How the President Is Elected, in 6 Simple Steps Kids Can Understand
A mom and veteran political strategist offers up tips for talking about Election Day 2020 with your kids, plus her favorite children's books that breakdown how the president is elected in fun ways.
For all the times kids are told, “You could be president one day,” how often are they told what actually needs to happen in order to become the commander-in-chief of the United States? As the 2020 election approaches, your children may be asking you questions about who can be president, who elects the president, and who will win the election. These are tough questions, even if politics is your day job.
I’ve spent more than 15 years as a political strategist—interviewing prominent women like Hillary Clinton, Stacey Abrams, and Nancy Pelosi for my podcast Your Presidential Playlist—but some of the hardest-hitting political questions I get are from my two- and four-year-olds. Based on these conversations, I’ve broken down how the president is elected into six easy parts.
- RELATED: Why I Take My Child to Vote
1. Who Is Allowed to Be "The Boss"
Being president of the United States is a big deal. It’s like being the boss at work or at school—the president is the boss of America and helps make the rules for the country. When I asked my kids who should be president, they gave some great options: Elsa and Cookie Monster being two of their front-runners for the job. But are they eligible?
Like any job, you have to have some basic qualifications because not just anyone can be president. To start, they have to be a grown-up (at least 35 years old). They also have to actually live in America “to be more closer to where the president is, in the White House,” as my four-year-old says. Finally, they have to be born in America.
2. How to Become a Nominee
The people who are running for president this year are Donald Trump, who is already the president, and Joe Biden, who used to be the vice president (the number two!) and now wants to be the president. They are the only people Americans can vote for because they are the nominees from their political parties, sort of like when a sports team picks a captain. A political party is a group of people who have similar ideas about how the government should work. (Sorry, no cake and presents!) The two largest political parties in America are the Republicans and Democrats, but there are other parties too.
Sometimes, more than one person from the same political party wants to become president. But since each party can only have one nominee, political parties hold an election called the primary to pick their favorite. Candidates travel all over the country to talk with voters in each state about why they’re running for president and what ideas they have to make the country better for everyone. One candidate even rode down the slide at the Iowa State Fair!
3. Who Gets to Elect the President
Not just anyone can be the president, and not just anyone can vote. Only grown-ups vote, but they don’t have to be quite as old as someone running for president (or in this year’s case, not nearly as old as the men running for president). Grown-ups can vote once they’re 18, the age of a babysitter or camp counselor.
In order to vote, grown-ups also need to have a close relationship to the U.S. That includes people who were born here and people who have lived here for a while and said publicly that they want to be a part of the country forever. These people are citizens.
4. Election Day AKA the "Big Day"
You know how music class happens on Tuesdays? Well, elections also happen on Tuesdays. This year, Election Day is November 3, 2020.
Just like when you finish something you are supposed to do in school (or go to the doctor or dentist), adults get a sticker for voting. Usually, parents go before or after work to vote at a place called a polling station. If you are lucky enough to live in a state that allows “early voting,” then you may be able to go do the voting and get the sticker before Election Day.
This year, more and more people are going to be voting from home using mail. Wild. This past year, we have done more and more things from home—like school, work, seeing grandparents, and now, voting. We all know that mailing things takes a couple of weeks, so voting by mail is going to take extra time. Your parents have to request an absentee ballot, print it out, mail the absentee ballot to the Board of Elections (the election grown-ups), and the Board of Elections will mail a voting ballot back to your parents. The voting ballot may just look like a piece of paper, like a math worksheet or a coloring page, but your parent has to send it back in the mail for their vote to be counted. That all has to happen a couple of days before Election Day. They can start that process right away at Vote.org.
5. Do We Know Who Is Winning the Election So Far?
We don’t know who is winning so far. The funny thing about elections is that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out until everyone gets to vote. Grown-ups talk a lot about “polling,” which means asking people a lot of times who they plan to vote for. People can tell you what they are thinking now about who they will vote for in November, but just like your mind might change, their minds might change too. So people may think that they know who is winning, but they really don’t.
6. The Election Results
After all the votes have been counted, the winners are announced. The country has decided if they want to stick with the same boss, Trump, or try a new boss, Biden. Finally, the newly elected president and vice president start working together in January.
To learn more about why voting is so important and how the president is elected, try one of these books: