Election, procedure that allows members of an organization or community to choose representatives who will hold positions of authority within it. The most important elections select the leaders of local, state, and national governments. The chance to decide who will govern at these levels serves as an opportunity for the public to make choices about the policies, programs, and future directions of government action. At the same time, elections promote accountability. The threat of defeat at the polls exerts pressure on those in power to conduct themselves in a responsible manner and take account of popular interests and wishes when they make their decisions.
In the United States, elections are held at regular intervals. National presidential elections take place every four years. Congressional elections occur every two years. Elections for state and local office usually coincide with national elections. The responsibility for organizing elections rests largely with state and local governments. State laws specify how elections are to be administered, determine the boundaries of electoral districts, and specify the qualifications of candidates. 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.
Native-born or naturalized (foreign-born) U.S. citizens over the age of 18 possess the right to vote. Citizens can lose their right to vote. All states prohibit felons (people convicted of serious crimes) from voting during their imprisonment or parole, and 13 states bar felons from voting for life. However, convicted felons who have regained their right to vote cannot be denied the right to vote if they move to any of those 13 states.
During the early years of the nation’s history, legislatures in the United States generally restricted the right to vote to white males over the age of 21. In addition, many states also limited voting rights to those who owned property or paid more than a specified annual tax. State governments began to rescind property and tax requirements during the 1820s and 1830s. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, the majority of these requirements had disappeared, at least as they affected voting by white males. Women did not fully gain the right to vote in the United States until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920.
At the time of the Civil War, black males had won the right to vote in most Northern states. The 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1870, secured their right to vote throughout the nation. Despite the 15th Amendment, the states of the former Confederacy effectively rescinded the voting rights of blacks in the 1880s. During this period, the Southern states created what was called the Jim Crow system of racial segregation. As part of this system, a variety of devices, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and property qualifications, prevented virtually all blacks from voting. During the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders, demanded the restoration of black voting rights. Enactment of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act accomplished this goal. This law provided for the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee registration of voters in states with histories of discrimination against minority citizens.
Women won the right to vote in 1920, through ratification of the 19th Amendment. This amendment resulted primarily from the activities of the women’s voting rights, or suffrage, movement led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Carrie Chapman Catt. The suffragists held rallies, demonstrations, and protest marches for nearly a half-century before achieving their goal. The most recent expansion of voting rights in the United States took place in 1971, with the ratification of the 26th Amendment. This amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
Compared to voter participation rates of citizens in other democracies, participation in U.S. elections is low. Slightly more than 50 percent of those eligible participate in national presidential elections. Barely 30 percent of eligible voters take part in congressional elections during nonpresidential election years. Turnout plummets even further in state and local races that do not coincide with national contests. In European nations, by contrast, voter turnout consistently exceeds 80 percent.
During the 19th century, American political party machines boosted voter participation rates by employing hundreds of thousands of workers to organize and mobilize voters and bring them to the polls. In some areas, turnout among those eligible to vote approached 90 percent. Political machines began to decline in strength in the early 20th century and have since largely disappeared. Without party workers to encourage them to go to the polls, and even to bring them there if necessary, many eligible voters will not participate. In the absence of strong parties, participation rates have dropped severely among poorer and less-educated citizens. Voting rates are nearly twice as high among the wealthiest fifth of the population as they are among the poorest fifth. A weakened party system has contributed to the creation of an American electorate that is smaller and more skewed toward upper income groups.
In addition to differences in political party strength, these national differences in voter participation result from variations in registration rules and the organization of elections. In Europe, governments automatically register their citizens as voters. In the United States, eligible voters must register with state election boards before they may vote. Progressive Era reformers introduced registration requirements at the end of the 19th century to make voting more difficult and thereby reduce voting fraud and other forms of electoral abuse. In Southern states, these requirements also provided an additional way to deprive both blacks and poor whites of the opportunity to vote. In urban areas, registration rules discouraged immigrant and working class voters from going to the polls.
Registration requirements have eased in most states since the 1960s. An eligible individual may now register to vote by simply mailing a postcard to the state election board. The 1993 federal “Motor-Voter” Act required states to make such postcards available in motor vehicle, public assistance, and military recruitment offices. Legislators hoped that easing burdens on voters might reverse trends in voting participation.
The manner in which governments organize elections and determine winners also affects participation rates. Majority systems require that a victorious candidate receive more than 50 percent of the vote. Under a plurality system, winning candidates need only receive more votes than any opponent. Systems of proportional representation award legislative seats to competing political parties in rough proportion to their percentage of the popular votes cast. European nations commonly use this electoral system. Virtually all national elections in the United States use the plurality system, although the majority system survives in some primary, state, and local elections, especially in Southern states.
