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June 1, 2022

Background materials for the election and election process in the United States of America

Electoral College

As prescribed in the U.S. Constitution, American presidents are elected not directly by the people, but by the people’s electors.

The Electoral College was created by the framers of the U.S. Constitution as an alternative to electing the president by popular vote or by Congress. Each state elects the number of representatives to the Electoral College that is equal to its number of Senators—two from each state—plus its number of delegates in the House of Representatives. The District of Columbia, which has no voting representation in Congress, has three Electoral College votes. There are currently 538 electors in the Electoral College; 270 votes are needed to win the presidential election.

Several weeks after the general election, electors from each state meet in their state capitals and cast their official vote for president and vice president. The votes are then sent to the president of the U.S. Senate who, on January 6 with the entire Congress present, tallies the votes and announces the winner.

The winner of the Electoral College vote usually is the candidate who has won the popular vote. However, it is possible to win the presidency without winning the popular vote. The most recent case occurred in the 2000 presidential election when President Bush won the Electoral College vote—271 to 266—after losing the popular vote to then Vice President Al Gore. Two other presidents—Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888—became president without winning the popular vote. In the 1824 election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Jackson won the popular vote but neither won a majority of Electoral College votes. Adams secured the presidency only after the election was decided by vote of the House of Representatives, a procedure provided for in the Constitution when no candidate wins a majority of the Electoral College.

U.S. Elections: Frequently Asked Questions

Types of Elections

What types of elections are held in the United States?

There are two basic types of elections — primary and general. In addition to the primaries and general elections held in even-numbered years, which include political races for the U.S. Congress, some states and local jurisdictions also hold “off-year” elections (both primary and general) in odd-numbered years for their elected officials.

A primary election is a nominating election in which the field of candidates that will run in the general election is chosen. Victory in a primary usually results in a candidate being nominated or endorsed by a political party for the general election.

A general election is an election held to choose among candidates nominated in a primary (or by convention, caucus or petition) for federal, state and/or local office. The purpose of a general election is to make a final choice among the various candidates who have been nominated by parties or who are running as independents (not affiliated with a major political party) or, in some cases, write-in candidates. Measures such as proposed legislation (referendums), bond issues (approving the borrowing of money for public projects) and other mandates on government also can be placed on the ballot.

In addition, many states provide for special elections, which can be called at any time, to serve a specific purpose, such as filling an unexpected vacancy in an elected office.

What are midterm elections?

The elections in which Americans vote for their congressional representatives but not for their president are known as midterm elections. Every two years, Americans elect members of the U.S. House of Representatives to two-year terms and about one-third of their U.S. senators, who serve six-year terms. Voters also will select officials to state and local government posts.

What is a convention?

Conventions are meetings sponsored by political parties for members of the party to discuss issues, candidates and campaign strategies. These meetings can last several days.

In presidential elections, after state primaries are concluded, each party holds a national convention to formally select the presidential nominee — usually the candidate who secured the support of the most convention delegates, based on victories in primary elections. Typically, the presidential nominee then chooses a running mate to be the party’s candidate for vice president.

Political parties hold national conventions only in presidential election years. The parties usually hold smaller, state-level conventions in other years.

What is a Caucus?

A caucus is a meeting at the local level in which registered members of a political party in a city, town or county gather to express support for a candidate. For statewide or national offices, those recommendations are combined to determine the state party nominee. Caucuses, unlike conventions, involve many separate meetings held simultaneously at multiple locations. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have their own rules governing caucuses. Those rules vary from state to state.

Requirements for Voting, Running for Office

Who can vote?

American citizens ages 18 and older can register to vote. To register, voters must meet the residency requirements of their states, which vary, and comply with voter-registration deadlines.

What are the requirements for running for elected office in the United States?

Each federal elected office has different requirements, which are laid out in Articles I and II of the U.S. Constitution (PDF 1.8 MB).

A candidate for president of the United States must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, be at least 35 years old and have been 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 Constitution, the vice president cannot be from the same state as the president.

U.S. House of Representatives candidates must be at least 25 years old, have been U.S. citizens for seven years and be legal residents of the state in which they seek election.

U.S. Senate candidates must be at least 30 years old, have been a U.S. citizen for nine years, and be legal residents of the state in which they seek election.

Officials seeking state or local office must meet the requirements established by those jurisdictions.

Scheduling Elections

When are general elections held?

They are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November.

Why are general elections held on Tuesday after the first Monday in November?

For much of U.S. history, America was a predominantly agrarian society. Lawmakers considered their convenience when choosing a November date for elections — after harvest time but before winter weather made travel difficult — as the easiest month for farmers and rural workers to go to the polls.

Because many rural residents lived a significant distance from the polls, Tuesday, rather than Monday, was selected to allow those who attended Sunday church services to begin travel after worship and still reach their destinations in time to cast their votes.

Lawmakers wanted to prevent Election Day from falling on the first of November for two reasons. First, November 1 is All Saints Day, a day on which Roman Catholics are obligated to attend Mass. Also, merchants typically balanced the accounts from the preceding month on the first of each month.

When are primary elections held?

State and local governments determine the dates on which primary elections or caucuses are held. These dates, and the amount of time between a primary and general election, significantly influence how early candidates begin campaigning and the choices they make about how and when campaign funds are spent.

In the run-up to presidential elections, victories in primaries held very early in the election year, such as that in New Hampshire, can influence the outcome of later state primaries.

Electoral College

What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is the group of citizens designated by the states to cast votes for the president and vice president on behalf of state citizens. The process for selecting electors varies from state to state, but usually the political parties nominate electors at state party conventions or by a vote of the party’s central committee. The voters in each state, by casting votes for president and vice president, choose the electors on the day of the general election. The Electoral College, not the popular vote, elects the president, but the two votes are tied closely.

How does the Electoral College elect the president?

The Electoral College system gives each state the same number of electoral votes as it has members of Congress. The District of Columbia is allocated three electoral votes. There are a total of 538 votes in the Electoral College; a candidate for president must get 270 to win (a simple majority). All but two states have a winner-take-all system, in which the candidate who gets the most popular votes in the state is allocated all of the state’s electoral votes.

