The U.S. Political System: A Guide for New Immigrants


Learn more about the tripartite system of U.S. politics


The U.S. Political System


For most newcomers, the U.S. political system can seem complicated and confusing. What do the different branches of government do? What is the difference between federal and state governments? And how does voting work?

The structure of the U.S. government is defined in the U.S. constitution. Below, we will summarize each of the 3 branches of government, while also explaining the federalist system. In the end, we’ll break down U.S. elections and the voting process.

For just $199, Boundless and RapidVisa help you complete your entire naturalization application, including all forms and supporting documents, from the moment your application is filed until you obtain U.S. citizenship. Start your application today!


Premium immigration support without the high price tag. Browse our services.


The Three Branches of Government


The Capitol building

The U.S. government is very much a Francophone transplant, influenced by the 18th century philosopher, Montesquieu, who, in his Spirit of the Laws, advocates for the separation of powers into three distinct branches:

  • Executive
  • Legislative
  • Judicial

This division of power — together with a system of checks and balances — is meant to prevent the emergence of autocratic rule. In this section, we’ll discuss each of these three branches.

Executive Branch

The executive branch is run entirely by the president of the United States, who is elected through a system known as the Electoral College. More on that below.

The president — who resides in and governs from the White House — is the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and is primarily charged with the task of enforcing the laws passed by the legislative branch. To more effectively enforce the law, the president selects 15 Cabinet members, who specialize in a particular subset of policies and who act as advisors to the president. If the president is no longer able to assume their duties as head of state, the vice president, also a member of the executive branch, must then take the position.

To check the power of the legislative branch, the president may, at their own discretion, veto (or reject) a law passed by the legislative body.

Legislative Branch

At its core, the legislative branch has two basic functions:

  • To write the laws governing the country
  • To allocate funds needed for running the government

In order to successfully pass a law, a majority of each chamber must vote in favor of the legislation. Congress may override a veto from the president if two-thirds of each chamber vote in favor.

To execute these tasks, the legislative branch is broken up into two chambers — in what is known as a bicameral legislature. The House of Representatives — sometimes referred to as the lower chamber — is meant to directly represent the will of the people. Each state is, therefore, accorded a number of representatives proportionate to its population size. The House contains, in total, 435 elected members, each of which represents a particular district in their home state.

It should be noted that the House has 6 non-voting members representing Puerto Rico, Guam, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia (commonly known as Washington D.C.). Unlike the Senate, the House may put forth revenue legislation, elect the president in case of a tie, and impeach politicians at the federal level.

The Senate is meant to represent the will of the states. Each state is given 2 representatives, making for a total of 100 senators in the upper chamber. Each senator holds office for 6 years. Originally, the Senate was elected by the state legislatures, but ever since the ratification of the 17th Amendment, in 1913, the upper chamber has been elected directly by popular vote. The vice president acts as president of the Senate and may be called by the upper chamber to cast a tie-breaking vote. To further check the power of the president, the Senate must confirm each cabinet member before they take their post. The Senate may also try and convict federal officials who have been impeached by the House of Representatives.

Together, the Senate and the House of Representatives form Congress, which consists of 535 elected members.

Judicial Branch

The judicial branch — comprising the Supreme Court, 94 district courts, and 13 circuit courts — has two fundamental powers:

  • To interpret the law and apply its interpretations to specific cases
  • To determine whether a given law abides by the precepts of the U.S. Constitution

Once the Supreme Court issues a decision regarding the interpretation of a law, the lower federal courts must adhere to that ruling.

Ever since 1869, there have been 9 Supreme Court Justices, though that number is technically determined by Congress and therefore could change. The Justices are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate, and they hold their seats for their entire lives — or until they choose to retire. They can, however, be removed from their positions through an impeachment process initiated by the House of Representatives.

Want to take part in U.S. politics but you’re not a U.S. citizen? Read our overview of the naturalization process to learn more about the path toward citizenship.

The United States is a living example of federalism. In such a system, two overlapping governmental structures can operate on the same patch of land. Each of the 50 states has its own state government, and each state government may write and enforce its own laws, as long as those laws do not contradict the federal statutes.

This particular form of federalism is known as Dual Sovereignty and is described in the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which states the following:

“This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”

The 10th Amendment explicitly gives power to the states, so long as those powers have not been delegated by the Constitution to the U.S. government. This means state governments can do things like:

  • Administer a state court system
  • Create schools
  • Oversee municipal governments
  • Regulate intrastate trade

State governments can also perform functions concurrently with the federal government. They can, for instance:

  • Implement a tax system
  • Build and operate infrastructure, such as roads and trains
  • Oversee elections

If you’re interested in taking a more active role in U.S. politics, you may want to look into becoming a U.S. citizen. For a thorough breakdown of the required documents, read our guide on the topic.


