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8.7: How Do People Participate in Elections?

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Explain how elections take place in the United States and abroad.
    • Describe the regulations that govern elections in the United States and abroad.
    • Compare United States elections and regulations with those in other countries.

    On October 8, 2004, “against the backdrop of extremists’ threat, difficult terrain and sometimes adverse weather conditions,” Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic presidential election took place.102 Despite public warnings from a former Taliban supreme leader who threatened violent attacks should citizens vote in the first-ever direct democracy election in Afghanistan, Afghan politician Hamid Karzai was elected out of 17 presidential candidates.103 Roughly a month later, on November 3, Karzai was officially elected president with 55.4 percent of the vote.104 In a region US military forces had occupied after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the election of Karzai was an incredible achievement and, perhaps most significantly, “the election, contrary to expectations, was not marred by ethnic, ideological and linguistic cleavages so characteristic of the Afghan society. Karzai’s government will be better advised to facilitate the creation of a ‘balanced party system’ in Afghanistan.”105 Global media carried pictures of jubilant Afghans, their thumbs stained with purple ink that signified they had voted, and these pictures reminded all of us how important elections are in a democracy.

    A veiled woman shows ink on her finger indicating that she has voted.
    Figure 8.11 Ink on a finger symbolizes that a vote has been cast. (credit: “_DSC0091” courtesy USAID/ISAF Public Affairs/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    Electoral Districts and Plurality and Proportional Representation

    In the United States, Americans vote in what are called electoral districts, which are all roughly equal in size in terms of population. The United States House of Representatives, state legislatures, and local governments all have their own districts from which a single representative is elected, though this was not always the case. At the writing of the Constitution, Article I, Section 4 simply stated that both Congress and state legislatures would determine how elections for members of Congress would occur. Congress first passed the law dictating that House members be elected by district in 1842, and by 1872 they had expanded its scope, articulating the need for equal districts.106 In the case of the United States Senate, each state is the equivalent of a district, though each state obviously has a different number of residents. When the Constitution was drafted, state legislatures elected Senators, but by 1913 the 17th Amendment was passed and ratified in order to allow the election of Senators by direct popular vote.107

    The president of the United States is elected through the Electoral College, a system of electors the number of which is equal to the total number of Senators (two from each state) and House members, plus electors from Washington, DC.108 Each state is a district. States choose electors using different methods including state conventions, state party central committees, appointment by state governors, state primary, or nomination by the party’s candidate. Electors are expected to vote on behalf of their party and according to the popular vote. However, as we have seen in recent elections, the winner of the popular vote is not always the winner of the Electoral College.109 This is because, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, states utilize a “winner-take-all” approach to allocating electoral votes. This means that no matter the margin, the candidate who wins the popular vote in a state wins all of that state’s Electoral College votes. Maine and Nebraska allocate one electoral vote to each of their congressional districts, and the winner of each of those districts is awarded one electoral vote. The winner of the statewide vote is then awarded the state's remaining two electoral votes. This allocation of Electoral College votes is referred to as the congressional district method.

    Most American elections are won by plurality rule, whereby the candidate with the most votes wins. Some states, such as Georgia, require candidates for statewide office to win at least 50 percent of the vote, which is called majority rule. If a candidate cannot secure 50 percent of the vote, the election goes into what is called a run-off election, where the field of candidates is whittled down to a smaller number and the election is held again.

    Georgia Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossof stand at either side of Chuck Schumer, who speaks before a podium emblazoned with the seal of the US Senate.
    Figure 8.12 Georgia Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossof stand at either side of Senator Chuck Schumer. (credit: “Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA)” by Senate Democrats/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    The main alternative to plurality rule is proportional representation, a concept that is often suggested as an alternative to the “winner-take-all” approach of the Electoral College. In proportional representation, the proportional breakdown of votes cast by the electorate for each party determines what proportion of the governing body is made up of members of those parties. In other words, if one party were to win 60 percent of the vote and another party were to win 40 percent, the government would consist of 60 percent of the first party and 40 percent of the other. Notably, America does not employ proportional representation at any level of elections, and according to Duverger’s Law, this is the reason why the United States also still has only two main parties; plurality rule encourages a dichotomous party system, whereas proportional representation encourages multiple parties to form.110

    Not all countries have the same type of elections. While the United States has a president who is elected indirectly by an electoral college and a legislature that is bicameral and directly elected, Japan, for example, has a directly elected national Diet (parliament made up of the House of Representatives and the House of Councilors). In the House of Representatives, the larger legislative body, the majority of members are elected by plurality vote in single-member constituencies to serve four-year terms, while some members are elected through a closed-list proportional representation system, whereby voters can pick a party but not individual candidates.111 In elections for the House of Councilors, voters mark their preferences for both a candidate and a party, and members are elected through an open-list proportional representation system. The head of state is the prime minister, who is appointed by the Diet. Japan is considered a long-running and stable democracy with regular elections determined by popular vote. However, not all countries have completely free and fair elections. Thailand, for example, has a bicameral legislature, but the entirety of the Senate is appointed by the military while the prime minister is appointed by the king. The House of Representatives are elected by a plurality vote through a closed-list proportional representation system. North Korea is the most drastic case of a controlled election; voting for the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) is compulsory, and people have no choice of candidates.