The electors usually gather in their state capitals in December to cast their votes. The electoral votes then are sent to Washington, where they are counted in the presence of a joint session of Congress in January.

If no presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution provides for the presidential election to be decided by the House of Representatives. In such situations, the House selects the president by majority vote, choosing from the three candidates who received the greatest number of electoral votes. Each state would cast one vote.

If no vice presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the Senate selects the vice president by majority vote, with each senator choosing from the two candidates who received the greatest number of electoral votes.

For which races is the Electoral College used?

The Electoral College is used only to select the president and vice president.

Has any president been elected without a majority of the popular vote?

There have been 17 presidential elections in which the winner did not receive a majority of the popular vote cast. The first of these was John Quincy Adams in the election of 1824, and the most recent was George W. Bush in 2000.

The founders of the United States devised the Electoral College system as part of their plan to share power between the states and the national government. Under the federal system adopted in the U.S. Constitution, the nationwide popular vote has no legal significance. As a result, it is possible that the electoral votes awarded on the basis of state elections could produce a different result than the nationwide popular vote. Nevertheless, the individual citizen’s vote is important to the outcome of each election.

Other Questions

Why is voter turnout sometimes low in the United States?

Several factors seem to influence voter turnout, which was approximately 41 percent of eligible voters in 2006 and 61 percent in 2004. Many observers believe that current registration laws hinder voter turnout. The demographic composition of the electorate, long periods of political or economic stability, predictable outcomes in many races and some candidates’ lack of popular appeal are other factors affecting voter turnout. Turnout tends to be higher in general elections than in primary elections. Turnout also tends to be higher in years in which the president is elected than in midterm elections.

What are the symbols of the U.S Political Parties?

The elephant represents the Republican Party, and the donkey represents the Democratic Party. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast created both images for the publication Harper’s Weekly in 1874. Nast created a marauding elephant to represent the “Republican vote.” Republicans quickly embraced the symbol as their party’s own.

In a separate cartoon, Nast criticized the Democrats for posthumously maligning a Republican by picturing the Democratic Party as a donkey or mule (animals considered stubborn and stupid) kicking a lion (the dead Republican). The Democratic Party, demonstrating a sense of humor, accepted the animal as its symbol, observing that it has many fine qualities, such as not giving up easily.

Do organizations tell people how to vote? What does it mean when a union or newspaper “endorses” a candidate?

Voting in U.S. elections is conducted by secret ballot, and a voter’s choice is private. The “endorsement” of a candidate by an organization means the organization publicly supports the candidate and approves the candidate’s stand on issues. Although organizations can encourage members to join in that support, it is unlawful for them to coerce a member to vote against his or her own judgment.

Federal Election Commission Regulates Presidential Campaigns

Candidates for president of the United States come from all walks of life. Many are career politicians; others are political activists, wealthy businessmen, or even professional entertainers.

Regardless of their backgrounds or incomes, all must appear on each state’s separate ballot and all must abide by rules enforced by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). After registering with each state’s secretary of state to be placed on the ballot, a candidate’s campaign committee must disclose to the FEC all contributions received and expenses disbursed.

To qualify for public funds, a presidential candidate must raise more than $5,000 in each of 20 states. In addition, the candidate must agree to spend the public funds only for campaign-related expenses, limit spending to amounts set by campaign finance law, keep records, cooperate with audits and pay any civil penalties that are imposed by the FEC.

Eligible candidates during the primary season can receive matching public payments for the first $250 of each individual contribution they receive. Their total receipt of public funds cannot exceed half the national spending limit for the primary campaign. That limit is adjusted each presidential election year to reflect inflation. The 2008 primary limit was $42.05 million, paid from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. For the 2012 primary cycle, the limit will be $44.22 million.

For the 2012 election, individual contributions to a presidential candidate are limited to $5,000 during the election cycle ($2,500 for the primary and $2,500 for the general). Additionally, the campaigns are required to identify anyone who contributes more than $200.

A candidate winning the party’s presidential nomination is eligible to receive a grant to cover all general election campaign expenses. Also adjusted for inflation, this grant was $84.1 million in 2008. At this level, a nominee who accepts the funds must agree not to solicit private contributions and to limit campaign expenditures to the amount of public funds received. This public funding is voluntary: A candidate can forego it in favor of continuing to solicit private contributions with the hopes of raising more money for such activities as television advertising.

Composition, Authority

The FEC was created by Congress in 1975 as an independent regulatory agency to administer such reform efforts as limiting campaign contributions, facilitating disclosure of campaign contributions and overseeing public funding of presidential elections. The law that created the FEC was predicated on the public’s right to know the amount, timing and sources of funds contributed to politicians. Even candidates who decline federal financing are subject to FEC regulations.

There are usually six commissioners on the FEC, appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate to staggered six-year terms. Split equally between the Democratic and Republican parties, the commissioners alternate serving one-year terms chairing the commission.

The commission holds public meetings weekly to propose or adopt regulations, issue advisory opinions, approve audit reports and administer campaign finance law. It also meets in regular closed sessions to discuss pending enforcement actions.

The FEC has the power to assess fines for violations. In fiscal year 2010, it closed 135 cases and assessed total fines of $672,000; in 2009, the commission closed 71 cases, assessing total fines of $2,385,043. Any cases of gross and willful violation of campaign finance laws are turned over to the Justice Department, which can pursue criminal penalties.

Since its inception, the FEC has charged campaigns with thousands of violations, including failure to register, failure to file reports in a timely manner and receipt of prohibited contributions. Disallowed contributions to an individual campaign include those from corporations, unions and non-U.S. citizens.

Campaign Finance Reform

The roots of campaign finance reform date back more than a century, when President Theodore Roosevelt called for legislation to ban corporate contributions for political purposes.

Throughout the century, Congress enacted several reform statutes, most recently the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 that banned national political parties from raising unregulated contributions from corporations, labor unions or wealthy individuals. That law also restricted the use of issue ads on television.

Public funding of elections began to take shape with the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which allowed citizens to authorize the government to use $1 of their federal income taxes to finance general election campaigns and national political party conventions. With later amendments, the voluntary amount increased to $3 per person and funding was authorized for presidential primary campaigns.

