[Editors’ note: This is the third article in an occasional series on how Christians should think about voting and the electoral process. For the first entry, click here. For the second entry, see here.]

For many people, the question of whether Christians have an obligation to vote is obvious. Unfortunately, there is little consensus about whether it is “obvious” that we must vote or “obvious” that we are under no obligation to do so.

The reason for the disagreement is that the question is more complicated than we may realize. Voting is often treated as an abstraction, as if all types of voting were the same. But voting is a peculiar political phenomenon that is specific to a location and has a unique set of considerations.

We need a process for evaluating the issue, which I propose, should include the following three elements:

Context — The context for voting includes: location (for our purposes, the United States, including the individual states); the type of government (in the United States, a constitutional republic); the particular rules and procedures that determine how much influence our particular vote has; and the specific candidates we are considering for election.

Principles — The biblically based principles that apply to voting and that should inform our conscience and influence our choices (such as the selection of candidates).

Strategies — Based on context and principles, we must determine what particular strategies are available that determine how we should or should not vote—or whether we should vote at all.

In this article we’ll consider a key aspect of the context: the strange way that we choose both presidential nominees and presidents. Because this process is one of the most complicated, and because it’s the process by which we choose a national-level executive, understanding how it works will be useful in answering the question of whether Christians in America must vote.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ve framed the remainder as a “frequently asked questions”-type of explainer: 

How Presidential Nominees Are Selected

How are presidential candidates chosen?

Political parties are independent organizations that choose who will be their candidate at a presidential nominating convention. (For the purpose of simplicity, this article will focus mainly on the two major U.S. political parties, the Democrats and Republicans). While many different types of people attend the conventions, they are formally a gathering of “delegates”—political party members chosen as representatives. The delegates (collectively known as the “delegation”) vote on who should be the party’s candidate.

For example, the GOP convention this year will have 2,472 official delegates. To win the nomination a candidate needs to have the votes of 1,237 (50 percent + 1) delegates.

How are delegates chosen?

Each party has two types of delegates, pledged and unpledged (non-binding). Pledged delegates are representatives of the individual state’s political parties and must cast a vote at the convention for a particular candidate, while unpledged can vote for any candidate.

What is a “superdelegate”?

Delegates that are unpledged and not chosen by the primary or caucus system are sometimes referred to by the unofficial moniker of “superdelegates.”

In the Democratic Party, current and former Democratic Presidents and Vice Presidents, every Democratic governor (currently, 20 total) and member of Congress (240 total) gets to be a superdelegate, as do former Democratic Majority and Minority Leaders of the U.S. Senate, former Democratic Speakers and Minority Leaders of the U.S. House, and former Chairs of the Democratic National Committee. Altogether the Democrats have 704 superdelegates.

This group, comprising about 15 percent of the total delegate count, are a way to provide a check on the popular vote.

The GOP has three types of delegates (At-Large Delegates, Congressional District Delegates, and Republican National Committee Members), but unlike the Democrats, these delegates are bound by the same rules as other delegates.

How are delegates allocated among candidates?

Each state assigns its delegates according to its own rules in consultation with their party. There are three main allocation methods: proportional (delegates are divided amongst candidates based on results of their primary vote), winner-take-all (the candidate that wins the highest percentage of the state’s primary votes gets all the delegates), and hybrid states that combine these methods (e.g., a candidate in a proportional state may get all the delegates if he or she passes the 50 percent mark).

What the difference between a primary and a caucus?

Each state holds either a primary or a caucus (or a mix of the two) in order to indirectly choose a presidential candidate.

In a primary state, people cast a ballot for a candidate. Primaries may be open (any registered voter may cast a ballot, regardless of party affiliation) or closed (only registered voters who are party members can cast a ballot). The voting is usually done in a specific time frame (e.g., 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.) on a particular day.

In a caucus state, voters meet at a specific time and local location (e.g., school, church) to meet and discuss the candidates. Voters separate into groups to identify their support for a particular candidate, though sometimes they merely vote or raise their hands to be counted.

