Module 10 Sections
Political parties, and the elections that they strive to win, have been central to American democracy from the earliest days of the republic. And even though the Constitution makes no mention of political parties (nor does The Federalist for that matter), their importance in American politics is beyond question. Also beyond question is the amount of care that the Framers of the Constitution took to codify a complex set of rules for elections in the United States. Their goal was to create a system that would at once allow for the effective representation of the people, and the creation of a government that would be capable of great energy in the objects to which it was directed. In short, they devised what they hoped would be a government that could balance both the short and long term interests of the governed. Elections were part and parcel of this design.
Who Has Authority Over Elections?
Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution grants the individual state legislatures the right to choose the “time, places, and manner” for holding elections. It also grants Congress the right to alter those rules as it sees fit. In practice, though, state legislatures do determine most of what happens in their respective states.
Though the states hold control over elections in practice, one constitutional provision grants Congress power to reject the will of the individual states, and their people: “each house shall be the Judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members.” By making Congress itself the judge of its own members, the Founders gave Congress the power to determine certain members unfit, therefore overriding the will of the people who elected them. While this is a privilege granted to Congress, it is not a privilege that has been historically significant.
Elections for the House of Representatives
Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution defines the rules for the election of representatives. It says that “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second year by the people of the several states, and the electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous branch of the State Legislature.” The language in this section is important for two reasons. First, it sets the term length for US representatives. Second, it puts the entire membership of the House up for election every other year. Historically, this language delegated responsibility to the states to determine voter eligibility. Contrary to the common perception that the Constitution only allowed white, property owning men to vote, it actually left such determinations to the individual states, who almost uniformly (but interestingly not uniformly) granted suffrage to white, property owning men. At any rate, it remains the case that if a citizen can vote for the most numerous branch of the state legislature, so too can that citizen vote in an election for the United States House of Representatives. With blacks receiving the franchise via the 15th Amendment in 1870, women as a result of the 19th Amendment in 1920, and 18 year olds as a result of the 26th Amendment in 1971, this is now largely a moot point.
Elections for the Senate
Elections in the Senate are defined in the Constitution by Article 1 Section 3, which states that “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.”
This clause functioned quite well until the mid-1850s, when hostilities over slavery resulted in many Senate seats not being filled. For example, Indiana was split into two equal sections: Democrats in the south and Republicans in the north. Disagreements within the state legislature prevented them from electing Senators for nearly two years. Similar problems occurred throughout the Civil War. At precisely the time when a stable government was needed most, the various state legislatures could not consistently elect Senators.
After the Civil War, electing Senators became even more difficult for many state legislatures, and in the very early part of the 20th century, reform movements began gaining momentum. Eventually, states began passing legislation that allowed for the direct election of Senators within their borders. And as the American people became increasingly intrigued with the referendum elections taking place in states like Oregon, and muckraking journalists began exposing the corruption of certain Senators, public opinion shifted towards popular election of Senators.
The 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913 as part of a larger progressive movement, rendering the original plan of election of Senators by state legislatures void.
This change marked a clear departure from the intentions of the Framers, who sought to buttress the power of the states in the new Constitution. Alexander Hamilton spoke to this intention at the New York ratifying convention of 1788, asserting:
When you take a view of all the circumstances which have been recited, you will certainly see that the senators will constantly look up to the state governments with an eye of dependence and affection. If they are ambitious to continue in office, they will make every prudent arrangement for this purpose, and, whatever may be their private sentiments or politics, they will be convinced that the surest means of obtaining reelection will be a uniform attachment to the interests of their several states.
The 17th Amendment thus brought about a profound reduction in the influence of the states in national affairs because it freed every Senator from the pressures brought to bear by state legislatures. Now, senatorial constituencies are simply the voters in their respective states.
Watch the following for a review of congressional elections, keeping in mind what you have read:
The Electoral College and Presidential Elections
The constitutional requirements for presidential elections are more complicated than those for the House and Senate. Article II, Section 1 sets the stage:
The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice-President chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows: Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
This constitutional language describes the Electoral College, of course, one of the most confounding and controversial elements of the American constitutional design. The Electoral College is a mechanism by which the President is elected indirectly by the people. Contrary to popular belief, American citizens do not directly elect a President. Instead, voters elect intermediaries called electors, who have almost always pledged to cast their vote for President in a specific manner. These electors are selected in the various states according to state laws, and typically mirror the popular vote within the states. All but two states, Maine and Nebraska, operate on a winner-take-all model. If a presidential candidate wins the popular vote within a state, that candidate gets all of the electoral votes, which is determined by adding the number of Representatives the state sends to the House of Representatives to the number of Senators in the state, which is always two. Maine and Nebraska award one electoral vote per congressional district, and two from the statewide total. Some sparsely populated states only have one Representative in the House, and thus have only three electoral votes. These states are presently Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North and South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. California, the most populous state, has 53 Representatives, and thus 55 electoral votes, which is more than twice as many as the seven least populous states combined.