There have been numerous court challenges to reform legislation, many of them related to respect for the rights of free speech and free association guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Financing Campaigns

Federal law dictates how candidates for the federal offices of president, senator and representative — and certain of their political allies — may raise funds, as well as from whom and in what amounts. Federal campaign finance laws are separate from state laws that regulate elections for state and local offices.

In the American system, presidential candidates raise hundreds of millions of dollars for a campaign directed at a nation of more than 100 million voters. Though in many cases the fundraising is from private sources, the process by which they raise and spend the money is highly regulated.

A candidate for president must establish a campaign organization, called a political committee. The political committee must have a treasurer and must register with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Notwithstanding its name, the FEC only supervises and enforces campaign finance laws; it does not actually conduct the elections. (The process of registering voters, conducting the balloting and counting the votes is the responsibility of state and local election officials.)

Various types of political committees are registered with the FEC. In addition to the candidates, political parties must register their own committees with the agency. In addition, any group of private citizens may form a political committee.

Once registered, political committees may start raising campaign funds. Such funds, as well as expenses, are reported to the FEC on either a quarterly or monthly basis. The reports may be filed electronically and are available to the public on the FEC’s website. Numerous private organizations also maintain websites to monitor contributions and expenses of the candidates, political parties, and political action committees. The point of this is to make it easier for the press and the voters to know which groups are giving money to which candidates and causes. There are legal limits to how much money individual citizens and individual committees can give to candidates they favor. Accordingly, a candidate for president who needs to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for a presidential campaign must attempt to find thousands of contributors.

In 2010, a controversial Supreme Court ruling drastically changed campaign finance law. Before the ruling, the law prohibited corporations and labor unions from spending directly to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress. Groups of individuals were allowed to establish separate segregated funds in what are called political action committees (PACs) to make contributions to political parties or candidates’ campaigns without using corporate or union treasury funds. After the ruling, corporations and unions directly can spend unlimited amounts of money to elect or defeat candidates as long as they do not do so in coordination with the candidates’ campaign organization.

To campaign for office, a candidate needs to hire staff; arrange for office space and travel; conduct research; issue position papers; advertise on radio and television, in publications and on the Internet; and conduct numerous public appearances and fundraising events. A candidate for the House of Representatives will base these activities in his or her specific congressional district, while a Senate candidate will do likewise throughout his entire state. (Representatives and senators may also conduct specific fund-raising events elsewhere, such as in Washington.) Candidates for president have the daunting task of organizing their primary campaigns state by state and then, if nominated, their general election campaign throughout the nation.

Public Financing

Since 1976, candidates for president have been eligible to participate in a public financing system. Until the 2000 elections, all candidates nominated for president participated in this system by accepting government funds in exchange for a promise not to spend more than a specified amount. However, this system has become increasingly unappealing to candidates because the imposed spending limit is considered too low — and less than the amount that major candidates can often easily raise from private sources. Consequently, many major candidates have been opting out of public funding.

Spending invariably increases from one election to the next. In addition to candidate spending, the political parties, PACs, and other interest groups will spend money to influence elections. A recent development in funneling money for elections, for example, is the “527 political organization,” named for a section of the U.S. tax code. These groups are organized primarily for the purpose of influencing the selection, nomination, election or appointment of an individual to a federal, state or local public office. 527 political organizations, such as MoveOn and Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission or by a state elections commission, and are not subject to the same contribution limits as PACs. Critics of these and similar groups have long asserted that high spending in U.S. elections, combined with the reliance on private sources for funds, raises the specter of undue influence over public policy by wealthy donors and powerful interest groups.

Proposed reforms have been opposed by those who see election spending as proportionate with both the costs of goods and services in today’s economy. In this regard, election spending is seen as the price a democracy pays for electoral competition, with large contributions and expenditures by interest groups as the contemporary expression of America’s long-standing pluralism. It is hard to prove any specific connection between interest-group donations and government policy. Courts have also questioned whether further restrictions on campaign giving and spending might unduly limit donors’ constitutionally protected right to free speech in the political arena. Given the immense expense of modern campaigning, certain extremely wealthy individuals simply fund their own campaigns for public office — there is no rule against it. Sometimes they win, sometimes they don’t.

Glossary of U.S. Election Terms

Absentee voting
Absentee voting allows voters who cannot come to polling places to cast their ballots. A variety of circumstances, including residency abroad, illness, travel or military service, can prevent voters from coming to the polls on Election Day. Absentee ballots permit registered voters to mail in their votes. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, a federal law, governs absentee voting in presidential elections. Absentee voting rules for all other elections are set by the states, and vary. In Oregon, all elections are conducted by mail, but voters have the option of voting in person at county polling stations.

Ballot initiative
Ballot initiatives are an example of direct democracy in the United States, in which citizens may propose legislative measures or amendments to state constitutions. Some initiatives propose the repeal of existing state laws. States vary in the number of signatures they require to place an initiative on the ballot. These initiatives (also called “propositions” in some states) are subject to approval by a simple majority in most, but not all, cases. See also Referendum.

Blue state
Blue state is a term used to refer to a U.S. state where the majority of voters usually support Democratic candidates and causes. See also Red state.

Buckley v. Valeo
The legal challenge Buckley v. Valeo resulted in a landmark 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision on campaign finance law that upheld the Federal Election Campaign Act’s financial disclosure requirements, contribution limits and provision for public funding of presidential election campaigns. The court struck down spending limits in the law, except for the limits accepted voluntarily by presidential candidates who receive public funds. Thus, the ruling allowed for unlimited spending by congressional candidates (they do not receive public funds) and by persons or groups who campaign for or against a candidate, but who do not coordinate their activities with any candidate or campaign. The ruling also said that candidates who do not receive public money do not have to limit campaign spending of their own personal funds. See also McCain-Feingold Law.

A caucus is a meeting at the local level in which registered members of a political party in a city, town or county gather to express support for candidates. For statewide or national offices, those recommendations are combined to determine the state party nominee. The term also is used to describe a group of elected officials with a common goal that meets to plan policy in support of a shared political agenda. Two well-known examples of such groups are the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose members discuss and advance the interests of their respective constituencies.

