Elections in the United States

Elections in the United States
An 1846 painting showing a polling judge administering an oath to a voter

The United States has a federal government, with elected officials at the federal (national), state and local levels. On a national level, the head of state, the President, is elected indirectly by the people, through an Electoral College. In modern times, the electors virtually always vote with the popular vote of their state. All members of the federal legislature, the Congress, are directly elected. There are many elected offices at the state level, each state having at least an elective governor and legislature. There are also elected offices at the local level, in counties and cities. It is estimated that across the whole country, over one million offices are filled in every electoral cycle.

Both federal and state laws regulate elections. The United States Constitution defines (to a basic extent) how federal elections are held, in Article One and Article Two and various amendments. State law regulates most aspects of electoral law, including primaries, the eligibility of voters (beyond the basic constitutional definition), the running of each state's electoral college, and the running of state and local elections. The financing of elections has always been controversial, because private sources of finance make up substantial amounts of campaign contributions, especially in federal elections. Voluntary public funding for candidates willing to accept spending limits was introduced in 1974 for presidential primaries and elections. The Federal Elections Commission, created in 1975 by an amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act has the responsibility to disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the provisions of the law such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and to oversee the public funding of U.S. presidential elections. The federal government has also been involved in attempts to increase voter turnout, by measures such as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

United States

This article is part of the series:
Politics and government of
the United States

Other countries · Atlas
 U.S. Government Portal
view · talk · edit




The method of voting is first-past-the-post where the highest polling candidate is elected. In the case of the Presidential electoral college the highest polling party elects 100% of the number of positions allocated to that state. There is no legislative requirement that the successful candidate or party must obtain a majority (50% or more) of the vote. The number of seats allocated are not proportional to the overall vote. Further there is no requirement or threshold in the number or percentage of voter turnout which is often below 50% of the eligible voters.


The eligibility of an individual for voting is set out in the constitution and also regulated at state level. The constitution states that suffrage cannot be denied on grounds of race or color, sex or age for citizens eighteen years or older. Beyond these basic qualifications, it is the responsibility of state legislatures to regulate voter eligibility. Some states bar convicted criminals, especially felons, from voting for a fixed period of time or indefinitely. The number of American adults who are currently or permanently ineligible to vote due to felony convictions is estimated to be 5.3 million.[1] Some states also have legacy constitutional statements barring the "insane" or "idiots" from voting; such references are generally considered obsolete and are being considered for review or removal where they appear.[2]

Voter registration

Every state except North Dakota requires that citizens who wish to vote be registered. Some states allow citizens to register to vote on the same day of the election, see below. Traditionally, voters had to register at state offices to vote, but in the mid-1990s efforts were made by the federal government to make registering easier, in an attempt to increase turnout. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the "Motor Voter" law) required state governments that receive certain types of federal funding to make the voter registration process easier by providing uniform registration services through drivers' license registration centers, disability centers, schools, libraries, and mail-in registration. States with same-day registration are exempt from Motor Voter; namely: Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Absentee voting

An absentee ballot paper for Milton, New Hampshire. This ballot paper gives the voter the option to write-in a candidate and use straight ticket voting. This ballot also contains a referendum placed on the ballot by the state legislature.

Voters unable or unwilling to vote at polling stations on Election Day can vote via absentee ballots. Absentee ballots are most commonly sent and received via the United States Postal Service. Despite their name, absentee ballots are often requested and submitted in person. About half of all states and U.S. territories allow "no excuse absentee," where no reason is required to request an absentee ballot. Others require a valid reason, such as infirmity or travel, be given before a voter can participate using an absentee ballot. Some states, including California,[3] and Washington[4][5] allow citizens to apply for permanent absentee voter status, which will automatically receive an absentee ballot for each election. Typically a voter must request an absentee ballot before the election occurs.

A significant source of absentee ballots is the population of Americans living outside the United States. In 1986 Congress enacted the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). UOCAVA requires that the states and territories allow members of the United States Uniformed Services and merchant marine, their family members, and United States citizens residing outside the United States to register and vote absentee in elections for Federal offices. Though many states had pre-existing statutes in place UOCAVA made it mandatory and nationally uniform. "Generally, all U.S. citizens 18 years or older who are or will be residing outside the United States during an election period are eligible to vote absentee in any election for Federal office. In addition, all members of the Uniformed Services, their family members and members of the Merchant Marine and their family members, who are U.S. citizens, may vote absentee in Federal, state and local elections."[6] Absentee ballots from these voters can often be transmitted private delivery services, fax, or email.[7]

Mail ballots

Mail ballots are similar in many respects to an absentee ballot. However they are used for Mailing Precincts where on election day no polling place is opened for a specific precinct.[8] In Oregon, all ballots are delivered through the mail.

