The implementation of regular, free, and competitive elections provides citizens with a mechanism for determining who controls the government and holding public officials accountable. At the time the Constitution was ratified, the number of citizens who were allowed to participate in elections was small. Over time, the right to vote was extended to non-property holders, Native Americans, Blacks, women, and finally, young adults.
Despite the central role of voting in our republican form of government, millions of Americans choose not to vote. This is a logical consequence of the fact that no individual’s vote is decisive and the reality that voting is costly. Nonetheless, a majority of those eligible to vote continue to turn out for presidential elections. The decision to vote is affected by personal characteristics (age, education, and income) as well as institutional factors (registration requirements and literacy tests). The decline in aggregate turnout since the 1960s, however, reflects a steep reduction in mobilization activity by political parties and candidates.
Most voters spend little time gathering information about politics. They base their choice on a variety of factors, including the party label, past performance, and issue positions of candidates and parties. Many voters also consider candidates’ demographic attributes, such as their gender or race, and personal qualities, like competence or honesty. In a world where voters have little direct information about individual candidates and the challenges they will face, all of these characteristics serve as shortcuts, or cues, that suggest how candidates will perform in the future. Candidates are all too eager to provide these through their advertisements.
Politically ambitious candidates play a vital role in ensuring that elections remain competitive. Decisions about whether to run for office reflect the influence of national partisan trends and candidates’ ability to raise enough money to mount an effective campaign. Modern congressional and presidential campaigns require vast sums of money, with much of it spent on television and radio advertising. The need for money raises the possibility that candidates will be responsive to donors rather than voters. Since the 1970s, a variety of reforms have tried to reduce the influence of money on elections. Fortunately, a wide variety of individuals, groups, and interests take part in financing campaigns and no single point of view predominates.
- What are the potential problems with delegating authority to representatives in government? How do elections help reduce these risks?
- Why did those in favor of restricting suffrage link it to property ownership? Why did the elite fear giving those without property the vote?
- What benefits do people get from voting? Which of these benefits do they still receive if they personally do not vote?
- What factors explain the decline in voter turnout since the 1960s? Why is this decline surprising?
- Voting, in effect, makes voters choose between a future governed by candidate A and one governed by candidate B. Most voters can’t actually predict the future. What tools allow voters to make predictions about future performance?
- What are the basic requirements for mounting a successful election campaign?
- Why do so many members of Congress run unopposed? What factors make strong challengers more likely or less likely to enter the race?
- What are the main differences between modern campaigns and those of the patronage-based party organizations of the past? Why are campaigns more expensive now?
- Where does the money required to finance these modern campaigns come from? What are the legal limitations on campaign spending? How has the passage of bans on “soft money” changed these limitations? How is the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission changing campaign spending?
- What are the four basic sources of congressional campaign money? How is the money spent?
- Why do congressional incumbents who spend more money actually appear to be more likely to lose their elections?
- What “free” means of communicating with voters are available to candidates? What must candidates do to take advantage of them?
- Where do presidential candidates spend their advertising dollars and what causes them to choose certain states to target?
- What major concerns are raised about the role of money in campaigns? Why barriers to meaningful campaign finance reform exist?