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1.10: Elections

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    204120
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    Ask ten different Americans what it means to be a good citizen, and you might get ten different answers, each representing a distinct view of civic responsibility and the actions, beliefs, or characteristics it entails. Yet most if not all of them would include in their answer the act of voting. Unlike countries such as Australia and Brazil where voting is compulsory, America does not legally require its citizens to participate in elections. Nevertheless, voting is widely regarded as every adult American’s duty, something which we often feel ashamed for not doing (and which we feel free to shame others for not doing).

    Photograph of Pete Buttigieg speaking to supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2020
    Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks to supporters in Des Moines the night before winning the chaotic 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses.

    It’s easy to understand why voting is so central to the American ideal of good citizenship. Elections are the main mechanism — though not the only one — by which public opinion is incorporated into democratic policymaking. Popular sovereignty and majority rule depend on regular input from the populace, and both are undermined when voting-eligible citizens abstain from elections. The fewer people participate in the electoral process, the less true it is that “the people rule,” and the likelier it is that the majority which determines the outcome of the election will itself constitute only a minority of the population. Practically speaking, a democracy with extremely low participation is indistinguishable from an aristocracy in which only a handful of citizens wield political power.

    Elections in the United States are designed to convert public opinion into government policy, but this conversion is neither simple nor direct. Public sentiment is mostly filtered through an indirect democratic process in which politicians are chosen to act on the behalf of the voters who elected them, and the rules for electing these politicians vary from state to state and from office to office. These complexities make American elections much more than merely counting votes to see who or what has the most.

    Direct & Indirect Democracy

    The first thing to note about American elections is that there is no one way of holding them. Administering elections, even presidential elections, is a power reserved for the states under the Constitution. The national government imposes some basic guidelines (for example, all elections must be democratic, and Americans’ voting rights must be respected), but state governments determine registration requirements, design ballots, and count votes, among other tasks. As with other reserved powers, the placing of these responsibilities in the hands of the states leads to state-by-state variation in how elections work.

    Some states allow their citizens to participate in direct democracy. In certain states, citizens can propose a law or an amendment to the state constitution as an initiative. If an initiative gathers enough signatures on a petition, it is placed on the ballot to be voted on by all citizens and enacted if it receives majority support. Another form of direct democracy is the referendum, in which a law or constitutional amendment passed by a state legislature is submitted to the people for their approval, either automatically or if enough citizens request it. A policy that fails to earn majority support in a referendum can be prevented from being enacted, or repealed if it is already in force.

    Initiatives and referenda are relatively rare, even in states that allow them. Most American elections are examples of indirect democracy, in which citizens vote for someone — a legislator, an executive, occasionally a judge — to choose policies on their behalf. Like the British parliamentary system on which it was based, the American electoral system has a single-member district structure: most individual elections produce produces a single winner who represents a particular area, such as a state, a congressional district, a county, or a city ward. (This is true even for the Senate: although each state has two senators in Congress, they are chosen in separate elections, and each Senate election has only one winner.)

    Compared to direct democracy, indirect democracy has many advantages. Governments must make a multitude of decisions in order to function, and putting each of those decisions up for a public vote would be hugely inefficient. Even if it could be done efficiently, the choices governments face involve complex issues of economics, science, organizational theory, diplomacy, and even warfare — issues which average citizens might struggle to comprehend. Consequently, we assign politicians to make political decisions for us for the same reason we assign doctors to make medical decisions for us: it makes sense to entrust such important matters to full-time experts.

    Of course, representative democracy can only be as good as the representatives themselves. If we the people elect incompetent or corrupt politicians who fail to pursue the public interest, the results might be even worse than if we had tried to decide every policy question ourselves. Politicians’ desire for reelection may prevent them from neglecting their constituents’ interests completely, but for this mechanism to work voters must be sufficiently attentive to politicians’ actions and both willing and able to hold them accountable for their misdeeds.

    The Rules of American Elections

    American elections occur at regularly scheduled intervals, most commonly in even-numbered years. U.S. representatives serve two-year terms, and must therefore win reelection every two years if they want to keep their jobs. Presidents and most governors serve four-year terms; presidents can be reelected once, whereas some governors have unlimited opportunities for reelection (or, in the case of Virginia, none at all). Senators serve six-year terms, which are staggered so that only about a third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years.

    In 1845, Congress established the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November as Election Day in the United States. An election held on this day is referred to as a general election. The winner of a general election in November is installed into whichever office he or she won the following January.