The most surprising element of this Federalist number is the assertion in the opening lines, that “The mode of appointment of the chief magistrate of the United States, is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents.” In short, nearly everyone at the time of the Framing of the Constitution, supporters and opponents alike, thought the Electoral College was a good idea.
As Publius points out in Federalist 68, there were a few goals that the Electoral College satisfied. First, the system allowed the people a voice, albeit an indirect voice, in the selection of the President. It also minimized the possibility of foul play in elections, which has always been a concern in representative democracies. Publius also points to the difficulty of foreign intrigue, saying that even this will be mitigated by a functioning Electoral College. Most importantly, though, and curiously not mentioned in Federalist, is the role the Electoral College plays in maintaining the importance of the states. The small states, even though they have few electoral votes, nonetheless wield greater power in selecting a President than they would were population the only criteria that mattered.
In practice, the Electoral College is a relatively straightforward affair. Every four years in the second week of November, the people of each state vote for the electors who in turn vote for their preferred candidate. On the Monday after the second Wednesday in December, each state’s electors meet at their state capitols to cast their votes for President and Vice-President.
Each state submits its votes to the President of the Senate, who reads them in front of both houses of Congress. If a candidate wins a simple majority of the electoral votes (currently 270), that candidate wins the Presidency. If no candidate with the requisite number of electoral votes, the election then goes to the House of Representatives, which must choose from among the top three vote getters. In this scenario, each House delegation gets one vote, and majority rules.
After this process has played out, the newly elected President, or President-elect is sworn into office on January 20th at noon.
The reason why the Electoral College has come to be controversial in the minds of many Americans is a simple one. It can, and indeed has, resulted in a candidate winning the presidency although losing the nationwide, popular vote. This has happened four times in America’s history: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and George W. Bush in 2000 all became President despite losing the popular vote. John Quincy Adams became President despite losing both the popular and electoral votes. That election was the only one in American history to be decided by the House of Representatives. Listen to the following podcast from 60-Second Civics to understand winning the popular vote does not always lead to winning a presidential election:
The Electoral College is still bound by the same rules the Founders intended, but the actual behavior of the Electoral College has changed significantly over time. Today, many states legally require their electors to vote consistently with the popular vote in their states. A 1952 Supreme Court case, Ray v. Blair, held that states are constitutionally permitted to force their electors to pledge for their party’s nominee. However, not every state requires this of their electors. In many states, it is still possible for electors to disregard the popular votes of the people of their state and vote for their preferred candidate instead. These are called faithless electors, and they are rare. There have been 157 faithless electors since the Electoral College was put into place. 63 of these acted in a single election in 1872, when Democratic candidate Horace Greeley died between the election and the meeting of the Electoral College. 63 of 66 Democratic Electors were simply unwilling to cast their votes for a dead man. Faithless electors have never changed the outcome of an election.
For a quick review of how the Electoral College works, listen to the following podcast from 60-Second Civics:
Vice Presidential Elections
The 12th Amendment changed vice presidential elections as well. Article II of the Constitution specified that the vice presidency would be awarded to the person who received the second greatest number of electoral votes after the President. The Framers had intended the vice presidential candidate to act as a backup in case the sitting President became incapacitated. Aside from that responsibility, the Vice President was to have no executive function. But because of America’s burgeoning two-party system, the person selected as Vice President would almost always come from the opposition party.
This issue came to a head in 1796, when John Adams was elected President. His Vice President ended up being Thomas Jefferson, his strongest political rival at the time. As Vice President, Jefferson actively endeavored to derail the political goals of the Adams Administration, and refused to help President Adams when he asked for assistance.
The 12th Amendment ensured that the President and Vice President would receive separate votes, which virtually assured that the Vice President would, from that point forward, come from the same party as the President.