Early voting

Early voting is a formal process where voters can cast their ballots prior to the official election day.

Voting equipment

Voters casting their ballots in polling places record their votes most commonly with optical scan voting machines or DRE voting machines. Voting machine selection is typically done through a state's local election jurisdiction including counties, cities, and townships. Many of these local jurisdictions have changed their voting equipment since 2000 due to the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which allocated funds for the replacement of lever machine and punch card voting equipment.

Levels of election

The United States has perhaps the most complicated electoral system in the world. Voters are asked to make more decisions and asked to do so more frequently than citizens of other democracies. This Byzantine electoral structure in the US does provide the greatest opportunity for input, but at a cost--by demanding so much of the public it means that many are overwhelmed by the complexity of the system and ultimately fail to vote.[9]

Federal elections

The United States has a presidential system of government, which means that the executive and legislature are elected separately. Article One of the United States Constitution requires that any election for the U.S. President must occur on a single day throughout the country; elections for Congressional offices, however, can be held at different times. Congressional and presidential elections take place simultaneously every four years, and the intervening Congressional elections, which take place every two years, are called Midterm elections.

The constitution states that members of the United States House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old, a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and be a (legal) inhabitant of the state they represent. Senators must be at least 30 years old, a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and be a (legal) inhabitant of the state they represent. The President must be at least 35 years old, a natural born citizen of the United States and a resident in the United States for at least fourteen years. It is the responsibility of state legislatures to regulate the qualifications for a candidate appearing on a ballot paper, although in order to get onto the ballot, a candidate must often collect a legally defined number of signatures.

Presidential elections

The President and the Vice President are elected together in a Presidential election. The election is indirect, the winner being determined by votes cast by electors of the Electoral College. In modern times, voters in each state select a slate of electors from a list of several slates designated by different parties or candidates, and the electors typically promise in advance to vote for the candidates of their party (whose names usually appear on the ballot rather than those of the individual electors). The winner of the election is the candidate with at least 270 Electoral College votes. It is possible for a candidate to win the electoral vote, and lose the (nationwide) popular vote (receive fewer votes nationwide than the second ranked candidate). Until the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution of 1804, the runner-up in a Presidential election became the Vice President.

Electoral College votes are cast by individual states by a group of electors, each elector casts one electoral college vote. Until the Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution of 1961 the District of Columbia citizens did not have representation and/or electors in the electoral college. In modern times, with electors usually committed to vote for a party candidate in advance, electors that vote against the popular vote in their state are called faithless electors, and occurrences are rare. State law regulates how states cast their electoral college votes. In all states except Maine and Nebraska, the candidate that wins the most votes in the state receives all its electoral college votes (a "winner takes all" system). From 1969 in Maine, and from 1991 in Nebraska, two electoral votes are awarded based on the winner of the statewide election, and the rest (two in Maine, three in Nebraska) go to the highest vote-winner in each of the state's congressional districts. Incumbent Presidents and challengers usually seek to have a "balanced ticket", so that the Presidential candidate and the Vice Presidential candidates have complementary political support and political roles, allowing them to do well among different constituencies. Usually, there is some kind of balance, for example geographical, ideological, or in terms of (especially federal) government experience. The nominated Vice Presidential candidate is called the "running mate". Although incumbent Presidents can be challenged in the primaries, none have lost their party's nomination in recent times (although Gerald Ford in 1976 came close). The last incumbent President to not seek a second term was Lyndon B. Johnson, who stepped down after serving the remainder of John F. Kennedy's term and another full term (he was eligible for another term).

The electoral college has long been criticized, for several reasons. It has been criticized for being undemocratic compared to a direct system of election. Another criticism is that it creates inequality between voters in different states during the presidential election. Usually, only voters in swing states determine the outcome of the election and as a result, it is claimed that the vast majority of Americans, who live in non-competitive states, are largely ignored by political campaigns. If the electoral college were abolished and if the whole country were treated as one district for Presidential elections, then the result would not depend on crucial swing states. It also creates inequality in that the populations of very small states, which have a minimum of 3 Electoral college votes, are overrepresented compared with voters from larger states. For example, Wyoming has a population of 493,782 and 3 EC votes, 164,594 people per EC vote. California has a population of 33,871,648 and 55 EC votes, 615,848 people per EC vote. Abolishing the college and replacing it with a national direct system would also prevent a candidate from receiving fewer votes nationwide than their opponent, but still winning more electoral votes, which last occurred in the 2000 Presidential election. Also, the electoral college discriminates against candidates who do not have support concentrated in several states. In 1992, Ross Perot won 18.9% of the national vote, but received no electoral college votes. The electoral college would require a constitutional amendment to be abolished, and since three-quarters of state legislatures would be required to ratify an amendment that would effectively redistribute voting power from many small states to numerically fewer large states, it is thought that an amendment would fail.

