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How the voting system works for this year’s US election

Americans will head to the polls on November 3 to choose their next president: Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

The race was thrown into turmoil by the incumbent’s coronavirus diagnosis and much remains uncertain about how the final weeks of the campaign will pan out.

But away from the political theatre of the Republicans duelling with Democrats, a long-established voting system will turn its cogs to reveal the next US leader.

Here we explore how the United States voting system works.

Who can run for president?

A US president needs to be a natural-born citizen who is over the age of 35 and has lived in the country for 14 years. They do not need to have any political experience.

This year’s candidates are the incumbent Mr Trump, for the Republicans, and former vice president Joe Biden for the Democrats.

Trump v Biden: First Presidential Debate – In pictures

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How are candidates picked?

The US presidential election officially began with the New Hampshire primary, which was held on February 11.

Primary votes – known as “primaries” – and caucuses are how parties in individual states pick their nominee for president ahead of the election.

In caucuses, people meet to decide delegates and in primaries, people vote on those delegates who back a candidate.

The candidate who has the most delegates for their party will go on to represent the party for the national presidential election.

How do candidates campaign?

In a typical year, presidential candidates would travel the country canvassing voters, taking part in presidential and vice-presidential debates and holding mass rallies.

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The 2020 campaigns of both candidates have been substantially curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic, with Mr Biden largely campaigning virtually.

Mr Trump has continued to hold large rallies of his supporters, where face coverings and social distancing have been in short supply.

A total of three presidential debates were scheduled to take place before polling day, with the first one roundly viewed as overly combative and chaotic.

Donald and Melania Trump – In pictures

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President Donald Trump stands on stage with first lady Melania Trump after the first presidential debate with Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden on 29 September 2020

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Donald Trump holds a replica of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as his wife Melania holds their son Barron in Los Angeles, January 16, 2007

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President Donald Trump takes the oath of office as his wife Melania Trump holds the bible and his son Barron Trump looks on, on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC

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US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump return to the White House in Washington, DC on 11 September 2020

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Donald Trump and Melanie Knaus arrive for VH1’s Divas Live concert at the Beacon Theater in New York City April 13, 1999

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Donald Trump and Melania toast the new year during Trump’s 2000 gala bash

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Donald Trump and Melania arrive for the 73rd Annual Academy Awards March 25, 2001 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles

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Donald Trump and Melania attend the “Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century” Costume Institute benefit gala on April 26, 2004 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City

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Donald Trump and Melania attend the 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on September 19, 2004 at the Shrine Auditorium, in Los Angeles

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Donald Trump, his wife Melania Trump and their son Barron attend the Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s 16th Annual Bunny Hop at FAO toy store March 13, 2007 in New York City

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Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Melania Trump-Trump and Barron Trump attend the “The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Work and Life” book launch celebration at Trump Tower on October 14, 2009 in New York City

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Donald Trump and Melania Trump attend the “Schiaparelli And Prada: Impossible Conversations” Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2012

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Eric Trump, Lara Yunaska Trump, Donald Trump, Barron Trump, Melania Trump, Vanessa Haydon Trump, Kai Madison Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Donald John Trump III, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Tiffany Trump pose for photos on stage after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 in New York Cit

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Donald Trump speaks with his wife Melania Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump after the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on October 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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Former President Barack Obama (C) kisses the hand of former First Lady Michelle Obama (2R) beside US President Donald Trump (2L) and First Lady Melania Trump (L) before the Obama’s departure from the US Capitol after Trump’s inauguration ceremonies at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2017

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President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania arrive to attend an inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on January 19, 2017

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President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump dance at the Freedom Ball on January 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C

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President Donald Trump sings to the song “My Way” while dancing with first lady Melania Trump during the inaugural Liberty Ball at the Washington Convention Center January 20, 2017

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Pope Francis (R) walks along with US President Donald Trump and US First Lady Melania Trump during a private audience at the Vatican on May 24, 2017

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President Donald Trump and the first lady Melania Trump attend the 95th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting held by the National Park Service at the White House Ellipse in Washington, D.C., November 30, 2017

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Donald Trump and wife Melania being interviewed by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes

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President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 24, 2019 after flying back from Atlanta, Georgia

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President Donald Trump, Queen Elizabeth II, Melania Trump, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, during a group photo ahead of the State Banquet at Buckingham Palace, London

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President Donald Trump and US First Lady Melania Trump wait to greet Britain’s Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and his wife Britain’s Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall for a dinner at Winfield House in 2019

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President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive to their Christmas Eve party at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida in 2019

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First Lady Melania Trump and U.S. President Donald Trump during the National Athem prior to the College Football Playoff National Championship game between the Clemson Tigers and the LSU Tigers at Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 13, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana

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President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump pose as they visit the Taj Mahal in Agra on February 24, 2020

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President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump offer floral respects at Raj Ghat, the memorial for Mahatma Gandhi, in New Delhi, India,

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President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk down the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020

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President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Barron Trump stand on the South Lawn of the White House on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020

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US President Donald Trump embraces first lady Melania Trump after she addressed the Republican Convention

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President Donald Trump waves next to first lady Melania Trump as they arrive for his first 2020 election debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., September 29, 2020