A challenger is a candidate who runs for political office against a person who currently holds that office (the incumbent). See also Incumbent.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
This 2010 Supreme Court decision affirmed shareholders and other groups of people enjoy the same rights that they would have if they were acting as individuals. The court also ruled that the government cannot restrict how much such groups can spend to support or criticize political candidates. See also Super PACs.

Closed Primary
Candidates from the two major political parties (Democratic and Republican) compete to be their parties’ nominee for an office in a primary election. Closed primaries are restricted to voters registered as a member of the party holding the election. Unaffiliated voters receive ballots for other measures and nonpartisan contests that occur on the same date. See also Primary.

The expression “coattails” is an allusion to the rear panels (or “tails”) of a man’s coat. In American politics, it refers to the ability of a popular officeholder or candidate for office, on the strength of his or her own popularity, to increase the chances for victory of other candidates of the same political party. This candidate is said to carry others to victory on his or her coattails.

In presidential election years, after state primaries and caucuses have concluded, the political parties gather to select a presidential nominee — usually the candidate who secured the support of the most convention delegates, based on victories in primary elections. The presidential nominee usually chooses a running mate to be the candidate for vice president, but the presidential nominee can throw open the vice presidential selection process to the convention delegates without making a recommendation.

Convention bounce
An increase in a presidential candidate’s popularity, as indicated by public-opinion polls, in the days immediately following his or her nomination for office at a national convention.

The people a government official represents make up his or her constituency. The term sometimes is used to refer only to those individuals who voted to elect the official. The president’s constituency comprises all Americans; a mayor’s constituency comprises the people who reside in the town or city.

A structured discussion involving two or more opposing sides is a debate. In American politics, debates have come to be associated with televised programs at which candidates present their own and their parties’ views in response to questions from the media or members of the audience. Debates also may be held via radio, the Internet or at a community meeting place. They can be held among those who seek elective office at any level of government.

Divided government
A situation in which the U.S. president is a member of one political party and at least one chamber of Congress (either the Senate or the House of Representatives) is controlled by another party is called a divided government. This situation also can exist at the state level, with one party controlling the governorship and another controlling the state legislature. Divided government occurs frequently in the U.S. political system.

Election Assistance Commission
Established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the Election Assistance Commission serves primarily as a national clearinghouse and resource for information on elections. It also reviews federal election administration and procedures.

Electoral College
The president and vice president are selected through the electoral college system, which gives each state the same number of electoral votes as it has members of Congress. The District of Columbia gets three electoral votes. Of the total 538 votes available, a candidate must receive 270 to win.

Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA)
A 1971 law that governs the financing of federal elections, the Federal Election Campaign Act was amended in 1974, 1976 and 1979. The act requires candidates and political committees to disclose the sources of their funding and how they spend their money; it regulates the contributions received and expenditures made during federal election campaigns; and it governs the public funding of presidential elections.

Federal Election Commission (FEC)
This independent regulatory agency is charged with administering and enforcing federal campaign finance law. The FEC consists of six commissioners appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. The FEC was established by the 1974 amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.

The practice of scheduling state party caucuses and state primary elections early in the calendar year, well in advance of the general election, is called front-loading. By moving its primary to an early date, a state hopes to lend decisive momentum to its preferred presidential candidate and thus have disproportionate influence on a party’s nomination.

A candidate in any election or nomination process who is considered most popular or most likely to win is called the front-runner.

In politics, when a political party or faction creates obstacles that block or severely hinder compromise on legislation or policy issues, the situation is described as gridlock.

Hard money/Soft money
Hard money and soft money are terms used to differentiate between campaign funding that is, and is not, regulated under federal campaign finance law. Hard money describes donations by individuals and groups made directly to political candidates running for federal office. Such contributions are restricted by law. Soft money refers to donations not regulated by law that can be spent only on civic activities such as voter-registration drives, party-building activities, administrative costs and in support of state and local candidates. “Soft money” contributions, by law, may not be used to directly support a candidate for federal office. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 upheld congressional restrictions passed in 2002 on soft money contributions. See also McCain-Feingold Law.

Hatch Act
The Hatch Act places restrictions on political activity by employees of the executive branch of the U.S. federal government, District of Columbia government, and state and local employees who work in connection with federally funded programs. Under the act, employees are permitted to contribute to a candidate’s campaign, but are restricted from using official authority to influence an election, including soliciting or receiving political contributions and engaging in political activity — including wearing or displaying political promotional materials — while on duty. Employees covered by the Hatch Act may run for office in a nonpartisan election, such as many school board elections, but are prohibited from running in a partisan election.

Help America Vote Act (HAVA)
Congress passed HAVA to address voting problems encountered in the 2000 presidential election. The act encourages state and local governments to eliminate punch-card and lever voting machines. Under HAVA, states have received $2.9 billion since 2003 to improve their election processes. The law also established the Election Assistance Commission to provide support to the administration of federal elections, as well as election laws and programs.

Horse race
Used as a metaphor for an election campaign, “horse race” is used to describe a close contest and conveys the feeling of excitement that people experience when watching a sporting event.

An individual currently holding a position is the incumbent. Historically, incumbents have enjoyed a better-than-average chance of being re-elected.

A candidate or voter not affiliated with a particular political party is termed an independent.

Lame duck
The term lame duck refers to an elected official during the time period between the election that chose the official’s successor and the date the successor assumes office. Such an individual is in a weakened position politically due to the impending expiration of his or her term.

A victory in which one candidate’s votes far surpass those of other candidates is called a landslide.

Matching funds or public funding
Public money can be given to presidential candidates who agree to limit their spending on the campaign. Contributions from individuals in which the aggregate amount contributed by the individual is $250 or less are eligible to be matched on a dollar- for-dollar basis from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. This fund includes proceeds from the voluntary check-off of $3 per person from income tax returns of eligible taxpayers. See also Taxpayer check-off system.

Formally titled the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, the McCain-Feingold law is named after its two chief Senate sponsors, John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and Russell Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who sought to remove “soft money” as an influence on candidates running for federal office. The law eliminated “loopholes” (or legislative oversights) that in the past allowed the use of soft money to aid candidates running for federal office. See also Hard money/Soft money.

