There are very many elections each year in America - over 80,000 - though the most important, the national election for president is held every four years. These elections are far from simple in terms of organisation. In fact, research indicates that many Americans do not fully understand the nation's electoral structure which might be one of the reasons to explain why nearly 50% of those eligible to vote in November 2000 did not do so.
The process for a national election lasts nearly a year - nearly 25% of the standing president's time in power. A party must provide nominated people to stand for election. They obviously need to have (or are assumed to have) public charisma and are experienced in going public A shy candidate would be a potential disaster in what is becoming an increasingly media dominated event - especially with regards to the use of television.
Of those nominated, only one is selected by the party delegates at the national conventions. This person then goes onto represent that party in the national presidential election. The running mate for the presidential candidate is also announced at the national convention.
The voting body at a national convention is made up of delegates and super-delegates. How each delegate gets to a national convention is a complicated business and can differ markedly from state to state. The two parties at state level can decide which system they use to send delegates to a national convention.
There are two systems : the caucus system and the primary elections. However, the structure of primary elections can differ from state to state. Some delegates are elected in a straight 'first-past-the-post' system while other states use a form of proportional representation to give a greater spread of representation among the delegates sent to a national convention.
The delegates, once at a convention, vote for a candidate for the presidential election. Super-delegates have tended to muddy this system, and therefore the whole voting structure at the national conventions.
Super-delegates are senior civil servants, governors, ex-presidents and old-established figures within the party - be it Democrat or Republican. The super-delegates inflate the number of people who can vote at a convention and they can be very influential in the final decision of who runs for presidency for the party that they represent. Super-delegates are not voted for by state parties and they tend to undermine the issue of state party democracy.
After the national conventions, the two parties presidential hopefuls can concentrate on campaigning for the ultimate prize in American politics.