    Usually there is only one candidate per party in a general election, but parties frequently disagree on whom they should nominate. Parties settle these disagreements through a primary election, commonly held in the summer before the general election. In a primary election, members of a party compete against one another for the opportunity to be nominated by their party for a particular office and advance to the general election, where they will compete against nominees from other parties (as well as any independent candidates). Depending on the state in which they are held, primary elections may be closed (only party members are allowed to vote), semi-open (party members and independents are allowed to vote), or open (anyone is allowed to vote, including members of other parties).

    Typically, the winning candidate in an election is the one who receives a plurality of votes — that is, more votes than anyone else. A plurality is not necessarily a majority: in an election involving three candidates, for instance, the winning candidate might receive only 34% of the votes. To ensure that the winning candidate earns majority support from the electorate, some states hold runoff elections between the top two finishers of the general election if the general election winner receives less than a majority of the votes cast.

    These rules apply to most American elections, but some states use their reserved powers of election administration to tweak the process. Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Washington hold two-stage elections: candidates from all parties (and any independents) compete in the first round, and the top two finishers (in Alaska, top four), regardless of party, advance to a runoff. New Hampshire and Vermont elect governors to two-year rather than four-year terms. Nebraska’s state legislative elections are nonpartisan (although the legislators still identify as Democrats or Republicans). Alaska and Maine use ranked-choice voting, whereby voters order candidates according to their preferences and the least popular candidate’s votes are redistributed based on voters’ second choices, a process which repeats until one candidate has a majority. These and many other intricacies of America’s electoral system reflect its federal nature.

    One reason electoral rules vary so widely among states is that there is no obviously best or most democratic way of counting votes. All methods of tallying ballots have pros and cons. Plurality elections are simple to administer and understand but can produce winners with minority support when three or more candidates are involved. Runoffs between two candidates can ensure the winner has majority support (in the final round at least) but are more expensive, requiring an additional round of campaigning, voting, and counting. Other systems for conducting elections have their own upsides and downsides.

    Presidential Primaries

    Although most American elections follow a similar pattern, presidential elections are exceptional in a number of ways. Firstly, whereas most primary elections are held on a single day, the presidential primary process stretches over several months, with each state (as well as the District of Columbia and several U.S. territories) holding its own primary. Usually the first primaries are held in January or February of the election year, although the primary campaign itself begins long before that. (The first candidate to join the 2020 Democratic presidential primary announced his candidacy in July 2017, more than three years before Election Day.)

    Presidential candidates who win or place highly in presidential primaries earn delegates to their party’s national convention, where the nominee will be determined by a vote of delegates. Finishing strong in the early states is a top priority for candidates striving to prove they have what it takes to compete. This is why, every four years, politicians from all over the country have traditionally flocked to the early-primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire to lay the groundwork for their campaigns. The elongated primary calendar helps a party whittle down a large list of presidential hopefuls until a single nominee emerges. In 2016, 17 Republicans embarked on presidential campaigns, but by February when the first actual votes were cast only 12 were still running, and by early May only Donald Trump remained in the race. In 2020, of the 29 Democrats competing for their party’s presidential nomination, only 11 made it to the first state contest in early February and only Joe Biden was left standing by early April.

    As with other aspects of American elections, states differ in their approach to presidential primaries. Most hold a normal election (simply called a primary) in which voters show up at a polling place, wait in line, and cast their ballots. A minority of states instead hold a caucus, a group meeting at which campaign representatives (and voters themselves) attempt to recruit supporters for their preferred candidates before a vote is held. Caucuses require a greater time investment from would-be participants and are more complicated to administer. The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses, in fact, were so convoluted that the caucus organizers themselves struggled to overcome numerous mathematical errors and technical glitches, causing the results to be delayed for three days. Following this debacle, the Democratic Party announced in 2022 it was considering revisions to its primaries for the 2024 cycle, likely ending Iowa’s traditional ”first-in-the-nation” status in the Democratic primary calendar.

    The term primary is commonly used to refer to both primaries and caucuses. It can also be used to refer to all of a party’s presidential primary elections combined: politicians and journalists might claim that a presidential candidate “won the primary” when what they mean is that he or she earned the party’s nomination after winning multiple state primaries.

    The Electoral College

    Presidential elections are the only American elections in which the winners — who become the president and vice president — represent the entire country rather than just part of it. As such, the Founders who designed the Constitution could not simply leave the electoral details up to the states to figure out for themselves. States were still responsible for administering elections using their reserved powers, but the Founders needed to establish an additional process to combine these state-level results and use them to select a president.

    What they devised was the Electoral College. Voters on Election Day often believe they are casting their ballots for presidential candidates, when in fact they are casting them for slates of electors, who are usually loyal party members picked by their preferred candidate’s campaign. Roughly one month after Election Day, the winning slates of electors meet in the capitals of the states that elected them and cast their votes for a presidential candidate. It is the electoral vote (the votes of these electors), not the popular vote (the votes of average citizens), which determines the winner of the presidential election.