Negative ads
These advertisements try to persuade voters to choose a candidate by making the opposing candidate look bad, by attacking either the opponent’s character or record on the issues.

A person selected by others to run for office is the nominee. Nominees may be selected in primary elections or caucuses. When only one candidate from a party has filed to run for a political office, that candidate becomes the party’s nominee without any further selection process.

Open primary
An open primary is one in which all registered voters may vote, regardless of whether they are registered as Democrats, Republicans or Independents. See also Primary.

Platform refers to a political party’s formal written statement of its principles and goals, put together and issued during the presidential nomination process and affirmed during the party’s national political convention. Less formally, it can also refer to a candidate’s position on a set of political issues.

A plurality is one method of identifying the winning candidate in an election. A plurality occurs when the votes received by a candidate are greater than those received by any opponent but can be less than a majority of the total vote. For example, if one candidate receives 30 percent of the votes, a second candidate also receives 30 percent and a third receives 40 percent, the third candidate could win the election by a plurality of the votes.

Political Action Committee (PAC)
PACs are political committees not related directly to a political party, but rather affiliated with corporations, labor unions or other organizations. The committees contribute money to candidates and engage in other election-related activities so as to promote specific legislative agendas. Funds are gathered by voluntary contributions from members, employees or shareholders. PACs have increased significantly in influence and number in recent years: In 1976, there were 608 PACs; in 2010, there were about 5,400.

A public opinion poll is created when a polling firm contacts a sample group of randomly selected citizens and asks a series of standard questions. If executed properly, the poll’s data reflect the range of opinions and the portion of the population that holds them in a manner representative of the full population. Public opinion polls provide an idea of what many Americans think about various candidates and issues. See also Push polling.

A state-level election in which voters choose a candidate affiliated with a political party to run against a candidate who is affiliated with another political party in a later, general election. A primary may be either “open” — allowing any registered voter in a state to vote for a candidate to represent a political party, or “closed” — allowing only registered voters who belong to a particular political party to vote for a candidate from that party. See also Closed primary and Open primary.

See Ballot initiative and Referendum.

Protest vote
A vote for a third-party candidate made, not to elect that candidate, but to indicate displeasure with the candidates of the two major political parties.

Public funding
See Matching funds.

Push polling
A public-opinion polling technique that is used to test possible campaign themes by asking very specific questions about an issue or a candidate is call push polling. See also Poll/Polling.

The process of redrawing the geographic boundaries of congressional districts, the electoral districts within states from which members of the House of Representatives are elected, is called redistricting. Democrats and Republicans at the state level compete to get hold of the legal and political mechanisms of redistricting — usually by controlling the state legislature. By doing so, they can redraw boundaries of congressional districts in ways that will lend an electoral advantage to their own party.

Red state
Red state refers to a U.S. state where the majority of voters usually support Republican candidates and causes. See also blue state.

A measure referred to voters by a state legislature proposing that specific legislation be approved or rejected is a referendum. The terms referendum, proposition and ballot initiative frequently are used interchangeably.

Single-member district
Single-member district describes the current arrangement for electing national and state legislators in the United States in which one candidate is elected in each legislative district; the winner is the candidate with the most votes. The “single-member” system allows only one party to win in any given district. Under the proportional system popular in Europe, much larger districts are used and several members are elected at one time, based on the proportion of votes their parties receive.

Soft money
See Hard money/soft money.

Sound bite
A sound bite is a brief, very quotable remark by a candidate for office that is repeated on radio and television news programs. Negative ads frequently use sound bites to highlight an unpopular stance taken by an opposing candidate.

Spin doctor
A media adviser or political consultant employed by a campaign to ensure that a candidate receives the best possible publicity in any given situation is called a spin doctor. When these media advisers practice their craft, they are said to be “spinning” or putting “spin” on a situation or event to present it as favorably as possible for their side.

Straw poll/vote
An unofficial vote that is used either to predict the outcome of an official vote or to measure the relative strength of candidates for office in a future election is called a straw poll or straw vote. A good showing in a straw vote can give a candidate a boost, but does not necessarily predict later success.

Swing voters
Voters not loyal to a particular political party sometimes can determine the outcome of an election by “swinging” one way or the other on an issue or candidate. Swing voters often reverse their choices in a subsequent election.

Super PAC
This type of political action committee (PAC) is allowed to raise an unlimited amount of money from donors who can choose to remain anonymous. Super PACs are not allowed to donate directly to individual campaigns or coordinate with candidates or political parties. See Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Super Tuesday
Widespread use of the phrase “Super Tuesday” dates from 1988, when a group of Southern states banded together to hold the first large and effective regional group of primaries in order to boost the importance of Southern states in the presidential nomination process and lessen the impact of early votes in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. Today, the meaning of the phrase is blurred, a reflection of the fact that, during the presidential primary season, there may be several groups of state primaries in various regions falling on one or more Tuesdays. These groupings are important because the weight of such a large, simultaneous vote tends to make or break would-be presidential nominees because so many convention delegates are selected at once. In 2012, Super Tuesday is March 6 but, because some states have moved their primaries to earlier dates, it will be less “super” than in past elections.

Taxpayer check-off system
The taxpayer check-off system allows U.S. taxpayers to contribute $3 of their annual federal income tax payment to a public fund for financing presidential elections. To contribute, taxpayers simply check a box on their tax return that says that they want to participate in this system. Making the contribution does not raise or lower an individual’s taxes; it simply deposits $3 of the tax payment into the presidential election campaign fund. See also Matching funds.

Term limits
Term limits involve restricting the number of years an officeholder or lawmaker may serve in a particular office. There is a term limit for the U.S. president, who may serve no more than two consecutive terms, or eight years total. There are no term limits for those who serve in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. Some state and local offices are subject to terms limits.

Third party
Any political party that is not one of the two parties that have dominated U.S. politics since the late 19th century — the Republican Party and the Democratic Party — and that receives a base of support and plays a role in influencing the outcome of an election is referred to as a third party.

Ticket splitting

Voting for candidates of different political parties in the same election, for instance by voting for a Democrat for president and a Republican for senator, is called splitting the ticket. Because these voters support candidates from more than one political party, they are said to “split” their votes.

