The electoral process and direct democracy

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  • Created on: 23-04-19 18:34

How does America elect its president and Congress?

Elections in the USA - presidential and congressional 

All US national elections are based on the majoritarian or FPTP electoral system. 

There is no use of any other voting system as there is in the UK for the devolved assemblies, which use AMS. 

National elections occur every two years in November when the whole of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are elected. 

Every four years sees a presidential election; the congressional election that occur when there is no presidential election are coined mid-terms. 

Elections for Congress are direct. 

Elections for the president are indirect as it uses an Electoral College system. 

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How are candidates selected in America?

For all major elections, candidate selection is undertaken by popular vote rather than by the selection committees of local parties like in the UK. 

The most common form is the primary, while some states such as Iowa use caucuses for presidential candidate selection. 

For presidential elections, whether primaries or caucuses are used, the purpose is identical: to select delegates for the national nominating convention of each party which in turn chooses the candidate to go forward to the November election. 

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How are candidates selected in America?

Primaries and Cacuses are: 

  • State organised and run, so the timing and other aspects of the elections vary considerably from state to state.

Texas holds open primaries where registered voters can decide on the day which party's primary they wish to vote in.

 New York hold closed primaries where only registered supporters of each party may participate. 

California holds top-two primaries for congressional elections, where the two candidates with the largest number of votes go forward to the general election irrespective of party affiliation. 

This meant that in November 2016, the California Senate contest was between two Democrats.

The primary system is complex and varies from state to state. 

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How are candidates selected in America?

  • While primaries involve a secret ballot and a formal vote, caucuses are significantly different. They are best described as several layers of informal and open meetings of local party supporters. Each 'layer' selects delegates pledged to the different candidates to go forward to the next round or caucus. 

The layers are usually: 

  • Precinct
  • County 
  • State

This means that there is often a time lapse between the first (precinct) level caucus and the final selection of state delegates for each candidate. 

Caucuses are most common in smaller and more sparsely populate states such as Kansas and Alaska. 

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The debates over primaries and caucuses


  • Primaries and caucuses increase opportunities for democratic participation in politics. 
  • It improves upon the old and corrupted system of 'smoke-filled rooms' that prevailed until the 1960s, where a small clique of party bosses chose the candidate.
  • They enable potential nominees to be 'road tested' prior to the actual election in areas such as debating skills, stamina, fundraising ability and developing clear policy positions, and allows any embarrasing background issues to surface before the 'real' campaign.
  • They allow outsider/relatively unknown candidates such as Obama in 2008 and Carter in 1976 to emerge, build momentum and ultimately win the nomination. No other system would have allowed a political outsider such as Donald Trump to secure the Republican nomination in 2016. 
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The debates over primaries and caucuses


  • Voter turnout is low, usually below 30%, especially for caucuses. In 2016, with two high-profile candidates on both sides and competitive open races in both parties, the Iowa caucuses achieved a combined turnout of less than 16%.
  • Opposers beleive that it weakens political parties and encourages candidate-centred campaigns. 
  • Opposers highlight additional expense, the focus on personality over policy and the need to re-set policy positions after the primaries season in order to attract a less partisan group of voters than caucus/primary votes. 
  • Opposers argue that the system of primaries/caucuses can lead to inexperienced presidents such as Carter, who struggled in office, or play into the hands of well-funded populists who might prove equally problematic in office. 
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National nominating conventions

  • Function is purely ceremonial as the delegate tally from primaries and caucuses usually pre-determines the choice of candidate by the time of the national convention. 
  • Some have spoken of the conventions as though they are akin to corinations and rallies. 
  • They mark the formal start of the general election campaign, when the successful candidates turn their attack on the candidate from the opposing party as well as outlining their own policy platform. 
  • They can enable internal wounds and divisions of a bruising primary campaign to be healed, when Bernie Sanders urged his Democrat supporters to rally behind Clinton in 2016. 



