Elections: The Maintenance of Democracy
After completing this session, you will be able to:
- Define nomination and discuss the ways candidates are nominated
- Describe the organizational styles and strategies of campaigning.
- Describe the demographic characteristics of those who vote
and examine efforts to increase voter turnout.
- Illustrate the ways in which people can become involved in
electoral politics, beyond voting.
Unit 13 illustrates the workings of electoral politics in America.
The unit describes, for instance, the nomination process-the first
step to winning office. As the unit shows, there are several ways
to win a party nomination and each demands a different style of
campaigning and different strategies. This unit also demonstrates
how ordinary citizens become involved in election activities and
thereby contribute to a functioning electoral system. Despite the
options, as the unit discusses, many Americans do not bother to
even vote-the easiest political act. This is especially true of
young people, who for a variety of reasons do not exercise their
right to vote.
Elections are one mechanism by which citizens can participate
in representative democracy. As voters, citizens make choices about
whom they want to represent them. Citizens can also run for office
and, if elected, are authorized to represent their district's citizens.
Individuals seek public office for a variety of reasons. Some are
motivated to enter politics out of a sense of duty to their country
or communities. Others are motivated by a desire to achieve certain
policy goals. Still others are driven by personal ambition and a
desire for power and prestige. Undoubtedly, most people enter and
stay in politics because of a mixture of these and other reasons.
For most political candidates, the first step in winning office
is to gain their party's nomination by winning the primary election.
Party primaries are organized differently among the states; some
are closed, where only registered party members may vote,
and some are open, where non-declared party voters may still
choose to vote in a party's primary election. Generally, fewer voters
participate in primary elections compared to general elections.
Those who vote in the Republican primaries tend to be more conservative
than general election voters, and those who vote in Democratic primaries
tend to be more liberal.
The party candidates who win their party's nomination face each
other in the general election. Republicans and Democrats
almost always field candidates for partisan offices, while minor
party candidates often qualify to get on the ballot as well. In
most elections only a plurality of votes (the most votes
over all other candidates) is required to win office, as opposed
to a majority of votes (50 percent of voters plus one).
Although Americans are proud of free elections, they don't often
turn out to vote in large numbers. Indeed, voter turnout
in American elections typically falls well below that of other Western
democracies. Many Americans fail to vote because of legal restrictions
and structural reasons, such as registration requirements, complicated
ballots and issues, and too frequent elections compared to many
other industrialized democracies. Some people don't vote because
they feel their vote makes no difference.
Those who do vote tend to be better educated, wealthier, and older
than those who tend not to vote. People differ over whether low
voter turnout is a serious problem. Some observers argue that low
voter turnout is a sign of a satisfied electorate. Others see low
voter turnout as a threat to representative government.
Citizens also participate in electoral politics by actively working
for candidates or issues they support. Their electoral activities
might include stuffing envelopes for mass mailings, making phone
calls, and walking door-to-door to reach prospective voters. People
also participate by donating money to a candidate or issue campaign,
and asking others to make a contribution.