form the foundation of a modern democracy, and more elections are scheduled
every year in the United States than in any other country in the world.
Collectively on all levels of government, Americans fill more than
500,000 different public offices. Campaigns
Ų where candidates launch their efforts to convince voters to support them Ų
precede most elections. In recent
years campaigns have become longer and more expensive, sparking a demand for
campaign finance reform. No one
questions the need for campaigns and elections, but many people believe that the
government should set new regulations on how candidates and parties go about the
process of getting elected to public office.
serve many important functions in the United States. Most obviously, elections
choose political leaders from a competitive field of candidates.
But elections are also an important form of political participation, with
voting in presidential elections one of the most common types of participation
by the American public in the political process. Elections give individuals a
regular opportunity to replace leaders without overthrowing them, thus making
elected officials accountable for their actions. Elections legitimize positions
of power in the political system because people accept elections as a fair
method for selecting political leaders.
Constitution sets broad parameters for election of public officials.
For example, the Constitution provides for the election of members of the
Housed of Representatives every two years, and it creates and defines the
electoral college. By law Congress
sets the date for national elections Ų the Tuesday after the first Monday in
November. However, most electoral
guidelines and rules are still set by the individual states.
ROLE OF POLITICAL PARTIES
for political office almost always run with a political party label; they are
either Democrats or Republicans, and they are selected to run as candidates for
the party. The party, however, is not as important as it is in many other
democracies. Running for the presidency or Congress requires the candidate to
take the initiative by announcing to run, raising money, collecting signatures
to get his or her name on the ballot, and personally appealing to voters in
many other democracies, the party controls whether to allow candidates to run
and actually puts their names on the ballot. Campaigns become contests between
political parties, not individuals. In United States history, parties once had
much more control over elections and campaigns than they do today. In the
nineteenth century, the Democratic and Republican members of Congress would meet
separately to select their nominees for the presidency. Congressional candidates
were often chosen by powerful local party bosses, and citizens were more likely
to vote a "straight party ticket" than they do now. The power of the
party has dwindled as campaign techniques have changed.
most American elections, the candidate with the most votes wins. The winner does
not have to have a majority (more than 50%), but may only have a plurality,
the largest number of votes. Most American elections are single-member
districts, which means that in any district the election determines one
representative or official. For example, when the U.S. Census allots to each
state a number of representatives for the U.S. House of Representatives,
virtually all state legislatures divide the state into several separate
districts, each electing its own single representative.
system ensures a two-party system in the U.S., since parties try to assemble a
large coalition of voters that leads to at least a plurality, spreading their
"umbrellas" as far as they can to capture the most votes.
winner-takes-all system contrasts to proportional representation, a system in
which legislative seats are given to parties in proportion to the number of
votes they receive in the election. Such systems encourage multi-party systems
because a party can always get some representatives elected to the legislature.
leaders are selected through a process that involves both primary and general
began in the early part of this century as a result of reforms of the
Progressive Movement that supported more direct control by ordinary citizens of
the political system. A primary is used to select a party's candidates for
elective offices, and states use three different types:
The state of Iowa
has a well-known variation of a primary - a caucus. Under this system,
local party members meet and agree on the candidate they will support; the local
caucuses pass their decisions on to regional caucuses, who in turn vote on
candidates, and pass the information to the state caucus, who makes the final
decision. In both the primary and caucus, the individual party member has a say
in who the party selects to run for office. A number of other states make at
least limited use of the caucus in making their choices of candidates.
Once the candidates
are selected from political parties, they campaign against one another until the
general election, in which voters make the final selection of who will fill the
various government offices. More people vote in a general election than in the
primary, with about 50% voting in recent presidential year elections, as
compared to about 25% in primary elections.
and congressional races follow the same basic pattern: they announce for office,
the people select the party candidates in primary elections, party candidates
campaign against one another, and the official is chosen in the general
election. But presidential and congressional elections differ in many ways.
ROAD TO THE PRESIDENCY
can be very simple or very complex. If
you run for the local school board, you may just file your name, answer a few
questions from the local newspaper, and sit back and wait for the election.
If you run for President, that‚s another story.
Today it is almost impossible to mount a campaign for the Presidency in
less than two years. How much money
does it take? That is currently an
open question, but it certainly ivolves millions of dollars.
Step 1: Deciding to announce
hopefuls must first assess their political and financial support for a campaign.
