Voting and Elections

Forms of Political Participation

  • voting in elections
  • discussing politics and attending political meetings
  • forming interest groups and PACS
  • contacting public officials
  • campaigning for a candidate or political party
  • contributing money to a candidate or political party
  • running for office
  • protesting government decisions

Most of these behaviors would be considered conventional or routine, within the acceptable channels of representative government. Less conventional behaviors have been used when groups have felt powerless and ineffective. Although Americans are less approving of unconventional behaviors, those tactics are sometimes effective in influencing government decisions. The often-violent protests against the Vietnam Conflict discouraged Lyndon Johnson from running for reelection in 1968. In the modern era of the Internet and other forms of "instant news," a single verbal gaffe can cause major problems for a candidate; mistakes by candidates are often quickly spread by supporters of the opposing candidate.

The most common form of political participation in the United States is voting. However, Americans are less likely to vote than citizens of other countries.

Participating in American Government

Expansion of Suffrage

Suffrage is the right to vote. It is a political right that belongs to all those who meet certain requirements set by law. The United States was the first nation to provide for general elections of representatives through mass suffrage. The issue of suffrage is left to the states— the only stipulation found in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution is that individuals who could vote for "the most numerous branch of the state legislature" could also vote for their Congressional representatives.

The composition of the American electorate has changed throughout history. Two major trends have marked the development of suffrage: the elimination of a number of restrictive requirements and the transfer of more and more authority from the states to the federal government.

Changes in voting requirements have included:

  • elimination of religious qualifications, property ownership, and tax payments after 1800
  • elimination of race disqualifications with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870
  • elimination of gender disqualifications with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920
  • elimination of grandfather clauses, white primaries, and literacy requirements with the passage of federal civil rights legislation and court decisions (Civil Rights Acts, Voting Rights Act of 1965)
  • allowing residents of Washington, D.C., to vote in presidential elections with the passage of the Twenty-Third Amendment in 1961
  • elimination of poll taxes in federal elections with the passage of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964 (all poll taxes were ruled unconstitutional in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections 1966)
  • lowering the minimum age for voting in federal elections to 18 with the passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971

Issue or Policy Voting

The Progressive Movement of the early 20th century was a philosophy of political reform that fostered the development of mechanisms for increased direct participation. These included:

  • A direct primary allows citizens to nominate candidates.
  • A recall is a special election initiated by petition to allow citizens to remove an official from office before a term expires.
  • A referendum allows citizens to vote directly on issues called propositions (proposed laws or state constitutional amendments).
  • An initiative allows voters to petition to propose issues to be decided by qualified voters.

Although the recall, referendum, and initiative do not exist at the national level, several states allow voters to approve or disapprove ballot initiatives on specific issues.

Low Voter Turnout

Voting has been studied more closely than any other form of political participation in the United States. Studies have shown that voter turnout in the United States has decreased when compared with other nations and when compared with the United States over time. Voter turnout is higher if the election is seen as important; voter turnout is higher in presidential elections than in off-year elections. Several reasons might account for the low voter turnout:

  • expansion of the electorate—increase in the number of potential voters (Twenty-sixth Amendment)
  • failure of political parties to mobilize voters—negative campaigning, numerous elections, frequent elections, lack of party identification
  • no perceived differences between the candidates or parties—both parties and their candidates are seen as virtually the same
  • mistrust of government—a belief that all candidates are untrustworthy or unresponsive, due in part to the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals
  • apathy—a lack of interest in politics; a belief that voting is not important
  • satisfaction with the way things are —a belief that not voting will keep the status quo
  • lack of political efficacy—people do not believe their vote out of millions of votes will make a difference
  • mobility of electorate—moving around leads to a lack of social belonging
  • registration process —differences in registration procedures from state to state may create barriers; the National Voter Registration Act of 1995 (Motor Voter Law) was designed to make voter registration easier by allowing people to register at drivers' license bureaus and some public offices

Who Votes?

Several factors affect the likelihood of voting:

  • education —The higher the level of education, the more likely a person is to vote. This is the most important indicator of voting behavior.
  • occupation and income —These often depend on education level. Those with white-collar jobs and higher levels of income are more likely to vote than those with blue-collar jobs or lower levels of income.
  • age—Older people are more likely to vote than younger people.
  • race—Minorities such as African Americans and Hispanics are less likely to vote than whites, unless they have similar socioeconomic status.
  • gender—At one time, gender was not a major predictor, but today women are more likely to vote than men.
  • religion—Those who are more active within their religion are more likely to vote than those who do not attend religious services, or rarely attend.
  • marital status—Married people are more likely to vote than those who are not married.
  • union membership —Unions encourage participation, and union members tend to vote regularly.
  • community membership —People who are well integrated into community life are more likely to vote than those who have moved recently.
  • party identification —Those who have a strong sense of party identification are more likely to vote.
  • geography—Residents of states with interparty competition and close elections may be more likely to vote than those who live in states with one-party domination.
Demographics for Dummies (w/ Susie Sampson)

Types of Elections

Presidential Primary Primer
  • Primary elections are nominating elections in which voters choose the candidates from each party who will run for office in the general election. There are several major types of primaries:
      closed primary—Only voters who are registered in the party may vote to choose the candidate. Separate primaries are held by each political party, and voters must select a primary in advance.
      open primary—Voters may vote to choose the candidates of either party, whether they belong to that party or not. Voters make the decision of which party to support in the voting booth.
      blanket primary—Voters may vote for candidates of either party, choosing a Republican for one office and a Democrat for another; used only in Alaska and Washington.
      runoff primary —When no candidate from a party receives a majority of the votes, the top two candidates face each other in a runoff.
  • General elections are elections in which the voters choose from among all the candidates nominated by political parties or running as independents.
  • Special elections are held whenever an issue must be decided by voters before a primary or general election is held, for example, to fill a vacancy in the Senate.