    By law, each state chooses a number of electors equal to the number of members of Congress it has (as shown in Figure 10.1 below). Pennsylvania, for instance, had 20 electors in 2020: two for its two U.S. senators, and 18 for its 18 U.S. representatives. Although each state’s members of Congress are the basis for calculating its number of electoral votes, the Constitution specifies that members of Congress cannot serve as electors themselves, to ensure that the executive branch remains independent from Congress. Since the ratification of the Twenty-Third Amendment in 1960, the District of Columbia has had three electoral votes, even though it has no voting representation in Congress. In total, the Electoral College has 538 electors.

    Map showing the Electoral College results from the 2020 presidential election
    Figure 10.1: Electoral College results, 2020 (Note: Biden and Harris won one of Nebraska’s electoral votes and Trump and Pence won one of Maine’s, as indicated by asterisks.)

    Almost all states, as well as the District of Columbia, choose their electors on a winner-take-all basis. Even if a presidential candidate wins a state by only one popular vote — that is, one vote by an average citizen — he or she receives all of that state’s electoral votes. The two exceptions to this rule are Maine and Nebraska, both of which allow candidates who lose the statewide race to receive one electoral vote for each congressional district they win within the state. Each of these states has split its electoral votes this way twice: Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district went Democratic in 2008 and 2020 despite the state as a whole going Republican, and Maine’s 2nd congressional district turned Republican red in 2016 and 2020 while the state overall remained Democratic blue.

    Red and blue are commonly used to symbolize Republicans and Democrats, respectively. This tendency dates to the 2000 presidential election, during which major television networks settled on this color scheme for displaying the Electoral College map. Since then, politicians, journalists, and average citizens have described America’s political divide as being between “red states” and “blue states.”

    Although it is true that states differ in their political and cultural perspectives, the red/blue divide is to a certain extent a mirage. Every state has both Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning regions, and many states are closely split between the two. Which color is more prominent matters in the winner-take-all Electoral College, but on closer examination America as a whole and most states turn out to be more “purple” than “red” or “blue.”

    To win the Electoral College and therefore the presidency, a candidate must earn at least 270 electoral votes. If no candidate wins an Electoral College majority, the House of Representatives chooses the president (with each state voting as a bloc, rather than each member voting individually) while the Senate chooses the vice president (with each senator voting individually). This tiebreak system was established with the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment in 1803 and has only been used once: in 1824, when the House elected John Quincy Adams after none of the four candidates won a majority of electoral votes.

    The Electoral College is one of the most controversial aspects of American elections, because it enables a candidate to lose the popular vote but still be elected president. The winner-take-all mechanism by which most states choose their electors, combined with the fact that electoral votes are not distributed perfectly proportionally according to states’ populations, means that the candidate who finishes second in the popular vote can nonetheless win a majority of electoral votes if his or her popular support is more efficiently spread across the states than his or her opponent’s. Five U.S. presidents — John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald Trump in 2016 — have won the presidency despite losing the popular vote.

    Photograph of an old ballot box with wooden balls for ballots
    The word ballot comes from the white and black ballotte (Italian for “small balls”) used to cast anonymous votes in the Republic of Venice — and in the early United States, as in the case of this ballot box from a social club in Washington, DC.

    This anti-majoritarian aspect is the most common complaint levied against the Electoral College, especially by supporters of popular-vote winners who lost the electoral vote. Proponents of the Electoral College — especially supporters of popular-vote losers who won the electoral vote — argue that the Electoral College preserves the federal nature of the American political system, prevents candidates from ignoring rural areas of the country in favor of big population centers, and reduces the impact of both voter fraud and recounts by ensuring they only affect the election results of the state(s) in which they occur.

    Opponents of the Electoral College contend that these qualities are outweighed by the violation of majority rule. It is true that the Electoral College has sided against the majority of voters in the past and could easily do so again in the future. But it is also true that other American political institutions, from the Bill of Rights (which protects minority rights) to the U.S. Senate (which empowers small states at large states’ expense) to representative democracy itself (which empowers politicians to act against their constituents’ wishes) can do and have done the same. The question is not whether the Electoral College — or any aspect of American politics, for that matter — is anti-majoritarian, but rather whether the benefits of a more majoritarian process would outweigh the costs.

    Voter Behavior

    Ultimately, the key to winning any elected office in the United States, from small-town city council all the way up to the presidency, is voter support. Every election cycle, millions of dollars are spent trying to predict and influence whether and how Americans will vote in elections. As with public opinion, it may be impossible to fully explain any individual American’s voting behavior, but it is possible to identify overall trends in voter participation and choice that manifest more or less nationwide and tend to persist from one election to the next.

