Elections are a fundamental part of the American system of
government, which was founded on the principle that the power to
govern resides in the people. Elections provide the means by which the
American people delegate this power to elected representatives. By
voting for government officials, the public makes choices about the
policies, programs, and future directions of government action. At the
same time, elections make government officials accountable to their
constituents. Elected officials must conduct themselves in a
responsible manner and take into account popular interests and the
wishes of those they represent. Otherwise they risk being voted out of
office. This system depends primarily on the voters. The electoral
process can only work if people participate.
Election Process and Political Parties
ElectionsIn the United States,
elections are held at regular intervals. National presidential
elections take place every four years. Congressional elections occur
every two years, and state and local elections usually coincide with
national elections. In addition to elections for office, many state
and local ballots include referendums and initiatives, which allow the
people to directly determine a government policy.
and local governments are largely responsible for organizing elections.
State, county, and municipal election boards administer elections.
These boards establish and staff polling places and verify the
eligibility of individuals who come to vote. State laws specify the
qualifications of candidates and how elections are to be administered,
including registration procedures, the location of polling places, and
even the kind of ballots used.
importantly, states also determine the boundaries for congressional
and state legislative districts. In the past, because many legislative
districts were drawn based on area and not on population, regions with
small populations had substantially more representation per person
than did regions with large populations. Thus in the allocation of
seats in the state legislature, rural districts were overrepresented
in relation to their population. For example, in Vermont in the 1960s,
the small town of Stratton, with a population of 38, had the same
number of representatives in the state legislature as Burlington, with
40,000 residents. The U.S. Supreme Court in a series of decisions
beginning in 1962 mandated that each elected official must represent
roughly the same number of people.
people also debate whether the state legislatures should be allowed to
gerrymander, or draw legislative lines to favor a special interest. In
the early 19th century, to further his own and his party’s interests,
Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry encouraged the legislature to
design a district so as to contain as many of his party’s opponents as
possible. By doing this he hoped that his party would lose that
district by a large majority but would then be able to win all the
other districts by small majorities. The district Gerry created was so
convoluted that it was described as being shaped like a salamander,
and it is from this that the term “gerrymander” derives.
Gerrymandering has also occurred on racial lines, both to prevent and
to ensure minority representation in government. After the Voting Act
of 1965 made it possible for blacks to vote, racial gerrymandering
that favored whites was instituted to prevent blacks from being
adequately represented. In recent years, however, gerrymandering has
been used to facilitate the election of members of minority groups,
such as blacks or Hispanics, by creating a district in which such a
group holds the majority. This process—sometimes called “loading a
district”—has been used by some legislatures such as that of North
Carolina to attempt to assure the election of a black representative.
The intent of such districts is to adequately represent the diversity
of the United States population in Congress. Opponents of this process
claim that such procedures are unfair, that they create resentment
against blacks and other minority groups, and that they produce racial
segregation. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that the states’
ability to set legislative and congressional boundaries is a powerful
tool in the determination of public policy.
Political PartiesPolitical parties are the
most representative, inclusive organizations in the United States.
They are made up of citizens who may differ in race, religion, age,
and economic and social background, but who share certain perspectives
on public issues and leaders. Parties are the engines that drive the
machinery of elections: They recruit candidates for office, organize
primary elections so that party members can select their candidates
for the general election, and support their candidates who reach the
general election. Parties also write platforms, which state the
direction that party members want the government to take. Parties have
traditionally played a crucial role in educating Americans about
issues and in getting out the vote.
most of America’s history, a competitive two-party system has
prevailed, and third parties have been the exception. This is a result
of the U.S. electoral system in which the winner takes all. Since
there is no proportional representation, losers get nothing. Thus a
vote for a third party is usually a lost vote.
Originally the Founders opposed political parties, believing them to
be factions intent on manipulating the independent will of voters. But
by the early 19th century political parties had become the most
important political organizations in the United States. They made
certain that their members got to the polls. They also organized
members of Congress into stable voting blocs based on party
affiliation. These blocs united the legislators and helped the
president create a party alliance between the executive and
legislative branches. Since the mid-1850s, when the Republican Party
was formed, the two major parties in the United States have been the
Republican and the Democratic parties. The Democratic Party traces its
beginnings to the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.
