created with Grolier OnlineThe electoral process--which includes the selection of candidates, the registration of voters, and the voting procedures--varies throughout the United States. Each state has the power to establish some of its own laws regarding voter requirements and the frequency of statewide elections. However, because the national government establishes federal election requirements, many of the states generally adopt the same rules and practices to reduce expenses and avoid the complexity of having two different systems.

Selecting the Candidates

Political parties, which are made up of groups of voters who share similar political views, or philosophies, are an important feature of the American political system. Although there are a variety of minor political parties, there are two major ones — the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Democrats and Republicans nominate most of the candidates who run for public office in the United States.

In most elections, each major party selects a candidate and supports him or her with money, advice, and publicity. Political campaigns increasingly use direct-mail fliers and television advertisements to present the candidates'positions to the electorate. In other words, campaigns let the electorate know how the candidates "stand on the issues." Because it is expensive to run a campaign, minor parties and independent candidates with smaller funds find it difficult to compete against the major party candidates for votes.

Qualifications Necessary to Run for Office. Although they need not belong to a political party, candidates must meet certain minimum requirements to run for various offices. For example, according to the U.S. Constitution, to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives a candidate must have been a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, be a resident of the state (and usually the district) he or she will represent, and be at least 25 years old. To serve in the U.S. Senate, a candidate must have been a U.S. citizen for at least nine years, be a resident of the state he or she will represent, and be at least 30 years old. To become president of the United States, a candidate must have lived in the country for at least 14 years, be a natural-born U.S. citizen, and be at least 35 years old. If these requirements are not met, a person cannot legally serve, even if elected.

Nominating Procedures. A variety of nominating procedures are used to select candidates in the United States. Usually, any person who wants to run for an elective office must show that he or she has a minimum amount of public support. A potential candidate might have to collect a minimum number of signatures of registered voters to qualify to appear on the ballot. Or a candidate might be nominated by a party caucus, which is an organized group of citizens that represents their party and have the authority to select its candidates. In the case of presidential nominations, states send representatives called delegates to each party's presidential convention. At the convention, the delegates agree on a final candidate and publicly demonstrate their support for that candidate.

If more than one candidate from a single political party runs for the same office, it may be necessary to hold a primary election, which usually takes place several months before a general election. In a primary election, candidates from the same party run against one another to determine which of them will represent the party in the general election. In a closed primary voters may only cast votes for candidates within their own party. In an open primary voters may cast votes for candidates in any party. Some states and local governments may hold a blanket primary, where party affiliations do not appear on the ballot by the candidates'names. This nonpartisan system is commonly used when electing judges.

Qualifications for Voting

States require voters to be U.S. citizens. Traditionally voters also had to be at least 21 years old. This was based on an old Anglo-Saxon law that considered people adult at 21. The 26th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified (approved) by the states in 1971, officially lowered the voting age to 18 for all elections, state and federal. States also require various periods of residency before voting is permitted.

Until the 1960's, some states required citizens to prove that they could read and write before voting. If an examiner decided a citizen could not read well enough, that citizen was denied the right to vote. In southern states, examiners used these literacy tests unfairly to deny most black people the right to vote. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which suspended the use of most literacy tests, and several years later the tests were banned permanently.

Registering the Voters

According to the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, any U.S. citizen age 18 or older may vote. (The only major exceptions are convicted criminals and the mentally incompetent.) But before a citizen can vote, he or she must register, or sign up, with the proper authorities (except in North Dakota). In many states registration takes place through the mail, usually on forms available from the local registrar of voters. In some other states, the person wishing to register must locate the proper public official and appear in person at the proper government office.

Registration laws vary from state to state. Typically the registration closing date, or deadline, is several weeks before an election day. In some states, citizens can register on the day of the election. If a citizen fails to register prior to the closing date, he or she will not be allowed to vote. Some states may require re-registration if a citizen fails to vote in every election, misses or certain number of elections, or changes address.

Voting Districts. Each state, county, city, or ward is divided into voting districts called precints. Citizens register to vote in the precint where they live.

Elections for the members of the U.S. House of Representatives are conducted among candidates who live in a particular congressional district, which may include any number of precints. According to Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, the number of congressional districts each state may have is determined by its population. A national census is taken every ten years to determine state populations. A congressional district may cover a large or small territory, but each district within a state contains approximately the same number of citizens.

Voting Procedures

On election day registered voters go to the polls to vote. This means they appear in person at the official polling place in their precint. Public schools are often used for this purpose. The polls are open from early in the morning until late in the evening. (Members of the armed forces and civilians who are away from home may vote by absentee ballot and need not appear in person.)

At the polling place, the voter identifies himself or herself and is checked off an official list of registered voters. Then the voter is led to a voting machine or handed a paper ballot, which lists the names of all the candidates from every party. Today most states use voting machines instead of paper ballots. Voting machines are either mechanical or computerized devices that keep count of the votes for each candidate.