    Direct Democracy: Ballot Initiatives and Referendums

    Ballot initiatives and referendums are examples of a different type of election, often referred to as direct democracy, where instead of elected representatives deliberating upon policies, citizens vote on those policies directly. A ballot initiative introduces a new piece of legislation or a law (e.g., whether Maryland should allow gambling in all counties), while a referendum asks voters to support or terminate an already-existing law or policy. A recall is a type of direct democracy that provides voters with the opportunity to end the term of an already-elected member of government.

    California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks into a hand-held microphone as constituents hold up signs in the background that read “Vote no on Prop 8.”
    Figure 8.13 In 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom survived a recall election that would have removed him from office. (credit: “IMG_1974” by Charlie Nguyen/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    These types of direct democracy are present in 26 US states and multiple local municipalities, 10 EU countries, and Taiwan.112 Direct democracy is often lauded as fully representing the will of the people, but ballot initiatives, referendums, and recalls are also criticized for their costs and lack of deliberation.

    Election Regulations in the United States

    In the United States, the federal government plays only a limited role in regulating campaigns and elections. This is due in part to the idea behind the federal system of American government, which balances power between the federal government and the states. As such, states are free to oversee their own election processes so long as they do not violate existing federal laws or state statutes. For example, since 1998 Oregon has used mail-in ballots, where all registered voters receive ballots three weeks before Election Day.113 In Maine, voters are allowed to use a ranked-choice method to select candidates, with the lowest-ranked candidates eliminated in each round until there are only two candidates left. The candidate who wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the final round is declared the winner.114 States also differ in other methods and regulations around voting. For example, recent proposed changes in the Georgia legislature would make Sunday voting more difficult for Georgians wishing to cast early votes. This type of regulation is decided at the state level, though opponents allege that this measure is aimed squarely at minimizing Black turnout since, historically, southern churches have encouraged their congregants to vote on Sundays.115

    While state election commissions and agencies largely set their own parameters around when, where, and how people can vote, the federal government is primarily concerned with supporting states in administering elections and with campaign finance—that is, with limiting the amount of money that flows into and out of campaigns. More specifically, congressional agencies are tasked with regulating or overseeing campaign finance, election administration, election security, redistricting, qualifications and contested elections, and voting rights, though the primary role of administering elections is left to the states and their jurisdictions, reflecting the American tenets of federalism. While the Election Assistance Commission and Federal Election Commission are two federal agencies devoted to overseeing campaigns and elections, the Justice Department administers and enforces some election statutes. The Department of Homeland Security is also now more involved with elections.116

    Where Can I Engage?

    Working the Polls

    Poll workers are sometimes called “the gatekeepers of American democracy” because they are often the first people to greet a voter who has arrived on Election Day to exercise their right to vote.117 Poll workers make sure that people who vote can check in and provide ID (in some states). They share important information about how to fill out ballots and make sure the voting process moves smoothly. Any place that serves as a polling station (in other words, a place to vote) needs poll workers. Most states provide training and payment for these important positions, but a lack of poll workers is an ongoing problem for many local jurisdictions. Nonprofit organizations such as All Voting Is Local train and recruit poll workers to ensure fair election practices and to encourage all Americans to participate in their democracy.118 The more we participate, the more we understand how politics impacts us. To find out more about being a poll worker, you can contact your state election board or read more at the US Election Assistance Commission website.119

    Election Regulations around the World

    Election rules differ around the globe. In comparison to the United States, France imposes very strict regulations on how elections are run. In France, elections themselves are very brief (two weeks leading up to the casting of ballots and one week in between two separate ballots), and all media involving campaigns can only be aired during a three-month run up to an election. In addition, starting from the night before polls open, it is illegal to publish or in any way broadcast any type of communication that can be categorized as electoral propaganda. However, television stations can show candidates voting (along with other citizens) as long as all candidates in the election are included and provided no candidate transmits any sort of campaign message on camera. French law also prohibits the media from publishing, broadcasting, or commenting on any kind of electoral poll. Finally, election results, even partial ones, cannot be published or broadcast before the last polling place closes on Sunday.120 The state also caps both campaign donations and expenditures, a special commission monitors campaign expenditures, and the state can reimburse up to 50 percent of certified elections.121

    In Britain, the prime minister can call an election at will. These are called snap elections. A prime minister might call a snap election on the back of good news, for example, in order to bolster his or her majority within the Parliament. Elections in the United Kingdom are also short compared to those in the United States. Tony Blair, the leader of the Labour Party, famously announced his candidacy for prime minister one month before the election.122 Unlike the fixed election calendar America follows, the system in the United Kingdom is more flexible; Parliament is “dissolved” after five years and 25 days before a general election. However, as stated previously, these elections can be called at any time during a prime minister’s term. Citizens in the United Kingdom vote for members of Parliament (MPs) from their district, and the party with the most seats elects the prime minister from among their ranks. However, the prime minister is officially appointed by the Queen, though she typically follows the majority party’s choice for who should fill the role.123 A vote of no confidence, when the majority of the legislature indicates that they can no longer support the Prime Minister and their government, can make way for a new leader and governing body through a general election.

    8.7: How Do People Participate in Elections? is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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