Congressional elections

Elections to Congress take place every two years. Congress has two chambers.

Senate elections

The Senate has 100 members, elected for a six year term in dual-seat constituencies (two from each state), with one-third being renewed every two years. The group of the Senate seats that is up for election during a given year is known as a "class"; the three classes are staggered so that only one of the three groups is renewed every two years. Until the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1913, Senators were elected by state legislatures, not the electorate of states.

House of Representatives elections
A chart of party balance in the House

The House of Representatives has 435 members, elected for a two year term in single-seat constituencies. House of Representatives elections are held every two years on the first Tuesday after November 1 in even years. House elections are first-past-the-post elections that elect a Representative from each of 435 House districts which cover the United States. Special House elections can occur between if a member dies or resigns during a term. The delegates of the territories of American Samoa, District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands are also elected.

House elections occur every two years, correlated with presidential elections or halfway through a President's term. Typically, when a House election occurs in the same year as a presidential election, the party of the presidential winner will gain seats. On the other hand, there is a historical pattern that the incumbent president's party loses seats in elections that are held in the middle of a presidential term. This may be because the President's popularity has slipped since election, or because the President's popularity encouraged supporters to come out to vote for him in the presidential election, but these supporters are less likely to vote when the President is not up for election.

As the redistricting commissions of states are often partisan, districts are often drawn which benefit incumbents. An increasing trend has been for incumbents to have an overwhelming advantage in House elections, and since the 1994 election, an unusually low number of seats has changed hands in each election[citation needed]. Due to gerrymandering, fewer than 10% of all House seats are contested in each election cycle. Over 90% of House members are reelected every two years, due to lack of electoral competition. Gerrymandering of the House, combined with the divisions inherent in the design of the Senate and of the Electoral College, result in a discrepancy between the percentage popular support for various political parties and the actual level of the parties' representation.

State elections

State law and state constitutions, controlled by state legislatures regulate elections at state level and local level. Various officials at state level are elected. Since the separation of powers applies to states as well as the federal government, state legislatures and the executive (the governor) are elected separately. Governors and lieutenant governor are elected in all states, in some states on a joint ticket and in some states separately, some separately in different electoral cycles. The governors of the territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands are also elected. In some states, executive positions such as Attorney General and Secretary of State are also elected offices. All members of state legislatures and territorial jurisdiction legislatures are elected, state senators and state representatives/assembly members. Nebraska's legislature is unicameral, so only senators are elected. In some states, members of the state supreme court and other members of the state judiciary are elected. Proposals to amend the state constitution are also placed on the ballot in some states.

As a matter of convenience and cost saving, elections for many of these state and local offices are held at the same time as either the federal presidential or midterm elections. There are a handful of states, however, that instead hold their elections during odd-numbered "off years."

Local elections

At the local level, county and city government positions are usually filled by election, especially within the legislative branch. The extent to which offices in the executive or judicial branches are elected vary from county-to-county or city-to-city. Some examples of local elected positions include sheriffs at the county level and mayors and school board members at the city level. Like state elections, an election for a specific local office may be held at the same time as either the presidential, midterm, or off-year elections.

Comparison of recent and upcoming election years

Basic rotation of U.S. general elections (fixed-terms only[1])
Year 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Type Presidential Off-yeara Midterm Off-yearb Presidential
President Yes No Yes
Senate Class II (33 seats) No Class III (34 seats) No Class I (33 seats)
House All 435 seats No All 435 seats No All 435 seats
Gubernatorial 11 states
2 states
36 states[2]
3 states
11 states
Other state and local officies Varies from state-to-state, county-to-county, city-to-city, community-to-community, etc.
1 This table does not include special elections, which are held to fill political offices that have become vacant between the regularly scheduled elections.
2 Both the Governors of New Hampshire and Vermont are each elected to two-year terms. The other 48 state governors serve four-year terms.
view · talk · edit

Features of the election system

Party systems

Americans vote for a specific candidate instead of directly selecting a particular political party. The United States Constitution has never formally addressed the issue of political parties. The Founding Fathers such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison did not support domestic political factions at the time the Constitution was written.[10] In addition, the first President of the United States, George Washington, was not a member of any political party at the time of his election or throughout his tenure as president. Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing conflict and stagnation.[11] Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system emerged from his immediate circle of advisers.

