Elections in the United States of America
The description of the Election Law in the United States of America. Voting Eligibility. Voter registration. Absentee voting. Mail ballots. Early voting. Levels of election. Federal and Presidential elections. Congressional, State and Local elections.
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The United States has a federal government, with elected officials at federal (national), state and local level. On a national level, the head of state, the President, is elected indirectly by the people, through electors of an electoral college. In modern times, the electors virtually always vote with the popular vote of their state. All members of the federal legislature, Congress, are directly elected. There are many elected offices at state level, each state having at least an elective governor and legislature. There are also elected offices at local level, in counties and cities. It is estimated that across the whole country, over one million elected offices are filled in every electoral cycle.
Both federal and state laws regulate elections. The United States Constitution defines (to a basic extent) how federal elections are held, in Article One and Article Two and various amendments. State law regulates most aspects of electoral law, including primaries, the eligibility of voters (beyond the basic constitutional definition), the running of each state's electoral college, and the running of state and local elections. The financing of elections has always been controversial, because private sources of finance make up substantial amounts of campaign contributions, especially in federal elections. Voluntary public funding for candidates willing to accept spending limits was introduced in 1974 for presidential primaries and elections. The Federal Elections Commission, created in 1975 by an amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act has the responsibility to disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the provisions of the law such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and to oversee the public funding of U.S. presidential elections. The federal government has also been involved in attempts to increase voter turnout, by measures such as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
The eligibility of an individual for voting is set out in the constitution and also regulated at state level. The constitution states that suffrage cannot be denied on grounds of race or color, sex or age for citizens eighteen years or older. Beyond these basic qualifications, it is the responsibility of state legislatures to regulate voter eligibility. Some states bar convicted criminals, especially felons, from voting for a fixed period of time or indefinitely. The number of American adults who are currently or permanently ineligible to vote due to felony convictions is estimated to be 5.3 million. Some states also have legacy constitutional statements barring the "insane" or "idiots" from voting; such references are generally considered obsolete and are being considered for review or removal where they appear.
Registering to vote is the responsibility of individuals in the United States, since voters are not automatically registered to vote once they reach the age of 18. Every state except North Dakota requires that citizens who wish to vote be registered. Some states allow citizens to register to vote on the same day of the election, see below. Traditionally, voters had to register at state offices to vote, but in the mid-1990s efforts were made by the federal government to make registering easier, in an attempt to increase turnout. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the "Motor Voter" law) forced state governments to make the voter registration process easier by providing uniform registration services through drivers' license registration centers, disability centers, schools, libraries, and mail-in registration. States with same-day registration are exempt from Motor Voter; namely: Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
An absentee ballot paper for Milton, New Hampshire. This ballot paper gives the voter the option to write-in a candidate and use straight ticket voting. This ballot also contains a referendum placed on the ballot by the state legislature.
Voters unable or unwilling to vote at polling stations on Election Day can vote via absentee ballots. Absentee ballots are most commonly sent and received via the United States Postal Service. Despite their name, absentee ballots are often requested and submitted in person. About half of all states and U.S. territories allow "no excuse absentee," where no reason is required to request an absentee ballot. Others require a valid reason, such as infirmity or travel, be given before a voter can participate using an absentee ballot. Some states, including California, and Washington allow citizens to apply for permanent absentee voter status, which will automatically receive an absentee ballot for each election. Typically a voter must request an absentee ballot before the election occurs.
A significant source of absentee ballots is the population of Americans living outside the United States. In 1986 Congress enacted the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). UOCAVA requires that the states and territories allow members of the United States Uniformed Services and merchant marine, their family members, and United States citizens residing outside the United States to register and vote absentee in elections for Federal offices. Though many states had pre-existing statutes in place UOCAVA made it mandatory and nationally uniform. "Generally, all U.S. citizens 18 years or older who are or will be residing outside the United States during an election period are eligible to vote absentee in any election for Federal office. In addition, all members of the Uniformed Services, their family members and members of the Merchant Marine and their family members, who are U.S. citizens, may vote absentee in Federal, state and local elections." Absentee ballots from these voters can often be transmitted private delivery services, fax, or email.