They generally start campaigning well before any actual declaration of
candidacy. They may be approached by party leaders, or they may float the idea
themselves. Many hopefuls come from Congress or a governorship, but they almost
never announce for the presidency before they feel they have support for a
campaign. Usually the hopeful makes it known to the press that he or she will be
holding an important press conference on a certain day at a certain time, and
the announcement serves as the formal beginning to the campaign.
Step 2: The Presidential Primaries
Candidates for a party's presidential nominees run in a
series of presidential primaries, in which they register to run. By tradition,
the first primary in held in February of the election year in New Hampshire.
States hold individual primaries through June on dates determined ahead of time.
Technically, the states are choosing convention delegates, but most delegates
abide by the decisions of the voters.
may be allocated according to proportional representation, with the Democrats
mandating this system. The Republicans endorse in some states a winner-take-all
system for its delegates. In several states, the delegates are not pledged to
any certain delegate. No matter what the system, however, the candidates who win
early primaries tend to pick up support along the way, and those that lose
generally find it difficult to raise money, and are forced to drop out of the
race. The tendency for early primaries to be more important than later ones is
called frontloading. By the
time primaries are over, each party's candidate is almost certainly finalized.
3: The Conventions
The first party convention was held during the presidency
of Andrew Jackson by the Democratic Party. It was invented as a democratic or
"grass roots" replacement to the old party caucus in which party
leaders met together in "smoke-filled rooms" to determine the
candidate. Today national party conventions are held in late summer before the
general election in November.
Before primaries began to be instituted state by state in
the early part of this century, the conventions actually selected the party
candidates. Today the primaries determine the candidate, but the convention
formally nominates them. Each party determines its methods for selecting
delegates, but they generally represent states in proportion to the number of
party members in each state.
Even though the real decision is made before the
conventions begins, they are still important for stating party platforms, for
showing party unity, and for highlighting the candidates with special
vice-presidential and presidential candidates' speeches on the last night of the
convention. In short, the convention serves as a pep rally for the party, and it
attempts to put its best foot forward to the voters who may watch the
celebrations on television.
Step 4: Campaigning for the General Election
the conventions are over, the two candidates then face one another.
The time between the end of the last convention and Labor Day used to be
seen as a time of rest, but in recent elections, candidates often go right on to
the general campaign. Most of the campaign money is spent in the general
campaign, and media and election experts are widely used during this time.
Because each party wants to win, the candidates usually begin sounding more
middle-of-the-road than they did in the primaries, when they were appealing to
the party loyalists.
1960 presidential debates are often a major feature of presidential
elections, giving the candidates free TV time to influence votes in their favor.
In recent campaigns, the use of electronic media has become more important, and
has had the effect of skyrocketing the cost of campaigns.
Two major types
of criticisms have emerged in recent years concerning U.S. campaigns and
elections: campaign spending and local control of the voting process.
Spending for campaigns and elections are criticized for
many reasons. Major reforms were passed in 1974 largely as a result of abuses
exposed by the Watergate scandal. Other important milestones have been the 1976
Amendments, Buckley vs. Valeo, and the Bipartisan
Campaign Reform Act of 2002.
The Reform Act of 1974 has several important
1976 Amendments allowed corporations, labor unions, and special interest groups to set
up political action committees (PACs) to raise money for candidates.
Each corporation or labor union is limited to one PAC.
in 1976 the Supreme Court ruled in Buckley vs. Valeo that limiting
the amount that a candidate could spend on his or her own campaign was
unconstitutional. „The candidate,
no less than any other person, has a First Amendment right to engage in the
discussion of public issues and vigorously and tirelessly to advocate his own
After the election of 1996 criticisms of campaigns became
so strong that special congressional hearings were called to investigate them.
Among the criticisms was the overall expense of both Democratic and Republican
campaigns, since more money was spent in 1996 than in any previous campaign.
President Clinton and Vice-President Gore were criticized for soliciting
campaign funds from their offices and the White House, and Attorney General
Janet Reno was called on to rule on the legality of their activities. Another
major accusation was that contributions were accepted from foreigners, who were
suspected of expecting favors for themselves or their countries in return.
finance reform was the major theme of Senator John McCain‚s campaign for the
presidency in 2000. McCain
particularly criticized soft money Ų funds not specified for
candidates‚ campaigns, but given to political parties for „party buildingš
activities. McCain and many others
claimed that this money made its way into campaigns anyway.
