Once America won its independence from Great Britain, the "founding fathers" needed to establish how it was all going to work. They began the arduous process on May 25, 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the Declaration of Independence was signed eleven years before. Four months later, on September 17, 1787, they ratified the Constitution of the United States ("Constitution") and set forth the supreme law of the land and outlined its government.
Personal experience taught the founding fathers that unchecked regimes oppressed people, so they established a three-branched separation of powers with checks and balances. Power would be shared equally between the branches and each could challenge the other. These branches are the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive branches. In the simplest terms, the legislative branch makes the law, the executive branch executes the law, and the judicial branch interprets the law.
The legislative branch consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together form the U.S. Congress ("Congress"). The number of representatives from each state correlates to its population, so totals for each state vary. Each state, however, has two senators. Members of Congress are elected by popular vote. Representatives are elected every two years and senators are elected every six years. Neither has a term limit. Congress also has the power to declare war, conduct investigations, and monitor agencies (Congressional Oversight). The judicial branch establishes the federal bench and the Supreme Court. All federal judges are nominated by the president and confirmed or rejected by the Senate.
The president represents the executive branch and acts as both head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The Constitution also grants a unique ability only to the president: the power to grant or deny pardons. This power extends to every offense and may be applied at any time, even before legal proceedings begin, and there are no limits on the number of pardons a president can issue. Impeachment is the only exception.
The Constitution only demands that a presidential nominee be at least thirty-five years of age, be a natural-born citizen, and have lived in the U.S. for at least fourteen years. A presidential election takes place every four years and a president can only serve two terms. The process begins the year before the election, with candidates competing in state primaries, and concludes at a convention, where the party's nominee is officially selected. Then the general election takes place the following November. The total number of votes each candidate receives, however, does not determine the winner. Instead, presidential elections are decided by the Electoral College, which is based on each state's electors, which is the sum of its senators (always two) and its representatives. There are 538 electors and a candidate needs more than half (270) to win the presidential election.
Four times in our nation's history a president has lost the popular vote but won election by the Electoral College:
1824 – John Quincy Adams elected over Andrew Jackson
1876 – Rutherford B. Hayes elected over Samuel Tilden
1888 – Benjamin Harrison elected over Grover Cleveland
2000 – George W. Bush elected over Al Gore