The voter makes his or her selections in a private voting booth. Then either the voting machine automatically records the vote, or the paper ballot (which is folded or otherwise concealed from public view) is deposited in a ballot box.

After all the votes in a precint have been counted, a public official certifies the results and the winners for that precinct are declared. In state and national elections, each state's secretary of state, who is the official administrator of the state's election laws, must be notified of the results.

Other Types of Elections. Usually, if a candidate receives a majority of the votes, he or she is declared the winner. However, in a race where there may be three or more strong candidates, it is possible that no one will receive a majority of votes. In such a situation, a runoff election may be held several weeks later. The two candidates who received the most votes run against each other again. Unless the election results in an exact tie, one candidate in the runoff will receive a majority of the votes and be declared the winner.

There are several types of elections in addition to primary, general, and runoff elections. Special elections may be held to fill an office whose occupant has died, resigned, or been recalled. An issues election, called a referendum, may be held to decide whether to accept or reject a piece of legislation. A recall election may be held to decide whether an office holder should be removed from office. If the recall election succeeds in removing the elected official, the office may be filled by appointment by the president or governor, or by a special election.

Frequency of Elections

Under the American political system, general elections are held every fall, usually on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The choice of that time of the year for elections dates from the days when America was largely an agricultural society, and farmers were unable to take time to vote until the fall, after the harvests had been gathered.

In the United States, presidential elections are held every four years and congressional elections are held every two years. In congressional elections the entire House of Representatives and one third of the United States Senate are elected.

There are state elections for governors and other statewide offices. The term of an American governor varies with the individual state — either two or four years. The state legislatures also must be elected at regular intervals. In addition, there are county, local, and city elections and even school-board elections, which are of vital interest to taxpayers and parents living in school districts. Local elections are held at various times of the year.

This round of federal, state, and local elections goes on in every community throughout the nation. No war or disaster has ever halted this vital function of the American electorate.


From the time of the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, people have fought tyranny for the right to choose their own leaders. The early kings of Israel were chosen, as were the generals of the ancient Greek armies. Xenophon's famous march across Asia Minor in 401 B.C. began with his election as captain by a band of fearless Greek soldiers. The Greeks voted for their new leader while standing in the very shadow of the pursuing Persian hordes.

The Teutonic tribes of Northern Europe elected the bravest members as their leaders. This habit of freely choosing their leaders was brought to Britain by the Anglo-Saxon conquerors some 1,500 years ago. Thus, the right to vote for local officials became a part of English thinking and was brought to America by the early British colonists.

The American Electorate

The Constitution of the United States originally provided that the members of the House of Representatives would be elected by the people of each state — that is, the people who had the vote. In the early days of the Republic only about 120,000 people in a total population of more than 4,000,000 could vote. Each state had the right to restrict the vote. Voting was usually limited to free white men with certain property and religious qualifications. But by 1860 practically all the states allowed the vote to all white men over 21 years of age.

After the Civil War (1861-65) the 15th Amendment to the Constitution gave the vote to men of all races. Suffrage (the vote) was not given to women in federal elections until 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.

The Secret Ballot

Elections are not really free unless the people voting in them are free from fear of those in power. The free and and secret ballot used in the United States and in many other democratic countries is one of the chief protections of voters and their right of choice. But this right was sometimes violated in the early days of the country, when much of the voting was oral, or spoken.

In the 1700's in New Jersey, certain counties used a written ballot, while others preferred the oral vote. In New England town elections, citizens often voted by a show of hands. In Virginia, during the lifetime of George Washington and for many years before and after, men voted by the spoken word.

In 1777, Pennsylvania ended the practice of oral voting with a ruling that stated: "It is highly dangerous to the freedom of elections in this commonwealth that the sheriff and other persons appointed judges of elections should continue to be invested with the power of searching and discovering for whom any elector shall vote."

After the American Civil War the secret ballot was generally used throughout the United States. But the political parties continued to print the ballots. With the spread of political machines and party bosses, the secret ballot no longer served to protect the voter and the honesty of elections. Ballots were printed in different bright colors by the major parties, thus destroying the secrecy necessary for freedom of choice.

It was not until the 1890's that the Australian ballot came into general use in the United States. Under the Australian system the ballots are printed and distributed by the government rather than by the individual candidates or parties. The introduction of the Australian ballot finally made elections genuinely secret. Today the use of voting machines has served to strengthen the safeguards sorrounding the secrecy of the vote.

The Primary

For many years the laws of the various states did not regulate the way the major parties selected the candidates to represent them on election day. In the early days the candidates announced themselves and distributed stickers with their names to the voters. These were pasted on the ballot on election day.

Later, political organizations held conventions in districts, wards, cities, counties, and states. In these conventions tough political bosses often ruled with an iron hand and decided on the party candidates.

A direct primary system was first tried in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, in 1868. The voters in each party used ballots to select the nominees for the next election. This put the choice in the hands of the party members. Other states adopted the plan. Today direct primaries are used almost everywhere in the United States.

Grant P. Thompson
Executive Director, League of Women Voters of the United States