The Federalist System


The United States is a living example of federalism. In such a system, two overlapping governmental structures can operate on the same patch of land. Each of the 50 states has its own state government, and each state government may write and enforce its own laws, as long as those laws do not contradict the federal statutes.

This particular form of federalism is known as Dual Sovereignty and is described in the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which states the following:

“This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”

The 10th Amendment explicitly gives power to the states, so long as those powers have not been delegated by the Constitution to the U.S. government. This means state governments can do things like:

  • Administer a state court system
  • Create schools
  • Oversee municipal governments
  • Regulate intrastate trade

State governments can also perform functions concurrently with the federal government. They can, for instance:

  • Implement a tax system
  • Build and operate infrastructure, such as roads and trains
  • Oversee elections

If you’re interested in taking a more active role in U.S. politics, you may want to look into becoming a U.S. citizen. For a thorough breakdown of the required documents, read our guide on the topic.


U.S. Elections


U.S. elections can be a tad confusing. When do you vote? What is the Electoral College? Where do you go to cast your vote? What are the requirements for voting? By the end of this section, you should know the answers to these questions and have a basic understanding of U.S. elections.

Presidential Elections

The United States holds presidential elections every 4 years. Candidates from each of the main political parties — the Republicans and the Democrats — start campaigning at least 1 year before the election. To run for president, candidates must:

  • Be at least 35 years old
  • Be a natural-born citizen
  • Have lived in the United States for a minimum of 14 years

The first part of the election cycle involves a series of state primaries and caucuses, during which party members in each state choose their preferred candidate. This process culminates in a national convention, at which point the party officially names its nominee, who then announces their running mate (the vice presidential candidate).

Once selected, the presidential nominees, together with their running mates, start campaigning, traveling from state to state, city to city, rallying support among the general population. This process ends on the Tuesday following the first Monday of November, at which point citizens throughout the country head to the voting booth to vote for electors in their state. Most states (except for Nebraska and Maine) have a “winner takes all system,” so the candidate who wins the majority of the popular vote also wins 100% of the electoral votes. But since the number of electors is equal to the state’s congressional representation, it’s possible for smaller states to wield more power than the larger states.

While the 10 largest states contain 54% of the general population, they only have a total of 256 electoral votes. Meanwhile, the 40 smallest states have 46 percent of the total population but are granted 282 electoral votes. This means — as we’ve seen in recent history — a presidential nominee can win the Electoral College, lose the popular vote, and still win the presidency. This odd state of affairs has led some to condemn the Electoral College as a fundamentally anti-democratic institution that, in its roots, was meant to protect the interests of pro-slavery states.

Congressional Elections

Members of the House of Representatives have 2-year term limits, and senators have staggered 6-year term limits. In practice, this means the United States holds Congressional elections every 2 years. These elections are for every member of the House and for one third of the Senate. While every other election happens concurrently with the U.S. presidential elections, the remaining elections happen in the interim and are called “midterms.”

To be a Representative in the House, members must:

  • Be U.S. citizens for a minimum of 7 years
  • Reside in the state they represent
  • Be at least 25 years old

To be a Senator, a person must:

  • Be at least 30 years old
  • Be a U.S. citizen for at least 9 years
  • Live in the state they represent

Unlike presidential elections, Congress members are elected by popular vote — without the intervention of an Electoral College. Prior to the official election — in what are known as “the primaries” — voters choose the congressional candidates they wish to represent the party in the upcoming general election. Then, in November, U.S. citizens vote for their respective senators and representatives.

How to Vote

How do you, a concerned citizen, actually vote in a U.S. election? First you have to meet certain criteria:

  • You must be a U.S. citizen to vote in federal elections
  • You have to meet certain state-specific residency requirements
  • You must be 18 years of age before (or on) election day
  • You must, in most cases, be registered to vote

This means if you’re a lawful permanent resident, you can’t vote in nationwide elections, though you can, in some areas, vote for local government. Being able to vote is one of the many advantages of becoming a U.S. citizen. If you’re on the verge of becoming a citizen, and you’re looking to study for the citizenship test, check out our article on the topic.

Once you’ve determined whether you’re eligible, you can check to see if you’re registered to vote. If you aren’t registered, then you’ll most likely need to do that as soon as possible. In 40 states, you’re allowed to register online, but otherwise, you might need to mail in a registration form or register in person. Note: you may need to re-register if you’ve moved or changed your name since your previous registration.

Finally, you’ll need to vote. First, you might want to see if your state allows early voting. This could be a major time-saver. If you’re voting on election day, you’ll want to know well in advance where your polling place is. You’ll also want to confirm a couple weeks ahead of time that you’re registered. And, because different states have different requirements, you’ll need to check beforehand what you need to bring to the polling place.