Presidential Elections Explained for Kids

Eleanor King

Every four years, Americans vote to choose the leader of their country. This process is always a tumultuous time and can be confusing for kids to understand. Knowing the basics surrounding the U.S. government, how presidential elections work, and the presidency will help you teach your kids more about these important topics. Giving your kids a better idea of what is going on and how they can participate when they get older will benefit them in the long run.

Check out our guide below to help your kids learn about the leader of the United States, how they’re elected, and what their powers are. Plus, we’ve compiled a list of resources you can use to teach your kids about presidential elections and the presidency. 

How do elections work?


It’s important to know that there are different types of elections–local, state, and federal. Local elections include candidates such as mayors, town or city council members, and other town officials. State elections are for state governors and representatives in state legislatures. Federal elections include presidential elections and congressional elections for senators and state representatives. 

Presidential elections take place every four years with a primary election in each state early in the year and a general election in November. Primacy elections indicate which candidates are more popular in their respective parties. General elections are to make a final choice among the candidates who have been nominated by their parties for the presidency.

Presidential campaigns usually start a year and a half before the general election. Throughout the next year, candidates will campaign across the country to try and earn votes and delegates to secure their party’s nomination and therefore be on the general election ballot. After the primaries, parties choose the candidate they wish to support.

Who can vote for president?


Only U.S. citizens over the age of 18 on the day of the election who have registered to vote may vote in presidential elections. Voters must be legal residents of the state they are voting in.

In primaries, voters can only choose between those in their registered party. In general elections, voters can cross party lines to vote for candidates from other parties. This means that a registered republican must vote for Republican candidates in the primary but may vote for democratic, independent, or other candidates in the general election. 

Voting is not only a right, fought for by many in the history of the United States, but a responsibility for all citizens. 

Who can be president? 


The Constitution sets three qualifications for holding the presidency. To serve as president, one must be a natural-born U.S. citizen of the United States, be at least 35 years old, and be a resident in the United States for at least 14 years.

There are no restrictions on the basis of sex, gender, religion, or race. Despite this, there has never been a female president or vice president. All presidents have been part of a Christian faith, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln who were considered non-denominational, despite being raised in Christian households. There has only been one non-white president or vice president in U.S. history.

The Electoral College 


An important part of presidential elections is the Electoral College. Presidents are not simply voted into office by popular vote but instead are elected through the Electoral College. When the Electoral College was first put in place by the Constitution, it was to give citizens in smaller states the same opportunity to influence presidential elections as larger states. 

Each state has delegates in the Electoral College based on state population. When voters go to the polls in a presidential election, they are actually voting for delegates who are committed to casting their ballots for that party’s ticket. During the election, when one person wins the popular vote in a state, they win all the electoral votes for that state (exceptions in Nebraska and Maine who apply electoral votes per each Congressional District). Once all the votes are in, if one candidate has the majority of electoral votes, they become president.

This means that a candidate may win the national popular vote but will not become the president if the Electoral College votes for the other candidate. This happened in the 2016 election. 

Presidential Term Limits


Per the 22nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, passed by Congress in March of 1947 and ratified in February of 1951, presidents may only hold office for two terms of four years. According to the National Constitution Center, in 1944 Republicans pushed for the term limit movement, with Democrats agreeing on the eight-year precedent set by George Washington to guard against “tyrannical rule.” 

Because of term limits, the need to change leadership encourages a rising generation of political leaders with fresh ideas and possible policy changes to come forward. Term limits promote the healthy competition needed to propel politics into the future with a focus on the wants and needs of all generations. 

Presidential Powers


As the head of the executive branch of government, the president exercises many powers to impact national and international relations, laws, and more. 

The president of the United States is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces and as such exercises command over all national military forces of the United States. Despite this, the president cannot formally declare war, only Congress can do this.

The president can issue rules, regulations, and instructions called executive orders, which have the force of law upon federal agencies and do not require approval from Congress. During their term, presidents have the power to nominate and fill many government positions, including Supreme Court seats, top officials for federal agencies, and cabinet members.

Other powers include executive privilege, which gives the president the ability to withhold information in regards to national security, emergency powers, executive clemency, including pardoning, and vetoing legislation from Congress.

While it may seem like the president is all–powerful, there are limits through the Separation of Powers, which provides a series of checks and balances. For example, the president appoints judges and departmental secretaries, but these appointments must be approved by the Senate.

What happens after the election? 


Presidents are elected during November of a presidential election year. They are then sworn into office in January of the following year following a peaceful transition of power. During the time between the election and being sworn in, they are known as the president-elect. 

A president who is in office after their replacement has been elected is called a “lame duck” president. Their presidential powers tend to be more limited and Congress typically will wait for the figure president to take office before passing new legislation.

The President and First Family live in the White House in Washington D.C. for the entire term of the presidency. Many notable changes have been made to the White House by former presidents, including updates to the Rose Garden, the addition of the East Wing, and renovation of the front lawn.

Those who have served as president of the United States still enjoy many of the securities and benefits of the presidency. They receive a pension, have staff and office expenses covered, have medical care or health insurance, and are under Secret Service protection.

Resources


Need help educating your kids about the elections, the presidency, and more? Check out the titles below. 

  • Future President (Future Baby) – Lori Alexander, ages 1–3 (amazon.com, starting at $7.69) 
  • Grace for President – Kelly DiPucchio, ages 4–8 (amazon.com, starting at $11.99)
  • If I Ran For President – Catherine Steir, ages 4–8 (amazon.com, starting at $7.69)
  • What’s the Big Deal About Elections – Ruby Shamir, ages 4–8 (amazon.com, starting at $6)
  • Vote for Me! – Ben Clanton, ages 4–8 (amazon.com, starting at $30)
  • DK Readers L2: What is the President’s Job? – Allison Singer, ages 5–7 (amazon.com, starting at $3.99) 
  • One Vote, Two Votes, I Vote, You Vote (Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library) – Bonnie Worth, ages 5–8 (amazon.com, starting at $9.60)
  • Vote! – Eileen Christelow, ages 6–9 (amazon.com, starting at $12.66) 
  • The Election Book: The People Pick a President – Carolyn Jackson, ages 8–12 (amazon.com, starting at $5.65)
  • Where Do Presidents Come From?: And Other Presidential Stuff of Super Great Importance – Michael Townsend, ages 8–12 (amazon.com, starting at $2.86)

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