Congressional Elections

Since congressional elections are held every even-numbered year, off-year elections (mid-term elections) occur during the year when no presidential election is held. Voter turnout in off-year elections is generally lower than during presidential election years. During presidential election years, the popularity of a presidential candidate may create a coattail effect, allowing lesser-known or weaker candidates from the presidential candidate's party to win by riding the "coattails" of the nominee.

The Race: Winning a presidential campaign

Presidential Elections

The road to the White House and the presidency begins months and even years prior to the election. Some candidates begin the process as soon as the previous election is over. Phases of a candidacy include:

  • exploration —In deciding whether to run for president, individuals must determine whether they have enough political and financial support to win against other possible candidates. Often a possible nominee will form an exploratory committee to begin lining up support and finances, as well as to attract media coverage and gain widespread recognition.
  • announcement —Once a candidate has decided to run, an announcement is generally made in a press conference. This announcement is a formal declaration that the candidate is seeking the party's nomination.
  • presidential primaries and caucuses —In the past, state party officials would meet in a caucus to endorse the party candidate prior to presidential primaries. Abuses of the caucus system led to many states abandoning its use. Iowa still uses caucuses to nominate presidential candidates; however, today they are open to all members of the party. Most states today use the presidential preference primary to determine whom the state delegates to the national party convention will support. Voters vote in a primary election, and party delegates to the conventions support the winner of the primary election.
  • nominating conventions—Each political party holds a national nominating convention in the summer prior to the general election. The convention is composed of delegates from each state, with each party determining its method of selecting delegates. The purpose of the nominating convention is to choose the party's presidential and vice-presidential nominees, write the party platform, and bring unity to the party in support of their chosen nominees.
  • campaigning and the general election—After the conventions are over, each candidate begins campaigning for the general election. Generally, candidates travel to swing states (these in which neither major party has overwhelming support) and often appear more moderate in an effort to win the largest possible number of votes. Since 1960, the candidates have faced each other in televised debates. The general election is then held to determine which candidate wins the electoral college vote for that state.
  • electoral college—When voters go to the polls on election day they are casting the popular vote. This vote is actually for electors. Each state has a number of electors equal to its senators and representatives in Congress. Also, Washington, D.C., has three electoral votes. The entire group of 538 electors is known as the electoral college. After the general election, the electors meet in their respective state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. The candidate who wins a majority of popular votes in a state in the general election wins all the state's electoral votes in the electoral college (winner-take-all). Although the electors are not required to vote for their party's candidate, only rarely do they cast a vote for someone else. The votes cast in the electoral college are then sent to Congress, where they are opened and counted before a joint session. The candidate who receives a majority (270) of electoral votes is declared the winner. If no candidate for president receives a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives chooses the president from the top three candidates. If no candidate for vice president receives a majority of electoral votes, the Senate chooses the vice president from the top two candidates.
How the Electoral College Works
The Trouble with the Electoral College
What If the Electoral College is Tied?

Campaign Finance

Campaign Finance Regulations and Reforms

Prior to the 1970s candidates for public office received donations from businesses, labor organizations, and individuals to finance campaigns.

Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) in 1971, restricting the amount of campaign funds that can be spent on advertising, requiring disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures, and limiting the amounts candidates and their families can donate to their own campaigns. It also allowed taxpayers to designate a donation on their tax return to the major political party candidates, beginning in the 1976 presidential election.

In 1974, after the Watergate scandal, Congress amended the Federal Election Campaign Act to establish a Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce the act, and established public financing for presidential candidates in primaries and the general election. The measure also restricted contributions by prohibiting foreign contributions, limiting individual contributions, and restricting the formation of PACs and their contributions. It was further amended in 1976 and 1979.

In 1976 the Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo, that spending limits established by the FECA Amendments of 1974 were unconstitutional, ruling that those restrictions were in violation of the First Amendment's guarantees of freedom of expression. Buckley v. Valeo also declared that the FECA ban on self-financed campaigns was unconstitutional.

In 1996 new questions arose over the use of "soft money," donations to political parties that could be used for general purposes. Originally, the money was supposed to be used for voter registration drives, national party conventions, and issue ads. Political parties were allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money because it was not to be used for campaigning. However, soft money has generally been spent in ways that ultimately help individual candidates. By the 2000 election, soft money donations had exceeded $400 million between the two major parties.

Campaign finance reform has been a major issue in Congress. In 2002 Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (BCRA), banning the use of soft money in federal campaigns and increasing the 1974 limits on individual and group contributions to candidates. A result of the BCRA in the campaign of 2004 was the formation of "527" political organizations. A 527 political organization is a largely unregulated interest group that focuses on a single policy and attempts to influence voters. After the 2004 election, new rules governing 527 organizations regulated their use of soft money and allowed the FEC to examine their expenditures.

Campaign Money


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