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The Electoral College system

  • College comprises of 538 electors which represents the strength of each state's congressional delegation, i.e. the number of senators (always two) plus the number of House representatives (a minimum of one). 

Dakota has 3 ECV (2 senators and 1 congressman).

California has 55 ECV (2 senators and 53 congressmen).

  • The presidency goes to whoever manages to secure a majority of 270 ECV. 
  • In the event of a tie or no candidate winning 270 ECV, the choice goes to the House of Representatives who have one vote per state. 
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The Electoral College system


  • It reflects the federal nature of the USA and means that campaigning is state focused and that smaller and medium-sized states regarded as 'swing states', remain targeted and relevant to the national campaign.
  • It contributes to the cohesiveness of the country by requiring a distribution of popular support to be elected president. A president cannot be popular in just one densely populated part of the nation. 
  • It enhances the status of minority interests - the votes of small minorities in a state may make the difference between winning all of that state's electoral votes or none.
  • It usually delivers the 'right result', namely the winner of the nationwide popular vote also wins the Electoral College, as happened in 2008 and 2012. The results in 2000 and 2016 were the exception. 
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The Electoral College system


  • As in 2000 and 2016, it can deliver the 'wrong result', namely the victor of the popular vote fails to win the Electoral College. Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes compared with Donald Trump in 2016 but lost the Electoral College 232 to 306. This results in a minority president being chosen.
  • Electors can and do 'break their pledge' and vote for another candidate. They are known as faithless electors. They have never affected the overall outcome.
  • Votes in less populated states count for more than those in the most populated. While the least populated Wyoming has roughly 143,000 people per each ECV, New York and Florida both have around 500,000 people per each ECV. Voter power is greater in smaller states than in larger states. 
  • The Electoral College system encourages candidates to focus their campaign almost exclusively on 'must-win' swing states such as Ohio. Larger but 'safe' states such as New York and Texas largely get overlooked.
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What affects the outcome of elections in the USA?

Money: how much is raised and spent on campaigns. 

Media: the importance of the televised debates, and also their role in shaping and informing the campaign. 

Issues: how candidates and parties stand on policies is of great importance. The economy remains paramount, but issues such as immagration, foreign wars and nartional security can also be significant. 

Leadership: this refers to the qualities of statesmanship a presidential candidate exudes. How do they perform under pressure or in a tight corner? 

Incumbency: politicians seeking re-election both to Congress and the White House have considerable advantages over challengers. 

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What affects the outcome of elections in the USA?


Fundraising is considered vital to most successful campaigns. In contrast to the UK, there are no overall limits on how much candidates can spend, although there are limits on how much individuals can give directly to political parties and candidates. 

Money does not guarantee success - Clinton out-fundraised Trump by a amrgin of nearly 2-1 - she raised $1.91 biliiion while he raised $647 million. 

Competitive congressional races, such as those in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania can cost well in excess of $100 million, which is more than the entire expenditure by all candidates in the 2015 British general election. 

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What affects the outcome of elections in the USA?


Televised debates are a longstanding tradition in US presidential races and are highly anticipated. 

There are normally three presidential debates plus one between the vice presidential candidates. 

They are seen as an opportunity for candidates to appear confident in their grasp of policy detail, to be effective responders under pressure and also to establish a level of perceived competence and charisma. 

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What affects the outcome of elections in the USA?


Issues, especially the economy, remain very important in influencing how independent voters will cast their suport and also whether core supporters will turn out. 

Candidates usually aim to highlight issues they feel strongly about, while focussing on the perceived weakenss of their opponents. 

In 2016, Trump wanted to focus omn issues such as immigration, bringing more jobs and manufacturing back to the USA and dealing with Islamist terrorism in a direct and robust manner, including introducing a temporary ban on Muslims from entering the USA. 

Clinton portrayed her opponent as as politically inexperienced and dangerously populist, with his character and allegations of misogyny an issue in themselves. 

Issues matter, but they need to be communicated effectively and convincingly, which ties in with money and media. 

