The US political system is designed in such a way that the election is contested by only two parties: The Republican Party and the Democratic Party.
The Republicans are the conservative political party in the US and their candidate in this year’s election is incumbent President Donald Trump, who is hoping to secure another four years in power after beating Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The Republican Party is also known as the GOP, or the Grand Old Party, and their support is entrenched in more rural America.
Former Republican presidents include George W Bush, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
The Democratic Party, the liberal political party in the US, is the oldest political party in the United States. Their candidate is Joe Biden, a veteran politician best-known for serving as Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years.
Former Democrat presidents include Bill Clinton and JF Kennedy.
Both the 2020 presidential candidates are men are in their 70s – Trump would be 74-years-old at the start of his second term, while at 78, while Biden would be the oldest first-term president in history.
How is the winner decided?
When Americans go to the polls in presidential elections they’re actually voting for a group of officials (electors) who make up the electoral college.
Each state gets a certain number of electoral college votes partly based on its population and there are a total of 538 up for grabs, so the winner is the candidate who wins 270 votes or more.
Each elector represents one electoral vote, and a candidate needs to gain a majority of the votes – 270 or more – to win the presidency.
This means voters decide state-level contests rather than the national one, which is why it’s possible for a candidate to win the most votes nationally – like Democrats Hillary Clinton in 2016 and and Al Gore in 2000 – but still be defeated in the electoral college.
All but two states have a winner-takes-all rule, so whichever candidate wins the highest number of votes is awarded all of the state’s electoral college votes.
Most states lean heavily towards one party or the other, so the focus is usually on a dozen or so states where either of them could win. These are known as the ‘battleground’ states.
California (55), Texas (38), Florida (29) and New York (29) have the biggest share of electoral votes, while a handful of sparsely populated states like Wyoming, Alaska and North Dakota (and Washington DC) the minimum of three.
Who can vote and how
If you’re a US citizen and you’re 18 or over, you should be eligible to vote in the election, which takes place every four years.
However, many states have passed laws requiring voters to show identification documents to prove who they are before they can vote.
These laws are often put into place by Republicans who say they’re needed to guard against voter fraud. But Democrats accuse them of using this as a form of voter suppression as it is often poorer, minority voters who are unable to provide ID like a driving licence.
How people vote is a contentious issue this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some politicians are calling for wider use of postal ballots, but President Trump has said – with very little evidence – that this could result in more voter fraud.
Is this election only to elect the president?
No. All of the attention will naturally be on the presidential battle between Trump and Biden, but voters will also be voting for new members of Congress when they mark their ballots.
Democrats already have control of the House of Representatives so they will be hoping to keep hold of that chamber while also gaining control of the Senate.
If they had a majority in both chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives, they would be able to block or delay President Trump’s policies if he were to be re-elected.
All 435 seats in the House are up for election this year, while 33 Senate seats are also up for grabs.
When will the result be known?
It can take several days for every vote to be counted, but it’s usually pretty clear who the winner is by the early hours of the following morning.
In 2016, Trump took to the stage in New York at about 3am to deliver his victory speech in front of a crowd of jubilant supporters.
Officials, however, are already warning that we may have to wait longer – possibly days, even weeks – for the result this year because of the expected surge in postal ballots, the BBC reported.
The last time the result wasn’t clear within a few hours was in 2000, when the winner wasn’t confirmed until a Supreme Court ruling was made a month later.
In that contest, 537 votes separated Democrat Al Gore and his Republican challenger George W. Bush when, on November 26, 2000, three weeks after Election Day, the state of Florida declared Bush the winner of its 25 electoral votes in the race for US president.
And just as in 2016, Bush lost the popular vote to Clinton, but defeated Gore in the electoral college.
When does the winning candidate take office?
If Biden wins the election, he wouldn’t immediately replace President Trump as there is a transition period to give the new leader time to appoint cabinet ministers and make plans.
The new president is officially sworn into office on 20 January in a ceremony known as the inauguration, which is held on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington DC.
After the ceremony, the new president and his entourage makes their way to the White House to begin his or her four-year term in office.
also on thesouthafrican.com: US Election 2020: Democrats out-vote Republicans by a 2-1 ratio in record early vote flood