US Politics 101

Separation of Powers

The Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu coined the phrase “trias politica,” or separation of powers, in his influential 18th-century work “Spirit of the Laws.” His concept of a government divided into legislative, executive and judicial branches acting independently of each other inspired the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who vehemently opposed concentrating too much power in any one body of government. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote of the necessity of the separation of powers to the new nation’s democratic government: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elected, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

3 Branches of US Government

Our federal government has three parts. They are the Executive, (President and about 5,000,000 workers) Legislative (Senate and House of Representatives) and Judicial (Supreme Court and lower Courts). The term “branches of government” refers to the separate arms of the U.S. government, each of which having its own powers. For example, branches of government include the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. There is also a system in place called “checks and balances,” which ensures that no one branch becomes too powerful. To explore this concept, consider the following branches of government definition.


Established by Article I of the Constitution, the Legislative Branch consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together form the United States Congress. The Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to enact legislation and declare war, the right to confirm or reject many Presidential appointments, and substantial investigative powers. The House of Representatives is made up of 435 elected members, divided among the 50 states in proportion to their total population. In addition, there are 6 non-voting members, representing the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and four other territories of the United States. The presiding officer of the chamber is the Speaker of the House, elected by the Representatives. He or she is third in the line of succession to the Presidency. Members of the House are elected every two years and must be 25 years of age, a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, and a resident of the state (but not necessarily the district) they represent.


The power of the Executive Branch is vested in the President of the United States, who also acts as head of state and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. The President is responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws written by Congress and, to that end, appoints the heads of the federal agencies, including the Cabinet. The Vice President is also part of the Executive Branch, ready to assume the Presidency should the need arise. The duties of the executive branch deal mainly with enforcing the country’s laws. For instance, one of the duties of the executive branch is to command and oversee the U.S. military. Another of the duties of the executive branch is specific to the Vice President: he acts as President over the Senate and casts the deciding vote in the event of a tie.


The judicial branch of the U.S. government is the system of federal courts and judges that interprets laws made by the legislative branch and enforced by the executive branch. At the top of the judicial branch are the nine justices of the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States.There is a hierarchy of federal courts in the United States. At lowest level are 94 U.S. District Courts which cover different regions of the country and handle most federal cases. Above the District Courts are the 13 Courts of Appeals. At the top of the Judicial Branch is the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has the final say. Federal judges are appointed for life. They can only be removed from office by death or by impeachment from Congress. This is to allow judges to make decisions based on their conscience and not on what they feel they need to do to get elected.

Election Types

There are many types of elections for many different forms of government, but all are designed to produce elected officials and policies that reflect the will of the voters. There are two basic types of elections — primary and general. In addition to the primaries and general elections held in even-numbered years, which include political races for the U.S. Congress, some states and local jurisdictions also hold off-year elections (both primary and general) in odd numbered years for their elected officials.

Primary Elections

Held by the political parties to select each party’s nominee for the general election. In the primary, separate party ballots are printed, and the voter must choose between the ballot with Democrats running against other Democrats or the one on which Republicans run against other Republicans. If there are three or more candidates in a race, and if no one receives a majority of the votes cast, then a second primary election or runoff election is held between the two candidates who receive the highest number of votes in the first primary. The winner of this runoff election will be the party nominee.

General Elections

Held to determine which political party, independent, or write-in candidate will occupy each office that is up for election. In the general election, a voter may split the ticket to select candidates from all parties on the ballot; however, a voter may choose only one candidate per office. In U.S. politics, general elections are elections held at any level (e.g. city, county, congressional district, state) that typically involve competition between at least two parties. General elections occur every two to six years (depending on the positions being filled with most positions good for four years) and include the presidential election, but unlike parliamentary systems the term can also refer to special elections that fill out positions prematurely vacated by the previous office holder (e.g. through death, resignation, etc.). Some parallels can be drawn between the general election in parliamentary systems and the biennial elections determining all House seats, although there is no analogue to "calling early elections" in the U.S., and the members of the elected U.S. Senate face elections of only one-third at a time at two-year intervals including during a general election.

Constitutional Amendment Elections

Held when constitutional amendments appear on the ballot. In a primary election, if a voter does not want to participate in one of the party primaries, he or she may vote on the amendments only.

Special Elections

Special elections to the United States Senate are held to fill the vacancies that occur when a senator dies or resigns before the completion of his or her six-year term. Winners of these special elections typically serve the remainder of the term of the senator who has caused the vacancy. Held in extraordinary situations such as the necessity to fill a vacancy that occurs during the term for which a person was elected, or when a referendum is held on some particular question or proposition such as the issuance of bonds.

