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13. Elections: The Maintenance of Democracy, Topic Overview
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources



Topic Overview Unit 13

Elections: The Maintenance of Democracy

Learning Objectives

After completing this session, you will be able to:

  • Define nomination and discuss the ways candidates are nominated for office.

  • 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.


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