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President Donald Trump stands on stage with first lady Melania Trump after the first presidential debate with Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden on 29 September 2020

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Donald Trump holds a replica of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as his wife Melania holds their son Barron in Los Angeles, January 16, 2007

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President Donald Trump takes the oath of office as his wife Melania Trump holds the bible and his son Barron Trump looks on, on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC

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US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump return to the White House in Washington, DC on 11 September 2020

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Donald Trump and Melanie Knaus arrive for VH1’s Divas Live concert at the Beacon Theater in New York City April 13, 1999

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Donald Trump and Melania toast the new year during Trump’s 2000 gala bash

The Sun-Sentinel/AP

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Donald Trump and Melania arrive for the 73rd Annual Academy Awards March 25, 2001 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles

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Donald Trump and Melania attend the “Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century” Costume Institute benefit gala on April 26, 2004 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City

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Donald Trump and Melania attend the 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on September 19, 2004 at the Shrine Auditorium, in Los Angeles

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Donald Trump, his wife Melania Trump and their son Barron attend the Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s 16th Annual Bunny Hop at FAO toy store March 13, 2007 in New York City

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Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Melania Trump-Trump and Barron Trump attend the “The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Work and Life” book launch celebration at Trump Tower on October 14, 2009 in New York City

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Donald Trump and Melania Trump attend the “Schiaparelli And Prada: Impossible Conversations” Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2012

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Eric Trump, Lara Yunaska Trump, Donald Trump, Barron Trump, Melania Trump, Vanessa Haydon Trump, Kai Madison Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Donald John Trump III, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Tiffany Trump pose for photos on stage after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 in New York Cit

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Donald Trump speaks with his wife Melania Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump after the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on October 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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Former President Barack Obama (C) kisses the hand of former First Lady Michelle Obama (2R) beside US President Donald Trump (2L) and First Lady Melania Trump (L) before the Obama’s departure from the US Capitol after Trump’s inauguration ceremonies at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2017

AFP via Getty Images

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President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania arrive to attend an inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on January 19, 2017

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President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump dance at the Freedom Ball on January 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C

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President Donald Trump sings to the song “My Way” while dancing with first lady Melania Trump during the inaugural Liberty Ball at the Washington Convention Center January 20, 2017

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Pope Francis (R) walks along with US President Donald Trump and US First Lady Melania Trump during a private audience at the Vatican on May 24, 2017

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President Donald Trump and the first lady Melania Trump attend the 95th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting held by the National Park Service at the White House Ellipse in Washington, D.C., November 30, 2017

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Donald Trump and wife Melania being interviewed by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes

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President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 24, 2019 after flying back from Atlanta, Georgia

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President Donald Trump, Queen Elizabeth II, Melania Trump, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, during a group photo ahead of the State Banquet at Buckingham Palace, London

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President Donald Trump and US First Lady Melania Trump wait to greet Britain’s Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and his wife Britain’s Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall for a dinner at Winfield House in 2019

AFP/Getty Images

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President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive to their Christmas Eve party at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida in 2019

Reuters

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First Lady Melania Trump and U.S. President Donald Trump during the National Athem prior to the College Football Playoff National Championship game between the Clemson Tigers and the LSU Tigers at Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 13, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana

Getty Images

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President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump pose as they visit the Taj Mahal in Agra on February 24, 2020

AFP via Getty Images

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President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump offer floral respects at Raj Ghat, the memorial for Mahatma Gandhi, in New Delhi, India,

AP

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President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk down the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020

AP

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President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Barron Trump stand on the South Lawn of the White House on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020

AP

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US President Donald Trump embraces first lady Melania Trump after she addressed the Republican Convention

AFP via Getty Images

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President Donald Trump waves next to first lady Melania Trump as they arrive for his first 2020 election debate with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., September 29, 2020

Reuters

What happens on election day?

Election day is always held on the first Tuesday after November 1.

Millions of people have already voted by post this year and millions more will head to polling booths on November 3.

While their ballots may say the name of each candidate, voters in the US do not directly elect their president.

Instead, the individual votes in a state are typically reflected in votes cast by electors in what is known as the Electoral College.

What is the Electoral College?

Each of the 50 states and Washington DC appoint a number of people in their state known as electors, who make up the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is made up of 538 electors who cast votes on behalf of the population of the state, with 270 votes needed to win the presidency.

The number of electors per state is roughly proportionate to the population, as it is based on the number of representatives they have in Congress.

Democrat Joe Biden (left) is taking on Donald Trump for the presidency

This system can mean that a candidate for president can lose the popular vote but win the election, as in the case of Mr Trump in 2016.

The Electoral College is regularly criticised, with some arguing the system gives unfair weight to states with more electors – though these do have more people in.

Others argue that it gives more weight to smaller states because of the smaller ratio of votes per elector.

When do we get a result?

The result of the presidential election is usually announced on election day.

However, Mr Trump has repeatedly said he thinks the election result will be challenged in the Supreme Court and has declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of powers if he loses, meaning the result could face lengthy delay.

Mr Trump has also claimed the result may not be known for months as the election would be “a fraud like you’ve never seen”, citing postal vote fraud with little evidence.

Additional reporting by the Press Association.

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