Levels of election

Elections in the United States are held for government officials at the federal, state, and local levels. At the federal level, the nation's head of state, the president, is elected indirectly by the people of each state, through an Electoral College. Today, these electors almost always vote with the popular vote of their state. All members of the federal legislature, the Congress, are directly elected by the people of each state. There are many elected offices at state level, each state having at least an elective governor and legislature. There are also elected offices at the local level, in counties, cities, towns, townships, boroughs, and villages; as well as for special districts and school districts which may transcend county and municipal boundaries.

Federal Elections

The United States has a presidential system of government, which means that the executive and legislature are elected separately. Article One of the United States Constitution requires that any election for the U.S. president must occur on a single day throughout the country; elections for Congressional offices, however, can be held at different times. Congressional and presidential elections take place simultaneously every four years, and the intervening Congressional elections, which take place every two years, are called midterm elections. The constitution states that members of the United States House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old, a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and be a (legal) inhabitant of the state they represent. Senators must be at least 30 years old, a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and be a (legal) inhabitant of the state they represent. The president and vice president must be at least 35 years old, a natural born citizen of the United States and a resident in the United States for at least fourteen years. It is the responsibility of state legislatures to regulate the qualifications for a candidate appearing on a ballot paper, although in order to get onto the ballot, a candidate must often collect a legally defined number of signatures.

State Elections

State law and state constitutions, controlled by state legislatures regulate elections at state level and local level. Various officials at state level are elected. Since the separation of powers applies to states as well as the federal government, state legislatures and the executive (the governor) are elected separately. Governors and lieutenant governors are elected in all states, in some states on a joint ticket and in some states separately, some separately in different electoral cycles. The governors of the territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands are also elected. In some states, executive positions such as Attorney General and Secretary of State are also elected offices. All members of state legislatures and territorial jurisdiction legislatures are elected. In some states, members of the state supreme court and other members of the state judiciary are elected. Proposals to amend the state constitution are also placed on the ballot in some states. As a matter of convenience and cost saving, elections for many of these state and local offices are held at the same time as either the federal presidential or midterm elections. There are a handful of states, however, that instead hold their elections during odd-numbered "off years."

Local Elections

At the local level, county and city government positions are usually filled by election, especially within the legislative branch. The extent to which offices in the executive or judicial branches are elected vary from county-to-county or city-to-city. Some examples of local elected positions include sheriffs at the county level and mayors and school board members at the city level. Like state elections, an election for a specific local office may be held at the same time as either the presidential, midterm, or off-year elections.

Presidential Election Process

An election for president of the United States happens every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The next presidential election will be November 3, 2020. Candidates must be at least 35 years old, born in the United States and lived in the US for the previous 14 years in order to be eligible. Traditionally, candidates make their intention to run for President public in the year before the election takes place.


Primaries, Caucuses, and Political Conventions

Primaries, Caucuses, and Political Conventions

The election process begins with primary elections and caucuses. These are two elections that states use to select potential presidential nominees. Then the process moves to nominating conventions, at which point the political parties select a nominee to represent them. During a political party convention, each presidential nominee also announces a Vice Presidential running mate. The primary winners then campaign across the country to explain their views and policies to voters. They may also participate in debates with candidates from other parties.

2020 Presidential Primaries and Caucuses Dates

The 2020 presidential primaries and caucuses have already begun. They kicked off on February 3 with the Iowa caucuses. They conclude on June 2 with primaries in five states. In order to vote, find the expected presidential primary or caucus date for your own state. Make sure to find the deadline to register to vote in your own state to ensure you can vote in the presidential primary!

State Primaries and Caucuses

State primaries are run by state and local governments. Voting happens through secret ballot.

Caucuses are meetings and elections held and ran by the state party rather than the local and state governments. In most, participants divide themselves into groups according to the candidate they support, and undecided voters form their own group. Each group discusses its candidate and tries to get others to join its group. At the end, the number of voters in each group determines how many delegates each candidate has won.

  • Both primaries and caucuses can be “open,” “closed,” or some hybrid of the two.
  • During an open primary or caucus, people can vote for any candidate of any political party.
  • During a closed primary or caucus, only voters registered with the specific party can take part in that
  • “Semi-open” and “semi-closed” primaries and caucuses are variations of the two main types.

Delegates, Primaries and Caucuses

Each primary and caucus determines delegates. These are individuals who represent their state at national party conventions. The candidate who receives a majority of the party’s delegates wins the nomination. The parties have different numbers of delegates due to the rules involved in awarding them. Each party also has superdelegates. These delegates are not bound to a specific candidate heading into the national convention. When the primaries and caucuses are over, most political parties hold a national convention. This is when the winning candidates receive their nomination for the general elections.


