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Prior to beginning work on this discussion, read Chapters 8, 9, and 10 inAmerican Government and review the Week 4 Instructor Guidance. Be sure to read about the different party platforms, including the Democratic Party (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., Republican Party (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., and one third party (e.g., Libertarian Party (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., Green Party (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., Constitution Party (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., etc.). Our political system is characterized by certain fundamental features to include a system of laws, rights, and liberties. The laws, created and supported by the Constitutional framework, are designed to protect and secure the rights and liberties of individuals and groups throughout the United States. However, the government also must provide for the security of its citizens from serious internal and external threats that could cause severe damage to our country. Think about how the need for homeland and national security can create a dilemma where conflicts emerge between these security needs and the demands for civil rights and liberties. In your initial post, Explain what obligations the U.S. government has towards its citizens and how these obligations impact individual and group rights.Provide real-world examples to support your explanation, including one personal example from your own experiences. Using your personal example, explain the position of the two major parties and a third party, regarding the example you presented. Your initial post must be at least 300 words. If you are citing statistics our outside resources, please list the website or the reference entry.
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10 Elections and Public Opinion
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Thinkstock
Learning Objectives
By the end of this chapter, you should be able to
• Describe the purpose and functions of elections in the United States.
• Analyze the relationship among elections, participation, and the democratic process.
• Distinguish between types of elections and analyze the circumstances surrounding realigning
elections.
• Analyze the role of public opinion in elections.
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Purpose of Elections
Section 10.1
In the 1994 midterm election, the Democrats lost control of the U.S. House of Representatives
to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years. Republicans picked up 54 seats in the House;
they also took control of the U.S. Senate as well as many state governorships. Pundits viewed
this as a defeat for President Bill Clinton and were quick to say that the election represented
a rejection of his efforts to bring about health care reform. Others claimed it was due to the
inability of the Democrat-controlled Congress to accomplish anything substantive, including
health care reform. Still others interpreted the change as a sign that the people had changed
their party loyalties. Not only were people voting for Republican candidates, but they were
increasingly identifying as Republicans. The 1994 election was indeed significant. Republicans would control the House of Representatives until the 2006 midterm election, and they
would control the Senate until 2001.
In this chapter, we explore this and other elections in the context of their time and what they
tell us about the contemporary American population. We also examine the role that elections
generally play in the American political process. Elections are more than a matter of choosing
individuals to govern. Elections tell us about what the people think is important, and they say
something about the political values of a nation. Through elections, the people participate in
the democratic process and hold public officials in constitutional government accountable.
But the shifting winds of public opinion can also lead to unpredictable results.
10.1 Purpose of Elections
The United States uses elections to choose its leaders. Voting is the most basic form of political
participation and is assumed to be a basic right in a democracy. However, elections are important for other reasons as well. In the United States, elections serve three basic functions:
1. They provide an essential basis for democratic
expression.
2. They provide for a peaceful
transfer of power.
3. They allow citizens, as a
political community, to
offer their tacit acceptance
of the American constitutional tradition. By voting, citizens reaffirm their
commitment to the social
contract that the Constitution represents.
Democratic Expression
Stock Connection/SuperStock
Through elections, American voters offer their tacit
acceptance of the constitutional tradition. Elections
also provide for the peaceful transfer of power and are
the basis of democratic expression.
People express themselves in a democracy by casting ballots either in person or by mail. Casting a vote allows them to express their preferences, which is an extension of human agency.
When people vote for candidates who currently hold office, they affirm their support for the
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Purpose of Elections
Section 10.1
current government, and when they vote against those who currently hold office, they register their opposition to that same government.
Citizens achieve the greatest state of democratic expression when they can control the circumstances affecting their lives. In the political world, people control their circumstances by
electing the government that will make decisions on their behalf. Elections are the vehicles by
which the people achieve their political voice.
Peaceful Transfer of Power
Americans may take a peaceful transfer of power for granted, but this is actually one of the
unique features of the American legacy. When the Framers of the Constitution constructed
the American political system, they wanted to ensure peaceful transfers of power. A peaceful
transfer of power—that is, using the ballot box rather than the barrel of a gun—represented
a serious break from past experience. The election of 1800 illustrates this point. John Adams,
George Washington’s vice president, who also was a Federalist, was elected president in 1796
after Washington opted not to seek a third term. Thomas Jefferson, the lead author of the U.S.
Declaration of Independence who strongly opposed the centralized federal structure, lost to
Adams in 1796. Jefferson became Adams’s vice president because the original Constitution
(since changed with the 12th Amendment in 1804) extended the vice presidency to the person who received the second-highest number of electoral votes in the presidential election.
Adams ran for reelection in 1800, and Jefferson ran for president a second time. This time,
Jefferson won. The peaceful, though not apolitical, transfer of power that resulted from this
election, from the nation’s first two presidents, both Federalists, to Jefferson, a DemocraticRepublican, reflected the Framers’ aspirations.