Town hall meeting
A town hall meeting is an informal gathering of an officeholder or candidate for office with a group of people, often local, in which the audience directly questions the officeholder or candidate.

Tracking survey
A type of public-opinion poll that allows candidates to follow or “track” voters’ sentiments over the course of a campaign is called a tracking survey. For the initial survey, the pollster interviews the same number of voters on three consecutive nights — for example, 400 voters a night for a total sample of 1,200 people. On the fourth night, the pollster interviews 400 more voters, adds their responses to the poll data, and drops the responses from the first night. Continuing in this way, the sample rolls along at a constant 1,200 responses drawn from the previous three nights. Over time, the campaign can analyze the data from the entire survey and observe the effect of certain events on voters’ attitudes. See also Poll/Polling.

Midterm Elections

Midterm elections, so named because they occur in even-numbered years at the halfway point of a presidential term, determine which political party will control the two chambers of the U.S. Congress for the upcoming two years.

This timing encourages pollsters and political pundits to view the outcomes as referendums on the policies of the current president, but that narrow interpretation can distract from their true importance.

As with the general elections, in which the race for the U.S. presidency is on the ballot, U.S. Election Day is the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Americans in most states also have the option to vote in advance, either in person, by mail or via the Internet.

In electing a new Congress every two years, American voters decide who will speak for them in crafting legislation, determining government spending and overseeing the activities of the executive branch.

In midterm elections, every one of the 435 House seats is filled by the will of the people, as expressed through the ballot box. Simultaneously, approximately one-third of the Senate also is elected, although that number can vary because senators sometimes retire or die in the middle of their terms.

It is not unusual for U.S. elections to result in create a “divided” government in Washington, with one political party controlling the White House and the other controlling one or both chambers of Congress. That situation can make it more difficult to pass legislation but, conversely, can force greater compromise to break political logjams.

Americans seem very comfortable with creating divided governments, perhaps distrustful of empowering the federal government too broadly. Since 1968, only during the Jimmy Carter administration and the first two years of the Bill Clinton administration has the same party controlled the executive and legislative branches.

As in every U.S. election, many factors affect voters’ decisions. The state of the economy is usually a major concern as Americans are said to “vote their pocketbooks.” A healthy domestic economy, or at least an economy that seems to be improving, tends to favor incumbents. In other words, if people feel financially secure they are more likely to re-elect officials currently serving.

Voter turnout in midterm elections tends to be lower than in a general election.

“Independents” — voters not affiliated with either the Democratic or the Republican Party — are a growing component of the electorate, but party loyalty does not motivate these voters, and they are less likely to be influenced by party-based “get out the vote” efforts.

Also, the rise of the tea party movement, which advocates limited government power and reduced government spending, can create a schism within the Republican Party in some districts. Data from recent elections suggest that hard-fought primary contests disaffect voters who supported the losing candidates, prompting them to stay home rather than vote.

Midterm elections also can suffer from the so-called “enthusiasm gap.” The high voter interest in a presidential campaign rarely carries over to the midterm election.

State and local

Congressional races are a tiny fraction of the total number of elected posts U.S. voters will fill in a midterm election.

At the state level, voters will chose 37 governors and hundreds of state legislators. Voter also will select local officials like county executives, mayors, and city and town council members. Many jurisdictions also will chose attorneys general, treasurers, comptrollers and even judges.

The winners of these local races, although they lack the prestige and national import of congressional service, likely will have stronger effects on the day-to-day lives of their constituents as they serve out their terms, many working for small salaries or even without pay.

From emergency services like police and firefighters to the more mundane matters of trash collection and road maintenance, local governments are front lines of U.S. government and perhaps the truest illustrations of American democracy in action.

Role of Political Parties

When the Founders of the American Republic drafted and ratified the U.S. Constitution, they did not envision a role for political parties. Indeed, they sought through various constitutional arrangements — such as separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches; federalism; and indirect election of the president by an Electoral College (see below) — to insulate the new republic from parties and factions.

In spite of the Founders’ intentions, the United States in 1800 became the first nation to develop nascent political parties organized on a national basis to accomplish the transfer of executive power from one faction to another via an election. The development and expansion of political parties that followed was closely linked to the broadening of voting rights. In the early days of the republic, only male property owners could vote, but that restriction began to erode in the early 19th century as the result of immigration, the growth of cities and other democratizing forces, such as the westward expansion of the country. Over the decades, the right to vote was extended to ever larger numbers of the adult population as restrictions based on property ownership, race and sex were eliminated. As the electorate expanded, the political parties evolved to mobilize the growing mass of voters as the means of political control. Political parties became institutionalized to accomplish this essential task. Thus, parties in America emerged as a part of democratic expansion, and, beginning in the 1830s, they became firmly established and powerful.

Today, the Republican and Democratic parties — both of them heirs to predecessor parties from the 18th and 19th centuries — dominate the political process. With rare exceptions, the two major parties control the presidency, the Congress, the governorships and the state legislatures. For instance, every president since 1852 has been either a Republican or a Democrat, and in the post-World War II era, the two major parties’ share of the popular vote for president has averaged close to 95 percent. Rarely do any of the 50 states elect a governor who is not a Democrat or a Republican. The number of independent or third-party members of Congress or of state legislatures is extremely low.

In recent decades, increasing numbers of individual voters classify themselves as “independent,” and they are permitted to register to vote as such in many states. Yet, according to opinion polls, even those who say that they are independents normally have partisan leanings toward one party or another.

An exception to this general rule can be found at the local level, particularly in small cities and towns where candidates may not be required to declare any party affiliation or may run as part of a slate of like-minded office-seekers under the banner of a particular local initiative — such as downtown redevelopment or school construction.

Although the two major parties organize and dominate the government at the national, state, and local levels, they tend to be less ideologically cohesive and programmatic than parties in many democracies. The ability of the major parties to adapt to the nation’s political development has resulted in a pragmatic domination of the political process.

Why a two-party system?

As noted, Republicans and Democrats have dominated electoral politics since the 1860s. This unrivaled record of the same two parties continuously controlling a nation’s electoral politics reflects structural aspects of the American political system as well as special features of the parties.