For a broad review of the basics of elections in the United States, watch the following:
Political Parties and the United States Constitution
Surprisingly, political parties are not mentioned in the United States Constitution, nor are they mentioned in any of the Federalist numbers written in support of it. They grew in the years following the Constitution’s ratification, and although George Washington ran unopposed for the presidency twice, by the time his second term was at an end it was clear that political parties were becoming a force in American politics. It was Washington himself who, in his Farewell Address, warned that politicians would “put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party.” Even Thomas Jefferson famously remarked in 1789, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” Ironically, Thomas Jefferson would find himself at the center of America’s first party system.
The history of political parties in the United States is one of ebbs and flows, and emergence and disappearance. There have been a number of parties throughout American history, and various party systems divide the nation’s history. The shift from one party system to another is broadly known as a realignment, which is simply a dramatic change in the political landscape which manifests in a radically different party structure from a realigning election moving forward. This is also known as a critical realignment or a political realignment.
Political scientist V.O. Key originated the hypothesis in 1955, and he was followed by any number of political scientists and historians. Key concluded that certain critical elections had permanently altered the electoral composition of the United States on a few occasions over the nation’s history. These shared a few characteristics. First, these elections were presidential elections which saw a significant shift in voting patterns. This shift was generally the result of a divisive issue. Finally, this shift led to a reformulation of an established governing structure. Simply put, a party that had been electorally successful not only lost its political power in these elections, it often simply disappeared.
The First Party System: 1789-1824
Jefferson did not seek the presidency in 1796, but his name was placed on the ballot nonetheless. And as President Washington retired, warning all who would listen against the dangers of political parties, those who surrounded him, with Hamilton at the lead, formed the Federalist party. John Adams, Washington’s Vice President, won the election of 1796 becoming the second President of the United States. The Federalists also won a majority of seats in Congress, and the partisan era was underway.
Jefferson received the second most electoral votes, and thus became Vice President. He belonged to the Democratic-Republican party, his 1789 views on political parties notwithstanding. The Democratic-Republicans opposed most of the policy goals of the Federalists, especially their propensity to see the nation as a monolithic political unit which required an energetic national government, and what the Democratic-Republicans saw as aggressive tariff collections. Jefferson’s party, joined by James Madison, favored smaller government, fearing that a large federal government would destroy the rights not only of the states, but of small farmers and landowners as well. Jefferson actively campaigned for the presidency in 1800 and won, in what was perhaps the most mean-spirited election in American history. It was also the first peaceful transition of power in the history of the world.
With the Federalists slowly disappearing as a party, Jefferson’s victory ultimately led to the “era of good feelings.” During James Monroe’s Presidency between 1816 and 1824, there was a decidedly less combative party culture in the United States. For a brief time, it appeared as if the partisan fervor brought about by Jefferson and Hamilton would give way to the non-partisan ideals that Washington had urged. But eventually the conflict returned.
The Second Party System: 1828-1854
By 1828, the Federalists had become irrelevant. Eventually, though, the Democratic-Republicans split into two separate parties. The Jeffersonian Democrats, who were represented by Andrew Jackson, stressed the need for small government and protections for the average American. They also advocated a strong Presidency, which would have the autonomy to act without congressional permission.
Henry Clay and the Whigs stood in opposition, advocating a strong legislature. The Whigs believed that Congress represented the will of the people, and fought to ensure that Congress did not cede power to the executive branch. The Whigs also favored modernization and development, which they sought to fund through increasing tariffs. The core of the party believed in government’s unique ability to promote the national interest, and they sought to use the state’s power to that end.
Aside from basic philosophical differences regarding separation of powers and the size of the government, this period was also characterized by fierce debates over the existence of a national bank and the federal patronage system. Strong disagreements also developed within both parties over slavery. These proved to be irreconcilable in the Whig party, which disappeared rather quickly. It was replaced by an anti-slavery party, the Republicans, which ushered in America’s third party system.
The Third Party System: 1854-1890s
The third party system arguably had a greater effect on the the United States than any other. The Republicans adopted many of the positions previously held by the Whig party. In fact, many political scientists view the Republican Party as the Whig party without its internal debate on slavery. In addition to their strong anti-slavery agenda, the Republicans also supported the national bank, development of railroads, homesteading, land-grants for universities, and high tariffs.
