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Administration Of Government Elections, Primaries And Conventions, Initiatives And Referendums, Campaigns, Criminal Aspects

The processes of voting to decide a public question or to select one person from a designated group to perform certain obligations in a government, corporation, or society.

Elections are commonly understood as the processes of voting for public office or public policy, but they also are used to choose leaders and to settle policy questions in private organizations, such as corporations, LABOR UNIONS, and religious groups. They also take place within specific government bodies. For example, the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures elect their own leaders.

In elections, a candidate is a person who is selected by others as a contestant. A ballot is anything that a voter uses to express his or her choice, such as a paper and pen or a lever on a machine. A poll is the place where a voter casts his or her ballot.

For government policy and leadership, a general election is commonly understood as a process of voting that regularly occurs at specified intervals. For national elections, Congress has designated the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as election day. A special election is held under special circumstances. For example, if an elected official dies or resigns from office during her or his term, a special election may be held before the next scheduled general election for the office.

The free election of government leaders is a relatively recent practice. Until the eighteenth century, leaders gained political power through insurrection and birthright. Political thought changed dramatically in eighteenth-century Europe, where industrial progress inspired the reconsideration of individual rights and government. The notion that government leaders should be chosen by the governed was an important product of that movement.

The United States held its first presidential election on February 4, 1789. In that election, GEORGE WASHINGTON was chosen U.S. president by a small, unanimous vote of electors. Since its infancy, the United States has held elections to decide who will assume public offices, such as the offices of the president and vice president, U.S. senators and representatives, and state and local legislators. Individual states have also held elections for a wide range of other government officials, such as judges, attorneys general, district attorneys, public school officials, and police chiefs.

Elections for public offices are governed by federal and state laws. Article I of the U.S. Constitution requires that a congressional election be held every two years and that senators be elected every six years. Article II provides that a president and a vice president shall be elected for a four-year term. In 1951, the states ratified Amendment 22, which provides that no person may serve as president more than twice.

For the federal oversight of national elections for public office, Congress created the FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION (FEC) with 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (2 U.S.C.A. §§ 431 et seq.). The FEC provides for the public financing of presidential elections. It also tracks and reveals the amounts and sources of money used by candidates for national office and their POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEES (PACs). The FEC enforces the limits on financial contributions to, and expenditures of, those candidates and committees. To receive FEC funding, PACs must register with the FEC.

States regulate many aspects of government elections, including eligibility requirements for candidates, eligibility requirements for voters, and the date on which state and local elections are held. U.S. citizens have the right to form and operate political parties, but the state legislature may regulate that right. For example, a candidate may not be placed on an election ballot unless he or she has registered with the state election board. Many states maintain stringent requirements for would-be candidates, such as sponsorship by a certain number of voters on a petition. A monetary deposit also might be required. Such a deposit may be forfeited if the candidate fails to garner a certain proportion of the vote in the election.

Some states have sought to place limitations on contributions received by individual political candidates. In Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, 528 U.S. 327, 120 S. Ct. 897, 145 L. Ed. 2d 886 (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld limitations that the state of Missouri had placed upon contributions to individual candidates for state office, against a challenge that the limitations violated the contributors' and candidates' FIRST AMENDMENT rights. (See also ELECTION CAMPAIGN FINANCING).

No state may abridge voting guarantees of the U.S. Constitution. Under the Constitution's TWENTY-FOURTH AMENDMENT, for example, no state may make the payment of a poll tax or other tax a requirement for voting privileges. Under the FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT, states may not deny the right to vote based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The NINETEENTH AMENDMENT prevents states from denying or abridging the right to vote based on sex.

In the early 1990s, 15 states passed legislation that limited the tenure of U.S. senators and representatives. In 1995, these "term-limit" measures were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In United States Term Limits v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779, 115 S. Ct. 1842, 131 L. Ed. 2d 881 (1995), the state of Arkansas had amended its constitution to preclude persons who had served a certain number of terms in the U.S. Congress from placing their names in future U.S. Congress elections. Arkansas cited Article I, Section 4, Clause 1, of the U.S. Constitution for support. This clause allows that "[t]he Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof." Arkansas further argued that its amendment merely restricted ballot access and was not an outright disqualification of congressional incumbents.

The Supreme Court disagreed with Arkansas. In a 5–4 opinion, the Court rejected the constitutionality of any term-limits legislation. According to the majority, the only qualifications for U.S. congressional office were contained in two constitutional clauses. Article I, Section 2, Clause 2, of the U.S. Constitution provides that a representative shall be at least 25 years of age, a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and a resident of the represented state at the time of the election. Article I, Section 3, Clause 3, states that a senator shall be at least 30 years of age, a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and an inhabitant of the represented state when elected. These provisions, according to the Court, were designed to be the only qualifications for U.S. congressional office, and any additional qualifications are unconstitutional.

Although the Constitution prohibits term limits for the U.S. Congress, it does not prevent states from setting term limits for their own legislatures.


Amy, Douglas J. 2000. Behind the Ballot Box: a Citizen's Guide to Voting Systems. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Norris. Pippa, ed. 1998. Elections and Voting Behavior: New Challenges, New Perspectives. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, Dartmouth.

van Schagen, J.A. 2000. Electoral Systems and Representative Government. Nijmegen, Belgium: Stichting Ars Aequi.

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