Thus, it is up to the candidate to decides under what party he/she should run, registers to run, pays the fees, etc. In the primary elections, the party organization stays neutral until one candidate has been elected. The platform of the party is written by the winning candidate (in presidential elections; in other elections no platform is involved). Each candidate has his or her own campaign, fund raising organisation, etc. The primary elections in the main parties is organized by the states, who also register the party affiliation of the voters (this also makes it easier to gerrymander the congressional districts). The party is thus little more than a campaign organization for the main elections.

However, elections in the United States often do become de facto national races between the political parties. In what is known as "presidential coattails", candidates in presidential elections usually bring out supporters who then vote for his party's candidates for other offices. On the other hand, midterm elections are sometimes regarded as a referendum on the sitting president's and/or incumbent party's performance.[12][13]

Ballot access

Ballot access refers to the laws which regulate under what conditions access is granted for a candidate or political party to appear on voters' ballots. Each State has its own ballot access laws to determine who may appear on ballots and who may not. According to Article I, Section 4, of the United States Constitution, the authority to regulate the time, place, and manner of federal elections is up to each State, unless Congress legislates otherwise. Depending on the office and the state, it may be possible for a voter to cast a write-in vote for a candidate whose name does not appear on the ballot, but it is extremely rare for such a candidate to win office.

Campaign finance

The funding of electoral campaigns has always been a controversial issue in American politics. Infringement of free speech (First Amendment) is an argument against restrictions on campaign contributions, while allegations of corruption arising from unlimited contributions and the need for political equality are arguments for the other side.[14] Private funds are a major source of finance, from individuals and organizations. The first attempt to regulate campaign finance by legislation was in 1867, but major legislation, with the intention to widely enforce, on campaign finance was not introduced until the 1970s.

Money contributed to campaigns can be classified into "hard money" and "soft money". Hard money is money contributed directly to a campaign, by an individual or organization. Soft money is money from an individual or organization not contributed to a campaign, but spent in candidate specific advertising or other efforts that benefits that candidate by groups supporting the candidate, but legally not coordinated by the official campaign.

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 required candidates to disclose sources of campaign contributions and campaign expenditure. It was amended in 1974 to legally limit campaign contributions. It banned direct contributing to campaigns by corporations and trade unions and limited individual donations to $1,000 per campaign. It introduced public funding for Presidential primaries and elections. The Act also placed limits of $5,000 per campaign on PACs (political action committees). The limits on individual contributions and prohibition of direct corporate or labor union campaigns led to a huge increase in the number of PACs. Today many labor unions and corporations have their own PACs, and over 4,000 in total exist. The 1974 amendment also specified a Federal Election Commission, created in 1975 to administer and enforce campaign finance law. Various other provisions were also included, such as a ban on contributions or expenditures by foreign nationals (incorporated from the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) (1966).

The case of Buckley v. Valeo (1976) challenged the Act. Most provisions were upheld, but the court found that the mandatory spending limit imposed was unconstitutional, as was the limit placed on campaign spending from the candidate's personal fortune and the provision that limited independent expenditures by individuals and organizations supporting but not officially linked to a campaign. The effect of the first decision was to allow candidates such as Ross Perot and Steve Forbes to spend enormous amounts of their own money in their own campaigns. The effect of the second decision was to allow the culture of "soft money" to develop.

A 1979 amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act allowed political parties to spend without limit on get-out-the-vote and voter registration activities conducted primarily for a presidential candidate. Later, they were permitted by FECA to use "soft money", unregulated, unlimited contributions to fund this effort. Increasingly, the money began to be spent on issue advertising, candidate specific advertising that was being funded mostly by soft money.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 banned local and national parties from spending "soft money" and banned national party committees from accepting or spending soft money. It increased the limit of contributions by individuals from $1,000 to $2,000. It banned corporations or labor unions from funding issue advertising directly, and banned the use of corporate or labor money for advertisements that mention a federal candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary. The constitutionality of the bill was challenged and in December 2003, the Supreme Court upheld most provisions of the legislation. (See McConnell v. FEC.)

A large number of "527 groups" were active for the first time in the 2004 election. These groups receive donations from individuals and groups and then spend the money on issue advocacy, such as the anti-Kerry ads by Swift Boat Veterans For Truth. This is a new form of soft money, and not surprisingly it is controversial. Many 527 groups have close links with the Democratic or Republican Parties, even though legally they cannot coordinate their activities with them. John McCain, one of the Senators behind the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, and President Bush have both declared a desire to ban 527s.