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What affects the outcome of elections in the USA?


Candidates need to come across as commanding respect, conveying empathy and vision in equal measure, and having the dignity and personal integrity deemed necessary for the top prize in American politics - they need to come across as presidential.

Both Nixon and Clinton were said to have damaged the office of president by lying publicly about Watergate in one instance and their extra-marital activities in the other. 

By contrast, George W. Bush's appropriate demeanour in the aftermath of 9/11 sent his approval ratings soaring. 

Trump's temper and tendency to harbour grudges were criticised by many in the 2016 campaign and led some within his own party to regard him as 'unfit' for presidency.

Such fears did not cost him the election though.

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What affects the outcome of elections in the USA?


Incumbency is one of the most important factors relating to electoral success.

Re-election results are normally in excess of 90%, and the majority of post-war presidents have been re-elected on an increased share of the vote - Obama in 2012 being the only incumbent president being re-elected but on a lower share of the vote. 

Why do incumbents do so well?

  • They have greater name recognition and usually a higher media profile.
  • They already have an established campaign and fundraising organisation.
  • They can boast of past achievements, such as federal funds and projects secured from their state/district. 
  • House members benefit from gerrymandering, providing their own party controlled redistricting at the last count. 
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The debate over campaign finance

Campaign finance is the most problematic aspect in American politics, primarily because of:

  • The ever-growing cost of election campaigns.
  • The potential for corruption with major donors and powerful pressure groups who can fail to reform the system (2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act). 
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The debate over campaign finance

The main attempts to try to reform campaign finance have focused on: 

  • Encouraging candidates to voluntarily limit their expenditure by offering matching funding from federal funds to those who accept such a cap. 
  • Trying to limit donations to candidates and political parties by individuals and corporate bodies and pressure groups. 
  • Requiring transparency with political donations so that the sources of political funding are fully in the public domain.
  • Establishing the Federal Electoral Commission to oversee the rules regarding campaign finance. 
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The debate over campaign finance

In reality, none of these measures have had the desired effect. Each election has been more expensive than the last. 

Some of the reasons for this are:

  • The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, and by extension, political expression. Any attempts to restrict political expenditure (a form of political expression) are bound to be challenged in the courts. 
  • Politicans and donors/pressure groups have continued to find loopholes in the legisaltion. While direct donations are capped, independent expenditrue is not. 

Put simply, there are a considerable number of wealthy individuals, such as the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson, along with well-funded pressure groups, that are only too ready to donate to political campaigns in order to furhter their views and interests. 

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The debate over campaign finance


Know the difference between a PAC and a Super PAC

  • A PAC can raise and donate money to candidates' own campaigns and to political parties. The amount is capped at $5,000 per candidate at each election and $15,000 annually to a political party. 
  • Super PACs can spend unlimited amounts, but must not donate directly to candidates or parties - independent expenditure. 
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How does direct democracy work in the USA?

  • Referendums: In 2016, Nebraska had a referendum to veto the recent abolition of the death penalty by its state government. 
  • Ballot initiatives or proposals: Where laws or measures are drawn up 'by the people' and put on the ballot for approval or rejection. Minimum wages, marijuana usue, assisted dying and same-sex marriage have all been proposed. 
  • Recall elections: Where state-level officials such as governors, mayors or members of the state legislature have to face a re-election before their normal term of office expires. Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, was recalled in 2012 having been originally elected in 2010 for four years. He won the recall election by an increased margin. 