In general, proportional representation works to the advantage of smaller or weaker groups in society, while plurality and majority rules tend to help larger and more powerful forces. In Europe, for example, a party that wins 10 percent of the national vote might win 10 percent of the parliamentary seats. In the United States, by contrast, a party that wins 10 percent of the vote will probably win no seats in Congress. Proportional representation tends to increase the number of competitive political parties within an electoral system—for example, the multiparty systems in Europe. Because they offer smaller parties little chance of success, plurality and majority systems usually reduce the number of competitive political parties—for example, the mostly two-party system in the United States.
Proportional representation systems boost participation by increasing the value of a vote to smaller or more marginal portions of a national population. In the United States, plurality or majority systems have reduced the incentive to vote of citizens who do not identify closely with the Democratic or Republican Party. Disillusionment with the major parties and their candidates for office has led not only to declining rates of voter participation, but to an increase in the percentage of voters who identify themselves as “independent.”
|VI||TYPES OF ELECTIONS|
In most nations, political party leaders select candidates for office in a general election. The United States is one of the few nations to hold primary elections prior to the general election campaign. In these elections, voters select the party’s candidates for office. Progressive Era reformers introduced the primary at the beginning of the 20th century as another way to weaken the influence of political party machines in general elections.
The primary is followed by the general election, which normally is the decisive electoral contest. In some states, however, a runoff election between the two candidates receiving the largest number of primary votes may precede the general election.
Some states also provide for referendum voting. The referendum is a process that allows citizens to vote directly on proposed laws or other governmental actions. Voters in several states have voted to set limits on tax rates, to block state and local spending proposals, to prohibit social services for illegal immigrants, and to deny special legal protection for homosexuals.
Although it involves voting, the referendum is not an election. The election is an institution of representative government. In an election, voters choose officials to act for them. The referendum, by contrast, is an institution of direct democracy. In a referendum, voters govern directly without intervention by government officials. The validity of referendums, however, is subject to judicial review. If a court finds that a referendum outcome violates the state or federal constitution, it can overturn the result. For example, federal court judges set aside most of the provisions of the 1994 California referendum curtailing social services to illegal aliens.
State legislatures redraw the boundaries of congressional districts every ten years in response to population changes determined by the national census. The purpose of redistricting is to ensure that congressional seats are fairly apportioned among the citizens of a state. However, some legislators manipulate the boundaries of electoral districts to influence electoral outcomes. The majority political party may “pack” a district with supporters so that it becomes “safe,” or “crack” the district by diffusing or entirely zoning out supporters of the opposing party. This process is often called gerrymandering, a term coined in 1812. At that time, Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry persuaded the state legislature to create a strangely shaped district, which to many resembled a salamander—thus the term gerrymander—to advance the electoral prospects of a supporter.
In the past, one common purpose of gerrymandering was to reduce the electoral strength of racial minorities in congressional districts. The 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act, however, directed Southern states to redraw congressional districts to secure stronger minority representation. At that time, 50 percent of American blacks lived in the South, comprising about 20 percent of the Southern population. However, only 2 of 108 Southern members of the House of Representatives were black. Redistricting in the South has since led to the election of 17 African American Democratic representatives in the South, all from districts with black majorities.
While redistricting along racial lines may have strengthened black Americans politically, the Republican Party in the South also has benefited from such redistricting. One effect of fencing black voters into designated “minority-majority” districts has been to create adjoining districts that are predominantly white and conservative. Critics of the policy argue that demographically balanced districts offer opportunities for governance through coalition building and compromise. Redistricting along racial lines, by contrast, only serves to polarize the races and place ceilings on the careers of minority politicians by limiting their exposure to broadly based constituencies. Federal courts also have challenged the constitutionality of such redistricting. In 1995 the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a black-majority district in Georgia, which consisted of 22 counties. In rendering this decision, the Court stated that race may not be the “predominant factor” in the creation of electoral districts. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions in 1996 and 2003 made similar points.
|VIII||HOW VOTERS DECIDE|
Many Americans identify personally with and maintain a sense of loyalty to either the Democratic or Republican Party. Voters often acquire partisan identification in childhood as a result of parental influence. Issues and policy preferences also influence voters’ choices. For example, concerns about crime may encourage voters to elect the candidate with the strongest platform against it. In addition, the character of a candidate influences voters. Perceptions of honesty, morality, and the ability to lead matter to most voters. Many voters also prefer candidates who share their own racial, religious, or ethnic background.
The outcomes of elections often have important consequences for governmental programs and policies. In the United States, elections have had their greatest impact during times of “critical realignment”—periods when the balance of power between the major parties shifts. Two of the most important realignments in American history took place in 1860 and 1932. In 1860 the newly formed Republican Party elected Abraham Lincoln and won control of the government on a platform calling for the abolition of slavery in the territories. This precipitated the secession of the Southern states and the Civil War, followed by a period of consolidation of national power over the states. In 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt led the Democrats to victory during the Great Depression. The Democrats remained in power for many years and greatly expanded the social service and regulatory functions of the American government. Republicans hoped the election of presidents Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, George H. W. Bush in 1988, and George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 indicated a realignment of political forces in favor of the Republican Party and its conservative political agenda.