United States Electoral Process

An election is the process by which citizens select the thousands of men and women they want to run their government--at all levels. In a democracy, government officials are chosen by the people and serve for a specific time called a term of office. Depending on state laws, an official may run for reelection once the term is over. Our system of government is called a representative democracy. American citizens do not directly make governmental decisions. They elect officials to govern for them. Most elections in our country are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. But elections for public offices may be held at any time, depending on state law.

When the Constitution was written in 1787, it basically left the decision to each state as to who could vote in elections. Most states did not at first give the right to vote to women or African Americans.

In 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War, the 15th Amendment was passed. This amendment guaranteed the right to vote to male African Americans. However, it took another 100 years for African Americans to be able to fully exercise this right.

American women were not allowed to vote at the national level until 1920. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed that year, and the following November millions of American women voted in the presidential election for the first time. 

The 26th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1971, says that anyone over 18 is allowed to vote.

In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. This law guaranteed that the federal government would intervene if any state attempted to deny a citizen's voting rights because of race. As a result of this act, millions of African Americans in the South were allowed to register to vote for the first time.

On the average, about 60% of voting-age Americans vote in presidential elections. For local elections, voter turn out is usually much lower.

No political parties officially existed when the U.S. Constitution was written in the late 1780s. The founders of the country actually felt that political parties were not a good thing and that they would divide people against each other and harm the democracy. However within 10 years after the Constitution was written, the U.S. had two major political parties--the Federalist party that was a proponent of a strong central government--and the Democratic-Republican party (also called the Anti-Federalist Party) that supported strong state governments. The Democratic-Republican party eventually became known as the Democratic party. The Whig party developed in the 1830s in opposition to President Andrew Jackson and his policies. The Whig party eventually split apart, mainly over the issue of slavery. Proslavery Whigs rejoined the Democratic party and many antislavery Whigs formed a new party in 1854 called the Republican party. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president.

Today, the Democrats and Republicans remain the two leading parties in our country. However, there are other political parties such as the Independent Party, the Reform Party, the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, the Socialist Party, the Populist Party, and others.

When you vote for a mayor, senator, a member of the House of Representatives, a judge, etc. you are voting directly for that person. However, when you vote for president, you are really voting for an elector who has pledged to represent that candidate. The electors chosen by each state are called the electoral college. They are a group of people who officially elect the president and vice president. Each state has as many votes in the electoral college as it has senators and members of the House of Representatives. For example, Utah has 2 senators and 3 members of the House of Representatives--so it has 5 electoral votes. Large states like California have more than 50 electoral votes. States small in population like Alaska only have 3 electoral votes. To be elected, a presidential candidate must put together enough states in the election to get a majority (more than half of the total) of the electoral college. Even though the American public knows the winner of the presidential election on the actual day of the election in November, that winner is not really yet official. The electoral college meets officially in December. Its votes are sealed and sent to the U.S. Senate. When the Congress meets in January, the current vice president of the United States unseals the envelope and announces the results to the Senate. This is the official moment at which the president and vice president are really elected.

 Sample some of the following activities to learn more about the electoral process.


Places To Go    People To See    Things To Do    Teacher Resources    Bibliography

Places To Go

The following are places to go (some real and some virtual) to find out about the electoral process.

Democratic Party
Visit Democratic headquarters and find out about their candidates, their voter outreach, and the latest Democratic news.
Elections Around the World 
Travel around the globe and find up-to-date election information for worldwide countries.
Republican National Committee
Visit the Republican National Committee headquarters and find out about their platform, their party history, and their elected officials.

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People To See

Democratic National Leader is the official web site for House Democratic Leader.
Elmo Burns Roper, Jr.
Elmo Burns Roper, Jr. was one of the early developers of public opinion polls. One of his biggest mistakes was his forecast that New York Governor Thomas Dewey would defeat Harry Truman for president in the 1948 election.
President of the United States
This site is a source for information about the President, White House news and policies, White House history, and the federal government.
Project Vote Smart
This site offers unbiased political information on current elected officials as well as candidates in upcoming elections.
Republican National Chair
Meet the Republican National Chair. Find all the information involving the Republican National Committee (RNC). Learn about the latest news about the GOP.
Thomas Alva Edison
In 1868, Thomas Edison invented the first machine that recorded votes. He tried to sell his machine to the U.S. Congress for when they voted on bills and resolutions. It would have speeded up the process of voting out loud. But the lawmakers rejected it because it was too fast!

