History of US Presidential Elections

“And I will faithfully execute the office …”

There are the words every U.S. president repeats while taking the oath of office. And on a cold winter morning a few months from now, a new American president will recite the same time-honored oath. This year marks the 56th U.S. presidential election, dating back to 1789 when George Washington was elected the first American president.

At that time, African Americans and women could not vote. This election will be historic. Americans will choose between electing the first African American president, Democrat Barack Obama, or Republican Sarah Palin as the first female vice president. She is the running mate of presidential candidate John McCain.

American elections have come a long way over the years. Former President Ronald Reagan said of the process during his inaugural speech: “In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year-ceremony that we accept as normal, is nothing less than a miracle.”

Presidential elections have never been suspended or postponed, not even in times of war or economic disaster. Allan Lichtman teaches history at American University in Washington D.C. He tells us, “There is no incidence when an American election has been postponed. We had an election in 1864 in the middle of the American Civil War. We had an election in 1932 in the middle of the Great Depression.

Historically, most U.S. presidential elections have been considered fair and undisputed. There is one notable exception. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to resolve a dispute over votes in the state of Florida, and George Bush won the election over Al Gore.

Gerald Ford was the only unelected president of the United States. He was sworn in when Richard Nixon resigned during the threat of impeachment over the Watergate scandal.

Presidential elections are always held on the first Tuesday in November. Allan Lichtman says that is a tradition that started when the U.S. was predominantly an agricultural society. “The reason the elections are held in November is to have elections — they started in the 1840s — were held after the harvest.

In the American electoral system, the people do not directly elect the president. The Electoral College does. Each state has a number of electors that vote at the Electoral College. Each state’s population decides the number of electors. When an American votes, they are instructing the electors from their state to vote for their candidate at the Electoral College.

Michael McDonald is a professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University. He explains, “We don’t directly elect the president of the United States, but what we are doing is electing members of an electoral college. And those members then meet on December 15th and then select the president.”

Traditionally, there is a transition period lasting several months between Election Day and the inauguration of a new president. In modern times, the transition allows for the new president to assemble his administration and prepare to take office.

“The main reasons were the Electoral College needed time to meet and vote,” says Lichtman. “And number two, in case the election could not be decided by the Electoral College, there needed to be time for the House of Representatives to convene and elect the president.”

This year’s election has been the longest and most expensive in American history. The winner will enter office at a time of great domestic and international turmoil. He will have four years to convince the public he is worthy of another term as the electoral process starts anew.