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Points in favour of direct democracy in the USA

  • It places decision making closer to the people, it is a 'purer' form of democracy.
  • It can enhance voter turnout, especially when controversial measures are on the ballot. 
  • It enables reforms to pass that local politicians might be unwilling to deal with, such as term limits for elected officials.
  • Recall elections increase the accountability of elected state officials and keep them more responsive between elections.
  • Initiatives can increase political participation, especially as ballot measures are associated with certain pressure groups such as labour unions and issues such as raising the minimum wage. 
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Problematic aspects of direct democracy in the USA

  • Most ballot initiatives are not the work of 'ordinary citizens; but of powerful and well-resourced interest groups or wealthy individuals. Getting measures on a ballot takes a lot of time and money.
  • They can lower voter turnout by increasing the length and complexity of the ballot, leading to voter fatigue. 
  • It can prove a blunt instrument to deal with complex problems - are voters always the best informed when it comes to making difficult judgements? 
  • Frequent use of direct democracy undermines the whole notion of representative democracy. 
  • Recall elections are often motivated by party political factors rather than genuine questions of ethic or personal misconduct. 
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Why do Americans vote the way they do?

A large number of American voters will always vote for the same party - or if seriously disillusioned with their party, might abstain.

This is due to partisan dealignment which normally relates to factors such as gender, race, religious practice, age and wealth.

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Why do Americans vote the way they do?

Voter profile

Who you are, your background and beliefs will often explain which party you vote for.

In the USA, race and religion remain far more important indicators of voting behaviour than in Britain. 

The gender gap is more pronounced, and poorer areas do not automatically vote for the less conservative political party. 

The poorest areas of Britain, such as the North East and South Wales, traditionally vote Labour. 

In the USA, while poorer areas of inner cities vote Democrat, the two poorest states - Mississippi and West Virginia - are Republican strongholds (bible belt). 

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Why do Americans vote the way they do?

  • Race: Racial minorites such as African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians overwhelmingly vote Democrat. 

Obama secured in excess of 90% of the African-American vote in both elections.

Clinton managed to secure 88% of the black vote and 65% of both the Latino and Asian vote in 2016.

Trump won 58% of the white vote. 

  • Religion: Those who attend church regularly are much more likely to vote Republican. In 2016, 81% of white evangelical Christians backed Trump, as did 60% of white Catholics. 68% of those who has no religious affiliation voted Democrat. 
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Why do Americans vote the way they do?

  • Gender: Traditionally, Democrats secure more of the female vote, while Republicans do better than men. In 2016, 54% of women voted for Hillary Clinton while 53% of men voted for Trump. 
  • Age: Younger voters in recent years have voted Democrat while older voters are mainly Republican supporters. 2016 showed that 56% of 18-24 year olds supported Clinton, while 53% of those aged over 50 supported Trump. 
  • Income: Democrats enjoy greater support among lower-income households, but middle class and higher-income groups are more likely to be balanced. In 2016, Clinton won 53% of the vote among households with an income of less than $30,000 a year, while Trump enjoyed a narrow lead among households earning more than $250,000 per year. 
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Why do some Americans not vote or split their vote

Voter turnout in America remains among the lowest in western democracies. 

In 2016, only 59% of those eligible actually tunred out to vote, around the saem as in 2012 (58%), and below the 62% who voted in 2008 which was the highest turnout since the 1960s. 

Turnout is even lower in primaries and local elections. 

What factors explain why voter turnout in US elections is so low despite efforts to boost it? 

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Reasons why voter turnout is low in the USA

Some would argue that the sheer number and campaign frenzy of US elections paradoxically alienates or switches off many voters. This is known as a democratic overload. 

The lack of choice as a result of two-party dominance in American politics as well as the use of FPTP electoral system is a reason why independent candidates and third parties stand little chance of electoral success. 

This discourages potential supporters from turning out as they feel their votes will be wasted or they will end up voting for a party or candidate for whom they have little support.

Gerrymandering and the voting histroy of many states mean that a lot of races are uncompetitive. Some argue that the low turnout is a symptom of a wider disillusion wirth traditional representative politics.

In 2016, many ordinary voters were unhappy with both of the main candidates. Turnout in key states such as Ohio and Wisconsin fell in 2016 by 4% and 3% respectively. 

The evidence suggests that many Democrat voters failed to be enthused by Clinton's candidature: they disliked her more than being determined to stop Trump. 