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Things To Do

Bull Moose Party
This party came about after the Republican nomination of William Howard Taft in the 1912 election. Some Republicans who felt that Taft was too conservative formed a new party called the Progressive party and nominated former president Theodore Roosevelt as their candidate. When Roosevelt said that he was as strong as a bull moose, the party became known as the Bull Moose party.
Campaign & Elections
Campaigns & Elections magazine educates, informs, entertains and connects all those who touch politics, from high-profile players to political junkies and casual observers. The magazine is published twelve times per year by Political World Communications, LLC.
The Center for Voting and Democracy
Find out how redistricting can affect election results.
CNN AllPolitics
Find current political news.
Commission on Presidential Debates
Suggest topics for the presidential and vice-presidential debates.
Democratic Party
Learn about the origins of the Democratic party. It was originally called the Democratic-Republican party or Anti-Federalist party. The Anti-Federalist party favored a weaker central government and strong state governments. It was allied with small farmers rather than business people. Thomas Jefferson was a member of the Anti-Federalist party. Are the original tenents of this party still at the core of the Democratic party today?
The Electoral College
Find out the history of the electoral college and how it works. In order to be elected, the person running for president must have a majority of the votes of the electoral college. If no candidate receives a majority of the Electoral College votes, the president is then chosen directly by the House of Representatives. If this happens, each state gets just one vote.
Federal Election Commission
Have students find out what the duties of this commission are. What is their role in campaign financing and expenditures?
Federalist Party
Learn about the Federalist party, the first major political party in the United States. At its core was a belief in a strong central government. It was an advocate for many merchants, bankers, and business people. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were Federalists.
Inaugural Quiz
Take this interesting 10-question quiz about the inauguration of presidents. When was the first televised inauguration?
Kids Voting USA
Find teacher's guides and student activities. The goal of this site is to educate and involve youth in the election process today.
League of Women Voters: Making Democracy Work
Use this resource to find voter and candidate information.
Library of Congress: Elections in American Memory
Learn about the American system of elections.
Mechanical Lever Machines
Check out voting machines. Today, most votes are cast electronlically. But for many years mechanical voting machines were used. The first voting maching was used in an election in Lockport, New York in 1892. The United States was the first country to use voting machines.
Youth Voting Initiative
Inform students about the election process and citizenship responsibilities.
Political Memoribilia
Check out all the doodads that go with political conventions and elections--buttons, pins, watch fobs, ribbons, etc.
Republican Party
Learn how this party got its start. It had its roots in the opposition to slavery. The first Republican president was Abraham Lincoln.
Rock the Vote
Speak your mind, participate, raise your voice, volunteer.
Discover non-partisan voter resources, an in-depth examination of Utah's candidates, information about election issues and proposed initiatives, and more at this website specifically designed for Utah voters.
The Whig Party
Find out why this political party was called the Whigs. When Andrew Jackson, a member of the Democratic party, became president in 1828, he made many enemies during his eight years in the White House. Opponents to President Jackson developed the Whig party which opposed the ideas of a pwerful presidency. Instead, they wanted Congress to be the strongest branch of government.

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Teacher Resources

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  • Gutman, Dan. Landslide!: A Kid's Guide to the U.S. Elections. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, c2000.
  • Henry, Christopher E. The Electoral College. New York: Franklin Watts, c1996.
  • Israel, Fred L. Student's Atlas of American Presidential Elections, 1789-1996. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, c1997.
  • Plissner, Martin. The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections.New York: Free Press, c1999.
  • Scher, Linda. The Vote: Making Your Voice Heard. Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, c1993.
  • Sobel, Syl. Presidential Elections: And Other Cool Facts. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barron's Educational Series, c2000.
  • Wayne, Stephen J. The Road to the White House, 2000: The Politics of Presidential Elections. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, c2000.