    Voter participation, or turnout, varies across demographic groups. Older, richer, and more educated Americans are likelier to vote than their younger, poorer, and less educated counterparts. Whites vote more often than members of other racial and ethnic groups. Women, who were unable to vote in most states prior to the Nineteenth Amendment, now vote at a higher rate than men.

    turnout: The percentage of people who vote in an election.

    Electoral rules and campaign contexts also influence turnout. Strict voter registration and voter ID laws make voting more difficult, whereas mail-in and no-excuse absentee ballots make voting easier. General elections tend to draw higher turnout than primaries. More Americans vote in presidential elections than in midterm elections held halfway between presidential ones, as shown in Figure 10.2 below. Even fewer vote in “off-year” elections, when typically only a handful of state and local races are on the ballot.

    Line chart showing turnout among eligible voters in U.S. elections from 1789 to 2022, according to the United States Elections Project
    Figure 10.2: Turnout among eligible voters, 1789-2022 (Source: United States Elections Project)

    The strongest predictor of how Americans will vote is partisanship. The two major parties in the United States — the Democratic Party and the Republican Party — count on the backing of distinct voting blocs. Democrats tend to earn more support than Republicans do from young voters, poor voters, racial and ethnic minorities, union members, and residents of the East and West coasts. Republicans draw more strength than Democrats do from old voters, rich voters, whites, religious conservatives, and residents of the South and Midwest. None of these voting blocs is monolithic: there are young Republicans and old Democrats, black Republicans and white Democrats. Nor are party coalitions permanent over time: realignments occasionally occur when existing blocs shift their loyalties or new blocs emerge. Still, these patterns are informative and reliable enough to help both average Americans and political practitioners understand and anticipate electoral outcomes.

    Voters do not decide whether and how to vote in a vacuum. Candidates, parties, and other organizations actively campaign with the goal of shaping voter behavior. Broadly speaking, campaigns engage in two categories of politicking to influence voter choice and participation. Persuasion is the act of encouraging citizens to support a particular candidate, party, or issue position, and can include both positive campaigning (such as extolling the qualities and virtues of a candidate) and negative campaigning (such as criticizing an opponent for extreme views or scandalous behavior). Mobilization is the act of encouraging citizens to turn out to vote, which often entails voter registration drives or even physically transporting voters (with their permission) to polling stations. The most effective campaigns are the ones which use these tools efficiently, focusing their persuasion efforts on the voters who are most swayable to their side and their mobilization efforts on citizens who already favor them but need encouragement to actually go out and vote.

    Our Democratic Faith

    In many ways, democracy in the United States functions as a sort of civic religion. Few if any Americans would claim that they “worship” democracy, of course, and modern campaigns, littered as they are with gaudy yard signs and vicious attack ads, seem more crass and worldly than reverent or sublime.

    Look closely, though, and the religious aspects of American democracy are unmistakable. Like other religions, its adherents profess a creed of fundamental beliefs (about the people’s right to rule, the primacy of the will of the majority, and the responsibility of each individual to make his or her voice heard at the ballot box). It has its schisms, passionate disagreements over the interpretation of those beliefs and which set of rules (for administering elections and counting votes) is most consistent with them. It even has its own holy festival (Election Day), when believers congregate to reaffirm their faith in its values and principles by performing an act of devotion with both practical and symbolic importance.

    Yet, as Figure 10.2 demonstrates, we the democratic “faithful” don’t always practice what we preach. When others (correctly) point out that each individual voter has so little influence on the outcome of an election that he or she could stay home without noticeably affecting the results, we tend to dismiss them the way heretics promoting sin and immorality would have been shunned in the Middle Ages. Still, many of us often fail to fulfill our civic duty of voting, as though we privately recognize the futility of our individual ballots, even if we’re ashamed to admit it.

    Ultimately, democracy is not so much mystical as it is mechanical. The American political machine that purports to discern the will of the people by soliciting their views through the electoral process can only work with input from the citizenry. Regardless of the specific electoral rules involved, that will can easily be distorted when millions of Americans abstain. Each individual voter can be confident that his or her abstention won’t by itself change the results, but many voters abstaining together make it hard for elections to produce results that accurately reflect what the people want. In this way, popular sovereignty is itself a public good, and elections are yet another example of a collective action problem. As precious as we profess our right to vote to be, a large number of us seem perfectly comfortable to free-ride on the votes of our fellow citizens on Election Day.


    This page titled 1.10: Elections is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Benjamin R. Kantack (Tekakwitha Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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