Elections for dummies

November 24, 2020

What does the electoral college even do? Why are there so many different things on the ballot? How does Washington state’s government even work? The elections system can be confusing in a normal year, let alone in 2020. But never fear: here is your simplified guide to the presidential, congressional, and state election systems.

The Presidential Election

  • Leading up to the election: People decide they want to run for president; they campaign, participate in debates, and many drop out. At the beginning of the election year, the primaries (an election with ballots) and caucuses (a town hall where voters pick a candidate) cause more candidates to drop out. In the summer, candidates pick their running mates and have conventions (such as the Democratic National Convention) where parties choose their nominees.


  • The Electoral College: As written in the Constitution, people don’t directly elect the president. Rather, there is an Electoral College made of 538 electors, and the number in each state is based on population. The political parties in each state choose their potential electors, and when people vote in the general election in November, they’re essentially choosing which electors they want to vote (Democratic or Republican). These electors cast votes for president in a meeting in December. However, they aren’t constitutionally obligated to vote for who won the popular vote in their state, so sometimes there are “faithless electors” who do not vote for who won the popular vote in their state. When a candidate gets over 270 votes, they win. If there’s a tie in Electoral College votes, the House of Representatives breaks the tie (this only happened once, in 1824.)

The US Congressional Elections

  • The House of Representatives: The number of representatives in each state is based on population, with 435 representatives total. They each serve two-year terms. In Washington, we have 10 representatives, one for each district.


  • The Senate: There are 2 representatives for each state, and they serve six-year terms. Every 2 years, ⅓ of these representatives are replaced. In 2020, neither of Washington’s senators are up for reelection.

Washington State Elections

  • Legislature:  Our state legislature is similar to the national one, with a governor and other executive positions elected every four years. In the House of Representatives, there 98 members, with two for every district, and they’re reelected every year. In the Senate, there are 49 members elected every 4 years (½ every 2 years).


  • Ballots: Washington has mail-in ballots, with ballots automatically mailed to every registered voter and no actual in-person polls. We also vote for policies (referendums, advisory votes, and joint resolutions).



Usa.gov, archives.gov, sos.wa.gov, leg.wa.gov, Washington state constitution

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