Constitutional Requirements for Presidential Candidates

The president must:

  • Be a natural-born citizen of the United States
  • Be at least 35 years old
  • Have been a resident of the United States for 14 years

Anyone who meets these requirements can declare their candidacy for president. However, once a candidate raises or spends more than $5,000 for their campaign, they must register with the Federal Election Commission. That includes naming a principal campaign committee (PAC) to raise and spend campaign funds.

National Conventions

National conventions finalize a party’s choice for presidential and vice-presidential nominees. To become the presidential nominee, a candidate typically has to win a majority of delegates. This usually happens through the party’s primaries and caucuses and is then confirmed through a vote of the delegates at the national convention. If no candidate gets the majority of a party’s delegates during the primaries and caucuses, delegates choose the nominee through additional rounds of voting.

Delegates: Types and Numbers Required

There are two main types of delegates:

  • Pledged, or bound delegates must support the candidate they were awarded to through the primary or caucus process.
  • Superdelegates can support any presidential candidate they choose.

Contested and Brokered Conventions

In rare cases, none of the party’s candidates has a majority of delegates going into the convention. This is a contested convention. Delegates will then pick their presidential nominee through one or more rounds of voting. 

  • In the first round of voting, pledged delegates must vote for the candidate they were awarded to at the start of the convention. Superdelegates may vote for any candidate.
  • Superdelegates may not vote in the first round unless a candidate already has enough delegates through primaries and caucuses to get the nomination.
  • If no nominee wins in the first round, the convention is considered “” Pledged delegates may choose any candidate in the later rounds of voting. Superdelegates can also vote in these rounds.
  • Balloting continues until one candidate receives the required majority to win the nomination.



Electoral College

What is The Electoral College?

The Electoral College is an American process. The Founding Fathers established it in the Constitution as a compromise between the election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of citizens. The Electoral College was intended to protect democracy from certain factions or states becoming too powerful and thus over-representative, often times referred to as the “tyranny of the majority.” In the Electoral College system, each state gets a certain number of electors based on its total number of representatives in Congress. Each elector casts one electoral vote following the general election; there are a total of 538 electoral votes. The candidate that gets more than half (270) wins the election.

What is the Electoral Process? 

The Electoral College process is the selection of the electors, the meeting of the electors where they vote for President and Vice President, and the counting of the electoral votes by Congress.

How many electors are there and how are they distributed among the States? 

The Electoral College consists of 538 electors. Your State has the same number of electors as it does Representatives in its Congressional Delegation: one for each member in the House of Representatives plus two U.S. Senators. 

How are electors chosen?

Each candidate running for President in your state has his or her own group of electors, also known as a slate. The slates are generally chosen by the candidate’s political party in your state. The selection process and responsibilities of slates vary amongst states.

What happens in the general election?

The general election is held every four years on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November. Most states have a “winner-take-all” system that awards all electors to the Presidential candidate who wins the State's popular vote. However, other states have elections that can be defined better as proportional representation.

How does the Electoral College Process Work?

After you cast your ballot for president, your vote goes to a statewide tally. In 48 states and Washington, D.C., the winner gets all the electoral votes for that state. Maine and Nebraska assign their electors using a proportional system. A candidate needs the vote of at least 270 electors to win the presidential election. The actual Electoral College vote takes place in mid-December when the electors meet in their states. There is no constitutional requirement for electors to follow their state's popular vote, but they typically do.

Winning the Popular Vote but Losing the Election 

It is possible to win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote. This is a result of states with a disproportionately large number of voters compared to their electoral representatives. This happened in 2016, in 2000, and three times in the 1800s. 

How to Change the Electoral College

The Electoral College process is in the U.S. Constitution. It would take a constitutional convention resulting in an amendment change the process.





Inauguration Day

Where Does Inauguration Day Take Place?

Inauguration Day takes place on January 20 at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. First, the Vice President is sworn in, followed by the President. Both officially become President and Vice President after reciting the oath of office which has been used since the late 18th century.

What Is the Oath of Office?

The exact words of the oath of office are: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Who Administers the Oath of Office?

The Oath of Office is usually administered by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. (It has been the practice since 1797.) Calvin Coolidge’s second Oath was administered by the only Chief Justice who was a former President, William Howard Taft.

What Book Do Presidents Put Their Hand On For The Oath Of Office?

Presidents usually take the Oath of Office with their left hand on a Bible, but that is not required by the Constitution. Franklin Pierce and John Quincy Adams swore their oaths on law books. Lyndon Johnson used a Catholic missal found on the airplane in Dallas. Theodore Roosevelt used no book at all. And Dwight D. Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush, and Barack Obama used more than one Bible.

What Is the Inaugural Address?

The Inaugural Address is a speech by the recently inaugurated president. In earlier days, the address was given before the newly elected president took the Oath of Office, but in 1897, William McKinley waited until after he was sworn in to deliver his speech, and all the presidents since then have done the same.