Among the precedents that George Washington set as the first president was his personal
choice not to seek more than two terms in office. Until the 22nd Amendment was ratified in
1951, the Constitution did not expressly prohibit presidents from serving two terms even
though only one president (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) served more than two terms before
the 22nd Amendment was ratified. Washington’s action paved the way for the election of his
replacement and the tradition of peaceful transfer of power in the United States. Because
Americans can trust that power will be peacefully transferred, they do not have to resort to
violence to change the government.
Tacit Acceptance of American Constitutional Tradition
The U.S. Constitution is in many respects a social contract between the government and the
people, but it was entered into by a generation of people from whom current Americans are
far removed. Thomas Jefferson thought it would be a good idea if every generation held a constitutional convention so that each could choose the governing arrangements that would best
meet its needs. But because Americans choose their government through periodic elections,
they do not really need to convene new constitutional conventions. Elections enable them to
offer their tacit consent, or implied agreement, to the basic social contract of the Constitution. By freely participating in the political process through elections, Americans agree to the
political arrangements that govern them. Elections, then, in a very broad sense fulfill a public
support function.
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Public Participation
Section 10.2
Of course, the public support function rests on the same assumptions of trust that the peaceful transfer of power does. Only because the people trust that the government in power will
respect their wishes can elections represent this tacit acceptance. After all, if citizens participate in the political process by voting, rather than seeking to overthrow it through rioting and
rebellion, it must follow that they are basically happy and accept the legitimacy of the system.
But if it can no longer govern effectively, the government loses its legitimacy.
10.2 Public Participation
Although a majority of the country may be eligible to vote, not everyone does. On one level,
because elections are critical to democracy, many regard voting as a civic obligation, similar to
jury duty. But on another level, freedom to participate in the democratic process also means
the freedom not to participate.
The United States does not mandate participation in elections. It also has one of the lowest
rates of voter participation compared with other representative democracies. If a group of
people chooses not to vote and the government then pursues policies that this group does not
like, do these people have a reasonable basis to complain?
Are politicians obligated to represent all the people, or only those who vote? In theory, all citizens
have a legitimate claim to be represented by elected officials. In reality, however, politicians tend
to represent only those who vote. Of course, the larger question is what it means to talk about
the importance of voting if people fail to exercise this basic right. Another issue is that—given
the long-fought battle for civil rights, of which voting was most prominent—if large segments
of the population opt not to vote, what was the point of fighting for the right in the first place?
Who Votes?
American citizens age 18 or older are eligible to vote, but the “typical voter” usually falls into
a particular set of demographic categories. For example, various studies have shown that a
person’s position in society based on economic class or education, or socioeconomic status,
is a key determinant of who votes. Those with a higher socioeconomic status are more likely
to vote than those with a lower socioeconomic status are.
Older people are more likely to vote than younger people are, women are slightly more likely
to vote than men are, and Whites are more likely to vote than members of racial or ethnic
minority groups are. Further, those with a strong political ideology, often assumed from their
families, religious groups, or other social influences, are more likely to vote than those without a strong ideology, religious commitment, or social connection are.
Reasons for Nonvoting
The electorate consists of those who are eligible to vote, whether they vote or not. Voter turnout during presidential elections usually falls between 50% and 60% and is even lower during midterm congressional elections (see Figure 10.1). This means that at least 40% of the
electorate chooses not to participate. Why is this the case?
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Public Participation
Section 10.2
Figure 10.1: Voting rates in congressional and presidential
elections: 1978–2014
In the years since 1980, American voter turnout has generally decreased.
From “Who Votes? Congressional Elections and the American Electorate: 1978–2014,” by T. File, 2015 (http://www.census.gov/content
/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p20-577.pdf). Copyright 2015 by U.S. Census Bureau. Reprinted with permission.
The Requirement to Register
All but one state requires that eligible voters be registered in order to vote. Voter registration
has proven to be a barrier to voting. Supporters of mandatory registration argue that registration is a safeguard against fraud. Yet registration can be burdensome because it requires that
forms be completed and submitted to the local supervisor of elections in advance of an election. Of the 49 states requiring that voters register, half require registration between 15 and
30 days in advance, while the other half require registration between 0 (Election Day registration) and 14 days before Election Day. Federal law prohibits states from requiring registration
beyond 30 days before Election Day. While voter registration may be inconvenient, it helps
emphasize the importance of voting and assumes that responsible citizens will complete the
process.
Many argue that one response to low voter turnout is to take additional steps to ease access
to registration. After passage of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993, various
states implemented a motor-voter process, which allows people to register to vote when
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Public Participation
Section 10.2
they register their cars with the state Department of Motor Vehicles or apply for or renew a
driver’s license. (Of course, for those who do not drive, this may not be helpful.) The NVRA
also allowed people to register by mail or when applying for various social services.