The standard arrangement for electing national and state legislators in the United States is the “single-member” district system, wherein the candidate who receives a plurality of the vote (that is, the greatest number of votes in the given voting district) wins the election. Although a few states require a majority of votes for election, most officeholders can be elected with a simple plurality.

Unlike proportional systems popular in many democracies, the single-member-district arrangement permits only one party to win in any given district. The single-member system thus creates incentives to form broadly based national parties with sufficient management skills, financial resources and popular appeal to win legislative district pluralities all over the country. Under this system, minor and third-party candidates are disadvantaged. Parties with minimal financial resources and popular backing tend not to win any representation at all. Thus, it is hard for new parties to achieve a viable degree of proportional representation, and achieve national clout, due to the “winner-take-all” structure of the U.S. electoral system.

Why two instead of, say, three well-financed national parties? In part because two parties are seen to offer the voters sufficient choice, in part because Americans historically have disliked political extremes, and in part because both parties are open to new ideas (see below).

The Electoral College

There is a further impetus toward the two-party solution, and that is the Electoral College system for choosing presidents. Under the Electoral College system, Americans, technically, do not vote directly for the president and vice president. Instead, they vote within each state for a group of “electors” who are pledged to one or another presidential candidate. The number of electors corresponds to the number in a state’s congressional delegation, i.e., the number of representatives and senators from that state. Election to the presidency requires an absolute majority of the 538 electoral votes. (That figure includes three electoral votes from the national capital city of Washington, the District of Columbia, which is not a state and which does not have voting representation in Congress.)

The absolute majority requirement makes it extremely difficult for a third-party candidate to win the presidency because the individual states’ electoral votes are allocated under a winner-take-all arrangement (with two exceptions). That is, whichever candidate receives a plurality of the popular vote in a state — even if it is just a narrow plurality — wins all of that state’s electoral votes. In Maine and Nebraska, the statewide popular vote winner is awarded two electoral votes and the winner in each congressional district is awarded one electoral vote. Like the single-member-district system, the Electoral College works to the disadvantage of third parties, which have little chance of winning any state’s electoral votes, let alone carrying enough states to elect a president.

The founders of the nation devised the Electoral College system as part of their plan to share power between the states and the national government. Under the Electoral College system, the nationwide popular vote for president has no final significance. As a result, it is possible that the electoral votes awarded on the basis of state elections could produce a different result than the nationwide popular vote. In fact, there have been 17 presidential elections in which the winner did not receive a majority of the popular vote cast. The first of these was John Quincy Adams in the election of 1824, and the most recent was George W. Bush in 2000. Some people consider the Electoral College system to be an outmoded relic, while other observers prefer it because it requires presidential candidates to contest the election in many states, rather than just in the most populous ones.

Other barriers to third parties

Given the tendency of the system to produce two national parties over the course of time, and with the Democrats and Republicans currently in control of the governmental machinery, it is not surprising that they have created other electoral rules that work to their advantage. For instance, qualifying a new party for the ballot in a state can be an arduous and expensive undertaking, often requiring petitions with tens of thousands of signatures and the ability to attract a sufficient “threshold” proportion of the vote in subsequent elections to remain on the ballot.

America’s distinctive nominating process is an additional structural barrier to third parties. Among the world’s democracies, the United States is unique in its overwhelming reliance on primary elections to nominate partisan candidates for presidential, congressional and state offices. As noted, under this type of nominating system, rank-and-file voters in a primary election select their party’s nominee for the general election. In most nations, partisan nominations are controlled by the party organizations and their leaders. But in the United States, it is now usually the voters who make the ultimate determination of whom the Republican and Democratic nominees will be.

Although this system leads to weaker internal party organizations than is the case in most democracies, this participatory nominating process has contributed to the Republican-Democratic domination of electoral politics. By winning party nominations through primary elections, insurgents or reform candidates can work within the parties to gain access to the general election ballot and thereby enhance their chances of general election victories without having to organize third parties. Thus, the primary nomination process tends to channel dissent into the two major parties and makes it, generally, unnecessary for dissidents to engage in the difficult business of forming a third party. Furthermore, the parties and their candidates tend to adapt electoral strategies to co-opt the message of third-party and independent candidates who demonstrate wide appeal.

Broad-based support

The Republican and Democratic parties both seek broad-based support, and tend to draw voters from across economic classes and demographic groups. With the exception of African-American and Jewish voters — the vast majority of whom usually vote for the Democratic presidential candidate — both parties draw significant levels of support from virtually every major socioeconomic group in society. The parties also exhibit flexibility with respect to policy positions and do not generally enforce a strict adherence to an ideology or a set of policy goals. Rather, they have traditionally been concerned first and foremost with winning elections and controlling the elective branches of government.

Given their broad socioeconomic bases of electoral support and the need to operate within a society that is largely middle-of-the-road ideologically, American parties have adopted essentially centrist policy positions. As noted, they also demonstrate a high level of policy flexibility. This non-doctrinaire approach enables the Republicans and the Democrats to tolerate great diversity within their ranks, and has contributed to their ability to absorb third parties and protest movements when they have occurred. In general, Republicans are seen as the conservative party, with more of an emphasis on property rights and private accumulation of wealth, and the Democrats are seen as somewhat more to the left, favoring liberal social and economic policies. In practice, when they achieve power, both parties tend to be pragmatic.

Decentralized party structures

In addition to being ideologically flexible, the two main American parties are characterized by a decentralized structure. Once in office, a president cannot assume that his party’s members in Congress will be loyal supporters of his favored initiatives, nor can party leaders in Congress expect straight party-line voting from members of their party. The Democratic and Republican congressional caucuses (composed of incumbent legislators) are autonomous, and may pursue policies that are in opposition to the president, even if the president is from the same party. Party fundraising for elections is similarly separated, as the Republican and Democratic congressional and senatorial campaign committees operate independently from the national party committees that tend to be oriented to the presidential election. In addition, except for asserting authority over procedures for selecting delegates to national nominating conventions, national party organizations rarely meddle in state party affairs.