19th century, political parties were powerful enough that they could
often motivate voting turnouts of over 80 percent. Today, parties are
less important. Slightly more than one-third of all Americans call
themselves independents with no party affiliation, and voting in
presidential contests—which traditionally have the highest turnout—has
declined to 50 percent. At the same time, the platforms of the two
major parties have shifted towards vague, moderate positions in order
to appeal to the largest number of voters. As a result, the major
parties may appear so similar that many voters lose interest.
Role of the Media in the
Electoral ProcessThe media, especially
television, have played a role in the increasing cost of campaigns
because candidates spend a large amount of money on advertising. Today
individual candidates spend more money on media advertising than ever
before. In 1860 the Republicans spent only $100,000 on Abraham Lincoln’s
presidential campaign and on those of all Republican House and Senate
candidates. In 1988 Republican candidate George Bush spent $70 million,
just on the presidential race. During the 1998 elections, a 60-second
spot on prime-time television cost as much as $100,000 every time it
ran. As a result, campaigns have become more expensive, forcing
candidates to concentrate more on fund-raising and less on presenting
issues to voters.
media have also played a role in the declining importance of political
parties because the media permit candidates to present themselves to
the electorate without any aid from their political parties.
Candidates running for office use the media to gain popularity. By
appealing to the public through the media, candidates erode the
authority of political parties. National party conventions, which
officially nominate candidates for president and vice president, used
to be exciting meetings where the party leaders decided who would
receive the nomination. Today presidential hopefuls have become
independent political entrepreneurs who go to the people rather than
to party leaders. Although candidates still rely on parties for
campaign money to a certain extent, the power of the media has focused
attention much more on individual candidates rather than on the
parties they represent. This has made personal campaign organizations
more efficient moneymaking tools than the national parties. This
individualism tends to undermine loyalty to the powerful and
historically significant institution of political parties, which many
now believe to be a broken branch of government.
Current Trends and IssuesDemocrats and Republicans
face significant challenges in the future. Traditional means of
campaigning have been changed drastically by technology and by
increasing media coverage. Politicians spend less time on grassroots
campaigning, such as visiting neighborhoods. Instead they employ
several elements to enhance their chances of election; some of these
elements were unheard of as recently as the 1950s. These include short
television advertisements that cost as much as $100,000 for a minute,
polls, direct mail, and political consultants who offer advice on how
to shape a campaign.
need to rethink how they can use a system that depends on professional
public relations firms rather than on party leaders, and on direct
mail advertising rather than grassroots party workers. Furthermore,
party leaders need to consider how they can prevent campaigns from
deteriorating into mudslinging: negative advertising about what an
opponent has done wrong, rather than a presentation of what a
candidate will do right. Meanwhile proposed policies have been reduced
to slogans, as the brevity of television spots has limited viewers’
abilities to make choices based on information. Because they see
little difference among candidates, voters often fail to cast a
ballot, and election turnouts have declined.
campaigns are expensive propositions, and Americans are increasingly
dissatisfied with the way they are financed. Politicians depend on
huge campaign contributions from corporations and powerful special
interest groups. One answer to this problem is to rely entirely on
public financing. Another is to limit the amount that any candidate
can spend on a campaign, rather than control the amount that any
individual or group can give. Yet in 1976 in the case of Buckley
v. Valeo, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress cannot limit
campaign spending because spending money on politics is a form of
constitutionally protected free speech. Today there are no limits on
how much money a candidate or party can spend, and no limits on how
much a wealthy candidate can donate to his or her own campaign.
are, however, limits on some kinds of contributions. For instance,
$2,000 is the most any individual can give to any one candidate in any
single election. A limit of $5,000 is placed on the amount that can be
given to a political action committee, which then redistributes the
funds to various candidates. The top amount that can be given to a
national party committee in a federal election is $25,000.