Election Process and Political Parties

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.

Responsibility for Elections

In 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.

State 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.

More 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.

Many 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 Parties

Political 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.

For 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.

In the 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 Process

The 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.

The 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 Issues

Democrats 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.

Parties 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.

Modern 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.

There 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.