McCain did not win the Republican nomination, he carried his cause back to the
Senate where he had championed the cause for several years previous to the
election. Partly as a result of the
publicity during McCain‚s campaign, a major reform bill passed in 2002.
Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 banned soft money to national parties and placed
curbs on the use of campaign ads by outside interest groups.
The limit of $1000 per candidate contribution was lifted to $2000, and
the maximum that an individual can give to all federal candidates was raised
from $25,000 to $95,000 over a two-year election cycle.
The act did not ban contributions to state and local parties, but limited
this soft money to $10,000 per year per candidate.
ELECTION 2000: LOCAL CONTROL OF
THE VOTING PROCESS
The problems with
counting the votes in Florida during the 2000 presidential election led to
widespread criticism of a long accepted tradition in American politics: local
control of the voting process. When
Florida‚s votes were first counted, Republican George W. Bush received only a
few hundred more votes than did Democrat Al Gore. An automatic recount narrowed the margin of victory even
further. Since the outcome of the
election rested on Florida‚s vote counts, the struggle to determine who
actually won was carried out under a national spotlight.
as local officials tried to recount ballots in a system where local voting
methods and regulations varied widely. Some
precincts had electronic voting machines known for their accuracy and
reliability. Others used paper
punch ballots that often left „hanging chadsš that meant that those ballots
might not be counted by the machines that processed them. The recount process was governed by the broad principle of
determining „intent to voteš that precincts interpreted in different ways.
Important questions were raised. Are
all votes counted? Are votes in
poor precincts that cannot afford expensive voting machines less likely to be
counted than are those in affluent areas? Do
variations in voting processes subvert the most basic of all rights in a
democracy Ų the right to vote?
The fact that these problems exist in most states across
the country caused many to suggest national reform of the voting process.
Some advocate nationalizing elections so that all voters use the same
types of machines under the same uniform rules.
Others have pressured Congress to provide funds for poor precincts to
purchase new voting machines. Even
the Supreme Court - in its Bush v. Gore decision that governed the
outcome of the election Ų suggested that states rethink their voting
THE „527sš OF THE ELECTION OF
restrictions of contributions to parties led to the „527š phenomenon of the
2004 presidential campaign. These
independent but heavily partisan groups gathered millions of dollars in campaign
contributions for both Democratic and Republican candidates.
So named because of the section of the tax code that makes them
tax-exempt, the 527s tapped a long list of wealthy partisans for money, and so
set off a debate as to their legality. The
Democrats were the first to make use of the 527s, largely because George W. Bush
had a much larger chest of hard money for his campaign.
However, the Republicans eventually made use of the 527s too. The groups included America Coming Together and the Media
Fund on the Democratic side, and Swift Vets and POWs for Truth and Progress for
America Voter Fund for the Republicans.
may be important milestones in political history, either marking changes in the
electorate, or forcing changes themselves. The strength of one political party
or another may shift during critical or realigning periods, during which time a
lasting shift occurs in the popular coalition supporting one party of the other.
A critical realigning election marks a significant change in the
way that large groups of citizens votes, shifting their political allegiance
from one party to the other.
usually occur because issues change, reflecting new schisms formed between
groups. Political scientists see several realignments from the past, during or
just after an election, with the clearest realignments taking place after the
elections of 1860, 1896, and 1932.
1932 political scientists agree on no defining realignments, but a dealignment
seems to have occurred instead. Rather than shifting loyalties from one
party to another, people recently have seemedd less inclined to affiliate with a
political party at all, preferring to call themselves "independents."
The trend may have reversed with the election of 2004, when voters lined up
according to „red statesš (Republicans) and „blue statesš (Democrats).
In that election the alignments were not only regional, but also urban
vs. rural. Many analysts believe
that a new alliance may have formed among highly religious people that cuts
across traditional faiths, drawing from fundamentalist Protestantism,
Catholicism, and even Judaism. These
voters identified themselves through their regularly church-going habits, and
tended to support Republican candidates for office in 2004.
The expense and
length of modern American elections and campaigns have become major issues in
politics today. Some recommend that
political party spending be more closely monitored, and others believe that
overall spending caps must be set. Still
others advocate national, not state, control of the primary process in order to
reduce the length and expense of campaigns.
Whatever the criticisms, American elections and campaigns represent a
dynamic and vital link between citizen and government.
Campaign Reform Act of 2002
reform act of 1974
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