This organizational fragmentation reflects the consequences of the constitutional separation-of-powers system — the division of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, both at the federal and state level. The system of divided power may create only limited incentives for party unity between legislators and their party’s chief executive. This is broadly true whether we are talking about members of Congress vis-a-vis a president of their own party, or a similar relationship between state legislators and a governor.

The layered system of federal, state and local governments in the United States provides further impetus for decentralization of the parties by creating thousands of constituencies for officeholders at the federal, state, and local levels. As previously noted, the use of primary elections to nominate candidates also weakens the party organizations by denying them the ability to control the selection of party nominees. Individual candidates, therefore, are encouraged to build their own personal campaign organizations and electoral followings, first to win the primaries and then the general elections.

Public wariness

In spite of the long and impressive evidence of organized partisanship within the American political system, one ingrained component of American civic culture has been increasing distrust of political parties. The adoption and growth of the primary system for nominating congressional and state candidates is testimony to a populist, or even anti-party, sentiment within the public. Modern Americans are skeptical about the leaders of their party organizations exercising great power over their government. Public opinion polls consistently reveal that large proportions of the population believe that the parties sometimes do more to confuse the issues than clarify them — and that it would be better if there were no party labels on the ballot.

Parties thus must contend with the problem of a substantial number of voters attaching diminished importance to party identification. One indicator of this is the incidence of ticket-splitting. For instance, a voter may vote for his own party’s nominee for president and for the other party’s nominee in his district for Congress. Thus, in an age of divided government, presidents often find themselves attempting to govern without a majority in one or both houses of Congress.

Divided party control of the executive and legislative branches of government has become a commonplace feature of both the national government and the governments in the 50 states. Some observers believe that voters even prefer the arrangement because it tends to stifle major government initiatives that might inconvenience voters.

Third parties and independent candidates

Third- parties and independent candidates, despite the obstacles discussed previously, have been a periodic feature of American politics. Often they have brought societal problems that the major parties had failed to confront to the forefront of public discourse — and onto the governmental agenda. But most third parties have tended to flourish for a single election and then die, fade away or be absorbed into one of the major parties. Since the 1850s, only one new party, the Republican Party, has emerged to achieve major party status. In that instance, there was a compelling moral issue — slavery — dividing the nation. It provided the basis for candidate recruitment and voter mobilization.

There is evidence that third parties can have a major impact on election outcomes. For example, Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy in 1912 split the normal Republican vote and enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to be elected with less than a majority of the popular vote. In 1992, H. Ross Perot’s independent candidacy attracted voters who, in the main, had been voting Republican in the 1980s, and thereby contributed to the defeat of the incumbent Republican president, George H.W. Bush. In the extremely close 2000 contest between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, it is possible that had Green Party candidate Ralph Nader not been on the ballot in Florida, Gore might have won that state’s electoral votes and thereby the presidency.

Public opinion surveys since the 1990s have consistently shown a high level of popular support for the concept of a third party. In the run-up to the 2000 election, a Gallup Poll found that 67 percent of Americans favored a strong third party that would field candidates for president, Congress and state offices against Republican and Democratic nominees. It is just such sentiments, plus lavish campaign spending, that enabled Texas billionaire Ross Perot to gain 19 percent of the popular vote for president in 1992, the highest percentage for a non-major-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive Party) won 27 percent in 1912.

What happens after elections

After losing the 1960 U.S. presidential election by the thinnest of margins, Vice President Richard Nixon declined to challenge the results. Instead, he performed his constitutional duty as president of the Senate in reporting to that body the election of his opponent, Senator John F. Kennedy.

“This is the first time in 100 years that a candidate for the presidency announced the result of an election in which he was defeated and announced the victory of his opponent,” Nixon said. “I do not think we could have a more striking example of the stability of our constitutional system and of the proud tradition of the American people of developing, respecting and honoring institutions of self-government.

“In our campaigns, no matter how hard fought they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be,” he said, “those who lose accept the verdict and support those who win.”

U.S. elections are fought hard. Yet citizens expect that elections will be fair and the results respected, with a peaceful transition of power from one leader to the next. That is so not only for the presidency, but also for elections to Congress, for state governors and legislatures, and for local elections.

Citizens accept disappointing election results when they understand that the laws are being enforced fairly and that their views may prevail in a subsequent contest. Election results are accepted when citizens view their government as legitimate, because it obeys the rule of law.

Challenging Transitions

Transitions challenge any political system. In healthy democracies, fair elections and peaceful transitions demonstrate that today’s losers might be tomorrow’s winners. Winners and their supporters must remain responsive to the opinions of their rivals, keeping an eye on the next election cycle.

Losers and their advocates can focus on present and future possibilities, rather than past resentments. Confident that the rules can work for them next time, they more easily accept the existing political order and do not resort to violence.

In a healthy democracy, officeholders who lose elections relinquish power gracefully and peacefully. By doing so, they can emerge with their dignity intact and through their example strengthen their nation’s democratic traditions. Likewise, by reaching out to and showing respect for their political opponents, winning candidates help bridge differences and minimize the potential for conflict that can undermine democracy.

During the roughly 75-day period between election and inauguration of a new U.S. president, the outgoing administration briefs its successor on important national security, foreign affairs and other matters. This empowers the new president to make informed decisions as soon as he or she takes office. It also helps the president-elect make personnel decisions about top-level officials. A new president fills about 7,000 executive branch positions; the 1,200 most important ones — including the secretaries of state and defense — require Senate confirmation.

Legitimate Transitions

The transition process begins with the defeated candidate’s concession speech. These remarks play a crucial role: the defeated candidate accepts the legitimacy of the election results, even as he renews his party’s commitment to future victory. Delivered with a minimum of preparation by a strong personality at a time of great emotional stress, a concession speech reinforces the nation’s commitment to social stability and legitimate political authority.

Soon afterward the victorious candidate delivers a speech acknowledging his opponent’s graciousness. His response signals that supporters of all candidates remain a valued part of the national polity. Each election, no matter how bitterly contested, thus ends with an expression of national unity.

Democracies tend to be stable because election losers know that no victory is permanent, that winners cannot change the rules of future contests, and that losers can compete and win another day. Among those competitors was Richard M. Nixon, elected in 1968 as the 37th president of the United States.