Free and fair elections are the keystone of any democracy. They are essential for the peaceful transfer of power.
When voters elect representatives, they elect the leaders who will shape the future of their society. This is why elections empower ordinary citizens: They allow them to influence the future policies of their government, and thus, their own future.
The United States has been a representative democracy since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 — although the electoral tradition began during the colonial era and had its roots in British history. This book discusses the nature of the modern American electoral process and how it works at the federal, state, and local levels. The process, complicated and sometimes confusing, has evolved to ensure universal suffrage to all men and women who are U.S. citizens 18 years of age or older.
Elections in the United States
Elections occur in every even-numbered year for Congress and some state and local government offices in the United States. Other states and local jurisdictions hold elections in odd-numbered years.
Every four years, Americans elect a president and vice president. Every two years, Americans elect all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and approximately one-third of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate. Senators serve staggered terms of six years each.
The United States relies on a complex federal system of government, where the national government is central but state and local governments exercise authority over matters that are not reserved for the federal government. State and local governments have varying degrees of independence in how they organize elections within their jurisdictions, but they hold frequent and well-administered elections.
Types of U.S. Elections
There are two basic types of elections: primary and general. Primary elections are held prior to a general election to determine party candidates for the general election. The winning candidates in the primary go on to represent that party in the general election (although there may be a few more steps before their party lets them do that).
Since the early 20th century, primaries have been the chief electoral device for choosing party candidates. With rare exception, victory in a primary election results in a candidate being nominated by that political party for the general election. In a few states, party candidates are chosen in state or local nominating conventions, rather than primaries, either by tradition or at the option of the political parties.
Once the primary elections or conventions conclude, a general election is held to determine who will be elected to hold office. In the general election, voters make the final determination from among the party candidates listed on the ballot. The general election ballot may also include independent candidates (those not affiliated with a major political party) who gain access to the ballot by submitting a specified number of petition signatures, rather than by the traditional primary method. Furthermore, in some states, the ballot may include a place to “write in” the names of candidates who were neither nominated by the parties nor qualified by petition. Such candidates may be described as “self-nominated,” and they win election to public office from time to time.
In the United States, elections may involve more than just choosing people for public office. In some states and localities, questions of public policy may also be placed on the ballot for voter approval or disapproval. Measures referred to voters by the state legislature or local board or council — referendums — and those placed on the ballot by citizen petition — initiatives — usually concern bond issues (approving the borrowing of money for public projects) and other mandates or strictures on government. In recent decades, these ballot measures have had major impacts, particularly on state budgets and policies.
In addition to federal, state and local elections held in even-numbered years, many states and local jurisdictions hold “off-year” elections in odd-numbered years. Many jurisdictions also provide for special elections, which can be scheduled at any time to serve a specific purpose, such as filling an unexpected vacancy in an elected office.
Every four years, the general election for U.S. president takes place on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November. Prior to this general election, states hold primary elections or caucuses to choose delegates to the national nominating conventions where the party nominees are selected. These individual state primaries and caucuses typically take place between January and June, followed by the national conventions in the summer preceding the election.
Since the 1970s, the presidential candidates who will be the eventual nominees of the major parties are known before the conventions because they amass a majority of delegates before the primary and caucus season is concluded. As a consequence, the conventions have become largely ceremonial events. Highlights of the conventions include a keynote speech by a party leader or leaders, the announcement of the nominee’s vice presidential candidate, the roll call of delegate votes by the state delegations, and the ratification of the party “platform” (the document that states its positions on the issues). As a televised political event and the start of the general election campaign, the conventions are an opportunity to promote the party nominees and define differences with the opposition.
The percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots varies from election to election, but voter turnout in general — even in presidential elections — is lower in the United States than in most other democracies. Since 1960, voter turnout has generally declined from 64 percent (1960) to just over 50 percent (1996), although it increased again over the past three elections. There are several reasons for the comparatively low turnout in the United States. In contrast to some other democracies, a voter in the United States must self-register to be eligible to vote, a process that varies somewhat from one state to another. Another explanation is that voting is voluntary, not compulsory, as in some nations. Because of the high number of elections that are required to fill the estimated more than 1 million elective offices throughout the country, it is also possible that voter fatigue contributes to lower turnout.
Statistics indicate that turnout can drop when the public is content with the political situation, or when polls point to an inevitable victory for a candidate. Conversely, turnout may rise when the race between candidates is considered to be very close or controversial issues are on the ballot.
Each federal elected office has different requirements, laid out in Articles I and II of the U.S. Constitution. A candidate for president, for example, must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, at least 35 years old, and a resident of the United States for at least 14 years. A vice president must meet the same qualifications. Under the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the vice president cannot be from the same state as the president.
Candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old, have been U.S. citizens for seven years, and be legal residents of the state they seek to represent in Congress. U.S. Senate candidates must be at least 30, have been a U.S. citizen for nine years, and be legal residents of the state they wish to represent. Those seeking state or local office must meet requirements established by those jurisdictions.
The 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1951, prohibits anyone from being elected president of the United States more than twice. However, the Constitution does not impose any term limits on representatives and senators in Congress, although various political groups over the years have lobbied for such limits. The term limits, if any, applied to state and local officials are spelled out in state constitutions and local ordinances.