On the other side were the Democrats, who were primarily white southerners. The Democrats supported a pro-agrarian economy based on slavery. They also supported low tariffs, an emphasis on states’ rights, and small government. Upon the conclusion of the Civil War, the Democrats had been defeated both militarily and politically. Slavery was a thing of the past, but bitter disagreements between Republicans and Democrats continued for decades, largely along northern and southern lines. Despite the 13th Amendment, which rendered slavery unconstitutional, Democrats fought the implementation of the post-slavery laws throughout the south, which led to military occupation during the period of reconstruction. As a result, the harsh ideological divides that existed before the war continued for decades after the cessation of hostilities.
The post-war animosity between Republicans and Democrats was slightly alleviated by the Compromise of 1877. In the Presidential election preceding the compromise, no candidate had managed to win a majority of the electoral votes. The Democrats agreed to give some electoral votes to the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. In exchange, the Republicans removed the US military from the south, thereby ending the Reconstruction.
The Fourth Party System: 1896-1932
In the fourth party system, a split remained between Republicans and Democrats, but the debate turned during this period on economic issues. This new party system began with the panic of 1893—a serious economic depression that came about as a result of poor financing practices and bank failures—which the Republicans blamed on the Democrats. As a result, Republican William McKinley defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1896.
The central domestic issues during this period concerned regulation of the economy. While Republicans continued to push the development of national infrastructure, Democrats took on a populist approach which defended the common man in the face of large corporate trusts. They were decidedly anti-monopoly and pro-labor-union, but still held to a small government mindset. By the end of the fourth party system, though, this small government mindset had changed. After the publication of Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life in 1909, and Frederick Taylor’s The Structure of Scientific Management in 1911, the Democratic Party came to believe that the federal government, and in many respects only the federal government could address what it perceived as problems becoming ever more evident in American society. In a natural extension of its previous populism, the Democrats began advocating for state resources to be used to help the economically destitute in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.
To learn more about how ideas from this era—such as Scientific Management—created a foundation for modern administration and regulation, watch the following:
Fifth Party System: 1933-?
The crash of 1929 and the Great Depression which followed defined the early years of the fifth party system. These brought about a distrust of capitalism, and ushered in an era of government control over the economy. World War II increasingly defined global concerns, until finally, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America was drawn into the conflict.
FDR’s New Deal became so popular that he managed to form an entirely new, and unlikely, coalition of voters. The Democrats carried Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, white southerners, labor unions, urban machines, progressive intellectuals, and populist farm groups. Prior to this, it would have been inconceivable for one party to carry both African-Americans and white southerners, not to mention high-brow intellectual progressives and low-brow populists. The Democrats’ victory in the 1930s and 1940s was nearly complete.
As the Great Depression deepened in the wake of multiple Republican administrations, the American public shifted to the Democratic Party in unprecedented numbers. Part of the failure of the Republican Party during the early fifth party system can be attributed to an ideological split within the ranks of the party. Some of the Republicans took a decidedly conservative approach, while others took more moderate positions. This intra-party split weakened the Republican Party in an already trying time.
Though the Democrats clearly took control with the election of FDR, the Republican Party was far from dead. They managed to retake the presidency in 1952 with the election of Dwight Eisenhower, and had success at the presidential level with the ensuing elections of Nixon, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush from 1968 into the 1990s. Throughout this period the Republicans had little congressional success, but that too changed in 1994, when Newt Gingrich managed to nationalize congressional elections with the “Contract with America.” In that election, Democratic control of the “Solid South” was broken for the first time since FDR took office, and more than 60 years of Democratic control came to an end.
While most political scientists and historians agree that the fifth party system has ended, there is little agreement regarding when that came to pass and what brought about the change. But these things only become clear with the passage of time.
For a review of party systems and the history of political parties, watch this video:
Now that we have reviewed the history of political parties, watch the following video to review the purpose of political parties and the role they play in American politics:
Why Do People Vote?
All of this takes for granted that people vote, and of course they do. But they do not vote in particularly robust numbers in the United States, and rarely have. In the 21 presidential elections since 1932, the voting rate has been greater than 60% only four times. People interested in political participation often bemoan this point as an indictment against American self-governance, as many industrialized countries routinely experience much higher voting rates.
But given the fact that one vote has never, and likely will never change the result of a presidential election, a larger question remains: Why do people vote at all? Professor Randy Simmons addresses this question here:
- Electoral College
- Realignment Theory
- Jeffersonian Democrats