We’ve all experienced that moment—when we’re watching the news, reading an article, or participating in a conversation and we come across a common political term we don’t know. Civic engagement, politics, and government play an integral role in our everyday life, but with so many moving pieces it’s easy to get confused. That’s why we at The Andrew Goodman Foundation decided to create the Civics for Citizens blog series. We’ll help you stay informed by breaking down common terms and phrases in US government and politics in ways that make sense to you, the everyday citizen. First up – elections.
Elections for Citizens
There are many types of elections that serve different purposes in our electoral process.
General elections occur regularly and elect candidates into office. For example, the presidential election is a general election that occurs on the first Tuesday of November, every four years. Seats in Congress and state legislatures are also elected in general elections. When no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, the top two candidates participate in a run-off election to determine the winner.
When an election needs to take place outside of a regularly scheduled general election, it’s called a special election. Special elections are often held to fill vacancies that occur prior to term completion, such as when an elected official dies in office or is appointed to another position.
Primary elections, also referred to as primaries, allow voters to choose a candidate they want to run in the general election for a specific political party. The most common primary style is closed, which means a voter can only vote for a candidate of their declared political party. In an open primary election, a voter can choose candidates from any one party, regardless whether or not he or she has a declared political affiliation. This means that in an open primary, a registered Republican can request a ballot for the Democratic party but that also means he or she can only choose candidates for the Democratic party. This system makes it impossible to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate and a Republican gubernatorial candidate. Primaries vary in structure by state so you should research what style is offered where you are registered to vote.
When electing a president, candidates are officially confirmed for the general election at a party convention. While the primaries allow voters to cast their ballots for a candidate, conventions have party representatives, called delegates, who formally cast a vote for the candidate chosen during the primaries in their state. In the Democratic party, superdelegates, or unelected delegates, can cast their vote for any candidate regardless of the primary race results. Once a majority of delegates nominate a candidate, the nomination must be accepted and campaigns for the general election occur.
Voting laws are determined at the state level and vary by location. Since each state regulates voting differently, we hear a lot of debate about it during election cycles. For example, during the 2016 election, voter fraud was a widely-debated topic. Many public figures argued that due to lack of proper regulation, illegal ballots could be cast in a variety of ways during the elections. Even though research on voter fraud has indicated the issue is incredibly rare, it is still widely discussed. That is why many states implemented voter ID laws. While some states require no identification, others have more restrictive policies which require very specific kinds of ID to vote. Many voter ID laws have been contested in the courts for being discriminatory because obtaining some IDs is more difficult for certain populations.
Another popular and controversial topic discussed around elections is gerrymandering. Gerrymandering refers to the process of creating voting districts in a way that favors a particular party, usually the party in power at the state and local level when districting occurs. Because representatives and state legislators are elected by the constituents in their districts, drawing a district in a specific way can unfairly allow a party to maximize the number of their elected candidates. Gerrymandering can also create a situation where a non-majority party wins a majority of seats or elects a particular candidate.
Elections have many components and differ by where you live, but they can be easy to navigate once you understand a few key points. In the next installment of Civics for Citizens, we will go beyond the ballot and begin talking about each of the three branches of government, beginning with the Executive Branch.
About the Author
Nicole Costa is one of Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere Program Managers. She graduated from the College of the Holy Cross where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a Peace and Conflict Studies interdisciplinary concentration. Nicole previously worked in Student Services at Seton Hall University where she advised student leaders on campus community development.