Changing campaign finance laws is a highly controversial issue. Reformers wish to see laws changed in order to improve electoral competition and political equality. Opponents to reform wish to see the system stay as it is or with even fewer restrictions on the freedom to spend and contribute money. The Supreme Court has made it increasingly difficult for those who wish to regulate election financing, but options like partial public funding of campaigns are still possible and offer the potential to address reformers' concerns with minimal restrictions on the freedom to contribute.[15]

Primaries and caucuses

In federal elections, candidates are chosen not by party officials, but by primary elections (abbreviated to primaries) and caucuses on the states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

A primary election is an election in which registered voters in a jurisdiction (nominating primary) select a political party's candidate for a later election. There are various types of primary: either the whole electorate is eligible, and voters choose one party's primary at the polling booth (an open primary), or only independent voters can choose a party's primary at the polling booth or only registered members of the party are allowed to vote (closed primary). The blanket primary, when voters could vote for all parties' primaries on the same ballot was struck down by the United States Supreme Court as violating the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of assembly in the case California Democratic Party v. Jones. Primaries are also used to select candidates at the state level, for example in gubernatorial elections.

Caucuses also nominate candidates by election, but they are very different from primaries. Caucuses are meetings that occur at precincts and involve discussion of each party's platform and issues such as voter turnout in addition to voting. Eleven states: Iowa, New Mexico, North Dakota, Maine, Nevada, Hawaii, Minnesota, Kansas, Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado and the District of Columbia use caucuses.

The primary season (it refers to primaries and caucuses) in Presidential elections lasts from the Iowa caucus in January to the last primary, which was the New Jersey primary and Montana primary on 8 June in 2004. Front-loading - when larger numbers of contests take place in the opening weeks of the season—can have an effect on the nomination process, potentially reducing the number of realistic candidates, as fund-raisers and donors quickly abandon those they see as untenable. However, it is not the case that the successful candidate is always the candidate that does the best in the early primaries. There is also a period dubbed the "invisible primary" that takes place before the primary season, when candidates attempt to solicit media coverage and funding well before the real primary season begins.

For elections of Presidential candidates, political conventions are held in the summer. These conventions ratify the decisions made in the primaries and caucuses for the two major parties, and are used to select the candidate outright for some of the other political parties. In the past, these conventions were used to select the Presidential candidates for the two major parties as well, but that role has gradually receded.

See also


  1. ^ "Felony Disenfranchisement in the United States" (pdf). The Sentencing Project. http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/fd_bs_fdlawsinus.pdf. Retrieved 2007-01-10. 
  2. ^ DeFalco, Beth (2007-01-09). "New Jersey to take 'idiots,' 'insane' out of state constitution?". Delaware News-Journal. 
  3. ^ Permanent Absentee Voting in California, via sos.ca.gov
  4. ^ Washington State section of Absentee Ballot
  5. ^ "Voting by Absentee Ballot in Washington state.". Secretary of State of Washington. http://www.secstate.wa.gov/elections/register_absentee.aspx. 
  6. ^ "Federal Voting Assistance Program questions and answers". http://www.fvap.gov/faq.html. 
  7. ^ FVAP Integrated Voting Alternative Site (IVAS)
  8. ^ "MAIL (ABSENTEE) BALLOT VOTING". Clark County, Nevada. http://www.accessclarkcounty.com/depts/election/English/pages/Mail.aspx#what_is_mail_ballot_voting. Retrieved 2008-08-08. 
  9. ^ Anthony Gierzynski, Saving American Elections: A Diagnosis and Prescription for a Healthier Democracy (Cambria Press, 2011).
  10. ^ In Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, respectively, wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions.
  11. ^ Washington's Farewell Address Wikisource has information on "Washington's Farewell Address#20"
  12. ^ Baker, Peter; VandeHei, Jim (2006-11-08). "A Voter Rebuke For Bush, the War And the Right". Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/07/AR2006110701697.html. Retrieved 2010-05-26. "Bush and senior adviser Karl Rove tried to replicate that strategy this fall, hoping to keep the election from becoming a referendum on the president's leadership." 
  13. ^ "Election '98 Lewinsky factor never materialized". CNN. 1998-11-04. http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/stories/1998/11/04/impeachment/. "Americans shunned the opportunity to turn Tuesday's midterm elections into a referendum on President Bill Clinton's behavior, dashing Republican hopes of gaining seats in the House and Senate." 
  14. ^ See Anthony Gierzynski, Saving American Elections: A Diagnosis and Prescription for a Healthier Democracy (Cambria Press, 2011)
  15. ^ See Anthony Gierzynski, Saving American Elections: A Diagnosis and Prescription for a Healthier Democracy (Cambria Press, 2011)

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”