(The rules that govern primaries and caucuses are set by the individual states, so how they are run can vary considerably. But these are the main differences between the two types.)

What is “Super Tuesday”?

Super Tuesday is the day, either in February in March, when the largest numbers of states hold their primaries or caucuses. Most of the delegates are chosen on this day.

What is the “SEC Primary”?

In previous elections, Southern states tended to have their primary elections on different days, limiting the influence of the region. Because of this several Secretaries of States banded together to move the primary election dates of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia to “Super Tuesday” (March 1, 2016).

This has been dubbed the “SEC Primary,” after the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference.

When are the remaining primaries and caucuses?

You can find a complete list here.


How the President of the United States Is Elected

Do we vote for the President?

Yes and no. When you cast your vote in the general election, you cast a ballot for a particular candidate, but your vote is not used to directly select the President. If that were the case, then the choice for President would be the candidate who won the popular vote (i.e., had the most votes cast for him or her).

Instead your vote selects a representative—called an elector—who is part of the Electoral College. The Electoral College system is they way we choose the President and Vice-President of the United States.

Where did the Electoral College system come from?

Although the term “Electoral College” is never mentioned in the part of the Constitution that discusses the election of the Executive Branch (Article 2, Section 1, Clauses 2 and 3), the electors who choose the president at each election are traditionally called a College (meaning a group of people organized toward a common goal).

The Electoral College was proposed by James Wilson at the Constitutional Convention as a compromise between those who wanted the Congress to choose the President and those who believed the election should be decided by the state legislatures. The Framers were generally in agreement that giving the people the power to directly elect the President was a terrible idea.

Who decides how many electoral votes each state receives?

Each state receives an electoral vote for each U.S. Senator (two per state) plus one for each Congressional representative. Since the number of representatives is based on population, the state’s electoral votes are also based on the number of people who reside within a state. Currently, the Electoral College includes 538 electors, 535 for the total number of congressional members, and three who represent Washington, D.C.

How do these electoral votes decide who becomes President?

On the Monday following the second Wednesday in December, the electors of each state meet in their respective state capitals to cast the official votes for President and Vice President of the United States. These votes are then sealed and sent to the President of the Senate (the current Vice President), who will open and read the votes on January 6 in the presence of both houses of Congress. The winner is sworn into office exactly two weeks later, at noon on January 20.

Who are these electors?

Since the political parties choose electors, they tend to be partisan political activists. The Constitution doesn’t have any requirements other than specifications for who cannot be an elector: a Representative or Senator, a high-ranking U.S. official in a position of “trust or profit,” or anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States.

Do the electors have to vote for the candidate who received the most votes in their state?

No, they don’t. The elector is free to cast his vote for anyone he or she chooses. In fact, there have been times when electors have voted contrary to the will of the people—and that’s entirely constitutional. However, anyone who votes against their state’s choice is known as a “faithless elector” and essentially ruins any future they might have had with their political party.

How many electoral votes are needed to win?

A presidential candidate must receive a majority (270 of the 538 eligible) in order to win the election. If no one receives a majority then the decision is made by the House of Representatives with each state delegation receiving one vote to cast for the three candidates who received the most electoral votes. This has happened twice in our nation’s history with the House choosing Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr and John Quincy Adams being selected over Andrew Jackson.

Wouldn’t relying on the popular vote be a better system?

Not necessarily. The popular vote is subject to various types of fraud that don’t apply to the Electoral College system (except perhaps in swing states). Political parties, for instance, have no incentive to “run up the vote” when their candidate is going to take their state anyway, so they are less likely to resort to direct fraud. On the other hand, the Electoral College makes it virtually impossible for a third-party candidate to ever be elected. So if you prefer a third-party (Libertarian, Green, Reform Party, etc.) you may have a reason to want to scrap the current system.

In the next article in this series we'll consider how understanding this electoral process can help us choose a suitable voting/non-voting strategy.