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Reasons why voter turnout is low in the USA

In recent years, there has been a trend in Republican-governed states such as North Carolina, to tighten voter ID laws in the interests of combatting voter fraud. 

The criteria for acceptable ID (such as driving licences or passports) has said to disadvantage likely Democrat voters, not least from ethnic minorities who are statistically less likely to possess such photo ID. 


Low voter turnout could be said to weaken the mandates of successful candidates in US elections. 

It also provides insight into the alienation from politics experienced by many Americans who feel that the current range of viable candidates and parties do not adequately represent them. 

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Splitting their vote

It used to be common for Americans to split their vote between candidates of different parties.

That might mean voting for a Republican as presidnet but Democrat candidates for Congress.

This phenomenon, known as split-ticket voting in part is explained why Republican Ronald Reagan enjoyed two strong presidential election results, yet often faced a Democrat-controlled Congress.

It is the opposite of straight-ticket voting that is now much more prevalent. 

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Splitting their vote

Some reasons why voters split their ticket are: 

  • In a political system that is more candidate focused, voters may simply be expressing a preference based on personality and political experience as much as on political party. 
  • The importance of incumbency means that regional political realignment took a while to come about fully. For example, the South had swung behind Republicans in presidnetial elections by the 1980s, but Democrats continued to win many congressional races for far longer, typically due to the re-election of longstanding and popular Democrat incumbents. Once they retired or were eventually defeated, their successor was Republican.
  • Voters like to keep a balance in party control between the different branches of government, namely through the executive and the legislature. They actively desire checks and balances and want to avoid one party from becoming too powerful. 

Evidence for this is hard to find so is not a particularly compelling argument.

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Recent developments in split-ticket voting

Split-ticket voting has declined considerably in recent elections - 2016 was the first election in US history when not a single state split its Senate vote.

By contrast, as recently as 1984 and 1988, just over half of states split their Senate ticket.

Why are fewer people splitting their ticket?

  • The two main parties are becoming more polarised and homogenous. They are becoming narrower and more like Westminster parties.
  • The geographical political realignment is complete in most of the country. The South is now Republican in both presidential and congressional elections. After the 2014 mid-terms, other than congressmen in majority-minority districts, there was not one Democrat in Congress from the Deep South.
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How do the UK and USA compare in terms of campaign finance and electoral systems?

  • Both systems make use of a majoritarian electoral system, though in the UK many important elections outside those at Westminster make use of other systems, primarily the AMS system.
  • Voting behaviour is a product of a variety of factors, with voter profiles and issues playing a major role.
  • There are concerns over levels of political participation, most notably in election turnout.
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How do the UK and USA compare in terms of campaign finance and electoral systems?

  • The direct election for the head of the executive differs from the UK where the leader of the winning party in elections becomes the head of the legislature.
  • The use of primaries and caucuses to select candidates in the USA, a role traditionally taken by political parties in the UK.
  • Election campaigns in America are more candidate focused, with campaign material omitting any mention of a party, although nearly every successful candidate is affiliated with either the Democrats or Republicans.
  • The absence of the facility in the US for a national referendum, whereas there is opportunity in many states for voters to place measures directly on the ballot via ballot initiatives.
  • In terms of voter profile, race and religion are far more important as voting determinants in the USA, while class remains a decreasingly, yet useful indicator in the UK.
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How do the UK and USA compare in terms of campaign finance and electoral systems?

  • Elections cost vastly more in America and such expenditure is harder to regulate and limit. The USA tries to limit donations, while in the UK the focus is on capping overall expenditure. In the run up to the 2015 general election, British parties contesting every seat were limited to spending a total of £19.5 million and individual candidates to an average of just under £40,000.
  • Turnout is lower in the USA, in part because of the more complex and variable requirements for voter registration.

It is worth noting that reforms and changes to the electoral systems, campaign finance, etc. are far easier in Britain than in the USA where wealthy pressure groups oppose many changes, and the additional hurdle of the US Supreme Court make reforms very difficult.

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