Mail ballots are similar in many respects to an absentee ballot. However they are used for Mailing Precincts where on election day no polling place is opened for a specific precinct. In Oregon, all ballots are delivered through the mail.
Early voting election law united states
Early voting is a formal process where voters can cast their ballots on a voting machine prior to the official election day. This process is used by Nevada and runs for 14 consecutive days prior to the official election day ending on the Friday before the Tuesday election day. Voters who vote early are not able to vote again on election day.
Voting equipment. Voting machine
Voters casting their ballots in polling places record their votes most commonly with optical scan voting machines or DRE voting machines. Voting machine selection is typically done through a state's local election jurisdiction including counties, cities, and townships. Many of these local jurisdictions have changed their voting equipment since 2000 due to the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which allocated funds for the replacement of lever machine and punch card voting equipment.
Levels of election. Federal elections
The United States has a Presidential system of government, which means that the executive and legislature are elected separately. Article One of the United States Constitution requires that any election for the U.S. President must occur on a single day throughout the country; elections for Congressional offices, however, can be held at different times. See Election Day (United States). Congressional and Presidential elections take place simultaneously every four years, and the intervening Congressional elections, which take place every two years, are called Midterm elections.
The constitution states that members of the United States House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old, a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and be a (legal) inhabitant of the state they represent. Senators must be at least 30 years old, a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and be a (legal) inhabitant of the state they represent. The President must be at least 35 years old, a natural born citizen of the United States and a resident in the United States for at least fourteen years. It is the responsibility of state legislatures to regulate the qualifications for a candidate appearing on a ballot paper, although in order to get onto the ballot, a candidate must often collect a legally defined number of signatures.
Presidential elections. United States presidential election and United States Electoral College
The President and the Vice President are elected together in a Presidential election. The election is indirect, the winner being determined by votes cast by electors of the United States Electoral College. In modern times, voters in each state select a slate of electors from a list of several slates designated by different parties or candidates, and the electors typically promise in advance to vote for the candidates of their party (whose names usually appear on the ballot rather than those of the individual electors). The winner of the election is the candidate with at least 270 Electoral College votes. It is possible for a candidate to win the electoral vote, and lose the (nationwide) popular vote (receive fewer votes nationwide than the second ranked candidate). Until the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution of 1804, the runner-up in a Presidential election became the Vice President.
Electoral College votes are cast by individual states by a group of electors, each elector casts one electoral college vote. In modern times, with electors usually committed to vote for a party candidate in advance, electors that vote against the popular vote in their state are called faithless electors, and occurrences are rare. State law regulates how states cast their electoral college votes. In all states except Maine and Nebraska, the candidate that wins the most votes in the state receives all its electoral college votes (a "winner takes all" system). From 1969 in Maine, and from 1991 in Nebraska, two electoral votes are awarded based on the winner of the statewide election, and the rest (two in Maine, three in Nebraska) go to the highest vote-winner in each of the state's congressional districts. Incumbent Presidents and challengers usually seek to have a "balanced ticket", so that the Presidential candidate and the Vice Presidential candidates have complementary political support and political roles, allowing them to do well among different constituencies. Usually, there is some kind of balance, for example geographical, ideological, or in terms of (especially federal) government experience. The nominated Vice Presidential candidate is called the "running mate". Although incumbent Presidents can be challenged in the primaries, none have lost their party's nomination in recent times (although Gerald Ford in 1976 came close). The last incumbent President to not seek a second term was Lyndon B. Johnson, who stepped down after serving the remainder of John F. Kennedy's term and another full term (he was eligible for another term).
