.

Some states require by law that their electors vote for the presidential candidate who gets the most popular votes in their state. Other states allow electors to vote for whomever they choose. It doesn’t happen often, but if an elector fails to vote the way their state voted, they are called a faithless elector. Some states count the faithless votes, while others throw them out. Also, some states punish faithless electors while others don’t.

Reasons For The Electoral College

The reason that the United States uses the Electoral College System is that it’s written into the Constitution. But the purpose behind using it is to give equal weight to the votes from smaller states and rural areas of larger states. Without the Electoral College, presidential elections would be determined by tightly clustered urban populations in major cities across the country. Using the Electoral College system gives voice to those outside of major cities and allows their vote to count equally.