The Disillusionment
of Poor Voters
Low-income people are less likely to
vote for various reasons. These reasons may include the inconvenience
and potentially lost wages to take
time off to go to the polls, believing that voting will not affect the
political process, or believing that
elected officials do not understand
their situation. Low-income people
may believe that electing candidates
who promise to enact economic and
Visions of America/SuperStock
social programs that benefit lowerOne purpose of voter registration is to prevent fraud.
income groups will have little bearing on their lives. This belief may However, registration is often considered a barrier to
stem from the broker party nature voting because it requires individuals to fill out and
of the system. Additionally, powerful submit a form by a state-mandated deadline.
interest groups enjoy advantages over individuals who are not organized.
When people opt out of the system because they believe it does not represent their interests
well, their concerns become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many politicians believe that there is no
point in campaigning in areas or neighborhoods with high percentages of nonvoters. As noted
in the last chapter, running for office is very expensive. Candidates must make strategic decisions about where to allocate their resources. They are more likely to spend their time and
money in neighborhoods that are known to have relatively high turnout and are less likely to
pay much attention to low-turnout populations.
Constitutional Bases for Expanding Suffrage
Voting eligibility is addressed in just a few places in the Constitution. The first is the
15th Amendment (see Figure 10.2), ratified in 1870, which states that a citizen cannot be
denied the right to vote by the national government or any of the states on the basis of race,
color, or previous condition of servitude. This amendment provided the constitutional basis
for newly freed slaves to be eligible to vote after the Civil War. Next is the 19th Amendment,
ratified in 1920, which says that citizens cannot be denied the right to vote on account of sex.
This amendment granted women the right to vote.
The 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, extended the right to vote for president to residents
of the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.). Before the amendment was ratified, Electoral
College votes were given only to states, and because Washington, D.C. is a district and not a
state, D.C. residents could not vote for the president. The 23rd Amendment gave to Washington,
D.C. the same number of Electoral College votes as the smallest state. As each state is guaranteed
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Public Participation
Section 10.2
a minimum of three Electoral College votes, the District of Columbia was guaranteed three Electoral College votes as well.
The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, states that the right to vote in national elections cannot be
denied for failing to pay a poll tax. The 24th Amendment was proposed and ratified in response
to Southern states that were using such taxes to disqualify poor Blacks from voting. Finally, the
26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, lowered the legal voting age to 18. While some states allowed
those over 18 to vote, other states required a minimum age of 21.
Voter eligibility is otherwise assumed to be a matter of states’ rights. States have enjoyed the
power to determine who is eligible to vote while also handling their voter registration. States
began eliminating property qualifications in the 1820s, and it was the Southern states that targeted voting barriers toward African Americans. The women’s suffrage movement originally
began as a grassroots movement on a state-by-state basis, with Wyoming being the first state to
allow women to vote in state and local elections, in 1893.
Figure 10.2: Voting eligibility according to the Constitution
Voting eligibility is addressed in only four places in the Constitution, and all of them are amendments.
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Types of Elections
Section 10.3
© Bettmann/Corbis
Suffragettes stand in front of the Woman Suffrage headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1912. The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified
in 1920.
The constitutional amendments
that expanded suffrage, federal legislation such as the 1965 Voting
Rights Act, and key U.S. Supreme
Court cases each removed voting
barriers that were erected by the
states. In fact, the Voting Rights Act
prohibited states from imposing
any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure . . . to deny or
abridge the right of any citizen of
the United States to vote on account
of race or color.” It was Congress’s
specific intention to outlaw the
practice of requiring otherwise
qualified voters to pass literacy
tests to register to vote, which had
been another method, in addition
to poll taxes, by which Southern
states denied African Americans
the right to vote.
Increasing the Voter Rolls
Both parties seek to increase their election chances by increasing their registration numbers.
In recent years, both parties have sought to find new voters among the Latino population.
For example, when Republican President George W. Bush campaigned for office, he prided
himself on being able to speak fluent Spanish in an attempt to increase Latino support for
Republican candidates.
10.3 Types of Elections
Political scientist V. O. Key, Jr. (1955, 1959) famously observed that there are four types of
elections: maintaining, deviating, reinstating, and realigning.
Maintaining Elections
A maintaining election is one in which the majority party, which holds power, such as the
majority party in Congress, continues to hold power following an election. This type of election requires a continuation of party loyalty among the party-in-the-electorate, which assumes
that voters will remain loyal to their party by voting for candidates sharing their party label.
This type of election is a maintaining election because the allegiance of the voters has not
changed, probably because the nation is not facing a major crisis or, if facing a crisis, voters
believe that the government in place and the party in power are handling it well. A
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Types of Elections
Section 10.3
maintaining election, then, is about preserving the status quo. A pattern of maintaining elections may result in representatives becoming complacent. If the majority party in government can rely on long-standing party loyalty among the electorate, it may not feel the need to
be as close to the people as it would if the races were more competitive.
Deviating Elections
A deviating election occurs when
short-term forces overtake longterm party loyalties. Voters cast
their ballots for the party out of
power, the minority party, displacing the majority party from power.
While voters may support the party
to which they do not belong in this
election and maybe the next, these
voters remain loyal to their party.
They maintain their allegiance to
their party even though they feel
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