Elections in the United States

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An 1846 painting, The County Election by George Caleb Bingham, showing a polling judge administering an oath to a voter.

The United States is a federation, 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. Today, 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 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. According to political science professor Jennifer Lawless, there were 519,682 elected officials in the United States as of 2012.[1]

State law regulates most aspects of the election, 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 United States Constitution defines (to a basic extent) how federal elections are held, in Article One and Article Two and various amendments. The federal government has also been involved in attempts to increase voter turnout, by measures such as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

The financing of elections has always been controversial, because private sources 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 most common method used in U.S. elections is the first-past-the-post system, where the highest polling candidate wins the election. Some may use a two-round system, where if no candidate receives a required number of votes then there is a runoff between the two candidates with the most votes.[citation needed]

Since 2002, several cities have adopted instant-runoff voting in their elections. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference rather than voting for a single candidate. If a candidate secures more than half of votes cast, that candidate wins. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Ballots assigned to the eliminated candidate are recounted and assigned to those of the remaining candidates who rank next in order of preference on each ballot. This process continues until one candidate wins by obtaining more than half the votes.[citation needed]


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 ban 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.

In many states, citizens registering to vote may declare an affiliation with a political party.[4] This declaration of affiliation does not cost money, and does not make the citizen a dues-paying member of a party. A party cannot prevent a voter from declaring his or her affiliation with them, but it can refuse requests for full membership. In some states, only voters affiliated with a party may vote in that party's primary elections (see below). Declaring a party affiliation is never required. Some states, including Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington, practice non-partisan registration.[5]

Absentee voting

An absentee ballot paper for Milton, New Hampshire. 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,[6] and Washington[7][8] 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 9 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."[9] Absentee ballots from these voters can often be transmitted private delivery services, fax, or email.[10]

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.[11] In Oregon and Washington, 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. Early voting in person is allowed in 33 states and in the Washington, D.C. with no excuse required.[12]

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

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.[13] It is an indirect election, with 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 of the presidential candidates 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[14] 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.

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 (2 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 non-voting delegates of Washington, D.C. and the territories of American Samoa, 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. The House delegate of Puerto Rico, officially known as the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, is elected to a four-year term, coinciding with those of the President.

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 of 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. 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 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Type Presidential Off-yeara Midterm Off-yearb Presidential
President Yes No Yes
Senate Class I (33 seats) No Class II (33 seats) No Class III (34 seats)
House All 435 seats[2] No All 435 seats[3] No All 435 seats[2]
Gubernatorial 11 states
2 states
36 states[4]
3 states
11 states
Other state and local offices Varies from state-to-state, county-to-county, city-to-city, community-to-community, etc.
1 This table does not include special elections, which may be held to fill political offices that have become vacant between the regularly scheduled elections.
2 As well as all six non-voting delegates of the U.S. House.
3 As well as five non-voting delegates of the U.S. House. The Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico instead serves a four-year term that coincides with the presidential term.
4 Both the Governors of New Hampshire and Vermont are each elected to two-year terms. The other 48 state governors serve four-year terms.

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.[15] 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.[16] Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system emerged from his immediate circle of advisers, with Hamilton and Madison ending up being the core leaders in this emerging party system.

Thus, it is up to the candidate to decide 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 organization, etc. The primary elections in the main parties are 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, usually resulting in the presidential winner's party gaining seats in Congress. On the other hand, midterm elections are sometimes regarded as a referendum on the sitting president's and/or incumbent party's performance.[17][18] There is a historical pattern that the incumbent president's party loses seats in midterm elections. 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.

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.[19] 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.[20]

Primaries and caucuses

In partisan elections, candidates are chosen by primary elections (abbreviated to primaries) and caucuses in 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 (a semi-closed primary); 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 and caucus season in Presidential elections lasts from the Iowa caucus in January to the last primaries in June. 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.

A state's presidential primary election or caucus usually is an indirect election: instead of voters directly selecting a particular person running for President, it determines how many delegates each party's national political convention will receive from their respective state. These delegates then in turn select their party's presidential nominee. Held in the summer, a political convention's purpose is also to adopt a statement of the party's principles and goals known as the platform and adopt the rules for the party's activities.

The day on which primaries are held for congressional seats, and state and local offices may also vary between states. The only federally mandated day for elections is Election Day for the general elections of the President and Congress; all other elections are at the discretion of the individual state and local governments.

See also


  1. Lawless, Jennifer. Becoming a Candidate. Table 3.1 http://images.dailykos.com/images/134822/large/Elected_officials.png?1426881549
  2. "Felony Disenfranchisement in the United States" (PDF). The Sentencing Project. Retrieved January 10, 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. DeFalco, Beth (January 9, 2007). "New Jersey to take 'idiots,' 'insane' out of state constitution?". Delaware News-Journal.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Navigating Election Day: What Every Voter Needs To Know, Before You Vote
  5. "Voter Registration Resources". Project Vote Smart. Retrieved October 30, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Permanent Absentee Voting in California, via sos.ca.gov
  7. Washington State section of Absentee Ballot
  8. "Voting by Absentee Ballot in Washington state". Secretary of State of Washington.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Federal Voting Assistance Program questions and answers".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. FVAP Integrated Voting Alternative Site (IVAS)
  11. "MAIL (ABSENTEE) BALLOT VOTING". Clark County, Nevada. Retrieved August 8, 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Absentee and Early Voting". National Conference of State Legislatures. Retrieved November 12, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Statistics on the State of the Nation Before the Presidential Elections (2007 and 2011), Pew Research Center, 2011.
  14. U.S. Elections 2012, The Economist, 2012
  15. In Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, respectively, wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions.
  16. Washington's Farewell Address Wikisource has information on "Washington's Farewell Address#20"
  17. Baker, Peter; VandeHei, Jim (November 8, 2006). "A Voter Rebuke For Bush, the War And the Right". Washington Post. Retrieved May 26, 2010. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Election '98 Lewinsky factor never materialized". CNN. November 4, 1998. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. See Anthony Gierzynski, Saving American Elections: A Diagnosis and Prescription for a Healthier Democracy (Cambria Press, 2011)
  20. See Anthony Gierzynski, Saving American Elections: A Diagnosis and Prescription for a Healthier Democracy (Cambria Press, 2011)

External links

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