The electoral college has long been criticized, for several reasons. It has been criticized for being undemocratic by definition, since through it the President is elected indirectly rather than a direct system of election. Another criticism is that it creates inequality between voters in different states during the presidential election. Usually, only voters in swing states determine the outcome of the election and as a result, it is claimed that the vast majority of Americans, who live in non-competitive states, are largely ignored by political campaigns. If the electoral college were abolished and if the whole country were treated as one district for Presidential elections, then the result would not depend on crucial swing states. It also creates inequality in that the populations of very small states, which have a minimum of 3 Electoral college votes, are overrepresented compared with voters from larger states. For example, Wyoming has a population of 493,782 and 3 EC votes, 164,594 people per EC vote. California has a population of 33,871,648 and 55 EC votes, 615,848 people per EC vote. Abolishing the college and replacing it with a national direct system would also prevent a candidate from receiving fewer votes nationwide than their opponent, but still winning more electoral votes, which last occurred in the 2000 Presidential election. Also, the electoral college discriminates against candidates who do not have support concentrated in several states. In 1992, Ross Perot won 18.9% of the national vote, but received no electoral college votes. The electoral college would require a constitutional amendment to be abolished, and since three-quarters of state legislatures would be required to ratify an amendment that would effectively redistribute voting power from many small states to numerically fewer large states, it is thought that an amendment would fail.
Elections to Congress take place every two years. Congress has two chambers.
The Senate has 100 members, elected for a six year term in dual-seat constituencies (two from each state) with one-third being renewed every two years. Until the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1913, Senators were elected by state legislatures, not the electorate of states.
The House of Representatives has 435 members, elected for a two year term in single-seat constituencies.
Critics point out that the division of the country into congressional districts tends to eliminate voter choice, in many cases creating areas in which races are uncontested or uncompetitive. Redistricting of Congressional districts is done every ten years by commissions, which are often controlled by the majority party in a state legislature. As a result, much redistricting is partisan and reduces the number of competitive districts. According to The Economist, "if democracy means multi-party competition at the grass roots, America is not a full democracy in elections to the House of Representatives... More than nine in ten Americans live in districts that are, in practice, one-party monopolies." Source. Much of the reason for this is partisan gerrymandering which is allowed to occur by state law in virtually every state. House of Representatives elections are held every two years on the first Tuesday after November 1 in even years. House elections are first-past-the-post elections that elect a Representative from each of 435 House districts which cover the United States. Special House elections can occur between if a member dies or resigns during a term.
House elections are usually, but not always, correlated with presidential elections. Typically, when a House election occurs in the same year as a presidential election, the party of the presidential winner will gain seats. On the other hand, there is a historical pattern that the incumbent president's party loses seats in elections that are held in the middle of a presidential term. This may be because the President's popularity has slipped since election, or because the President's popularity encouraged supporters to come out to vote for him in the presidential election, but these supporters are less likely to vote when the President is not up for election.
As the redistricting commissions of states are often partisan, districts are often drawn which benefit incumbents. An increasing trend has been for incumbents to have an overwhelming advantage in House elections, and since the 1994 election, an unusually low number of seats has changed hands in each election. Due to gerrymandering, fewer than 10% of all House seats are contested in each election cycle. Over 90% of House members are reelected every two years, due to lack of electoral competition. Gerrymandering of the House, combined with the divisions inherent in the design of the Senate and of the Electoral College, result in a discrepancy between the percentage popular support for various political parties and the actual level of the parties' representation.
State law and state constitutions, controlled by state legislatures regulate elections at a state level and local level. Various officials at state level are elected. Since the separation of powers applies to states as well as the federal government, state legislatures and the executive (the governor) are elected separately. Governors and Lieutenant governor are elected in all states, in some states on a joint ticket and in some states separately, some separately in different electoral cycles. The governors of the territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are also elected. In some states, executive positions such as Attorney General and Secretary of State are also elected offices. All members of state legislatures are elected, state senators and state representatives/assembly members. Nebraska's legislature is unicameral, so only senators are elected. In some states, members of the state supreme court and other members of the state judiciary are elected. Proposals to amend the state constitution are also placed on the ballot in some states.
At the local level, county and city government positions are usually filled by election, especially within the legislative branch. The extent to which offices in the executive or judicial branches are elected vary from county to county. Some examples of local elected positions include sheriffs at the county level and mayors and school board members at the city level.
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