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6.5: Political Parties and the Electoral Process

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    Beto O'rourke Runs for Senate
    Figure 6.5.1: Congressional candidate Beto O'Rourke runs as Democratic Party Candidate for Texas Congressional District 16 in 2012.

    An election is a formal decision-making process by which a population chooses an individual to hold public office. Elections have been the usual mechanism by which modern representative democracy has operated since the 17th century. Elections fill offices in the legislature, sometimes in the executive and judiciary, and for regional and local government. This process is also used in many other private and business organizations, from clubs to voluntary associations and corporations

    Election Process
    Figure 6.5.2: To become an elected official, there are many steps and hurdles to get through. This chart is just a simplified overview of the rather complicated process.

    While the United States Constitution gives the states the power to conduct elections, the election process generally works the same way regardless of whether it is conducted on a local, state, or national level. The steps in getting a candidate elected include:

    1. Declaring Candidacy
    2. Generating Public Interest and Party Support (Campaign Phase 1)
    3. Primary Elections and/or caucuses
    4. Nomination
    5. Campaigning as Party Nominee (Phase 2)
    6. General Election

    Step 1: Declaring Candidacy

    When an individual wishes to be considered for office, the first step in the election process is to declare an interest in candidacy and to build a base of support. At this stage, a number of methods may be used including giving public speeches, attending public events, letter writing campaigns, media events, and social media. The use of social media as a means of gathering public interest and support has become particularly important in the past decade. In fact, President Obama chose to use social media as his avenue of publically declaring his candidacy for re-election in 2012 and it played a major role in acquiring a base of public support for his candidacy in 2008.

    Video 2 – Obama declares candidacy in 2012 (via YouTube and social media)

    Before being declared an official candidate for office, a potential candidate must meet requirements at the state or national level for the office they wish to achieve. Each state establishes specific requirements and deadlines for filing in order to get on a primary or general ballot.

    Step 2: Campaigning Phase 1

    After publically declaring an interest in running for office, the next phase is to campaign for the nomination of the candidate’s party OR (if the candidate is part of a third party or is declaring as an independent) to get enough public support through signatures of registered voters on a petition to be placed on the ballot. If the candidate is running for president, this becomes much more difficult for an independent or third-party candidate as it requires getting enough signatures in each of the fifty states in order to be placed on the ballot. This is one of the reasons the two-party system is so powerful in our current system of government.

    This phase of campaigning may involve public appearances, speeches, media events, and heavy use of social media. But the objective of the campaign is to earn enough delegates or signatures to become the party nominee or to be placed on the ballot. This requires a great deal of independent fundraising as the party does not assist with campaign costs until the candidate earns the nomination.

    Step 3: Primaries and Caucuses

    To earn the nomination of a political party, the candidate must earn delegates through either winning a series of political primaries and/or caucuses. Each state establishes its own rules for how political parties choose their candidates but all states allow for direct voter participation in selecting the party’s nominee. When voters choose their nominee through a public election, this is called a primary. There are three basic types of primary elections:

    1. Closed Primary: People may vote in a party's primary only if they are registered members of that party. Independents cannot participate.
    2. Semi-closed Primary: As in closed primaries, registered party members can vote only in their own party's primary. However, it allows unaffiliated voters to participate as well. Depending on the state, independents either make their choice of party primary privately, inside the voting booth, or publicly, by registering with any party on Election Day.
    3. Open Primary: A registered voter may vote in any party primary regardless of his own party affiliation. When voters do not register with a party before the primary, it is called a pick-a-party primary because the voter can select which party's primary he or she wishes to vote in on Election Day. Because of the open nature of this system, a practice known as raiding may occur. Raiding consists of voters of one party crossing over and voting in the primary of another party, effectively allowing a party to help choose its opposition's candidate. The theory is that opposing party members vote for the weakest candidate of the opposite party in order to give their own party the advantage in the general election. An example of this can be seen in the 1998 Vermont senatorial primary with the nomination of Fred Tuttle as the Republican candidate in the general election.
    4. Semi-open Primary: A registered voter need not publicly declare which political party's primary in which they will vote before entering the voting booth. When voters identify themselves to the election officials, they must request a party's specific ballot. Only one ballot is cast by each voter. In many states with semi-open primaries, election officials or poll workers from their respective parties record each voter's choice of party and provide access to this information. The primary difference between a semi-open and open primary system is the use of a party-specific ballot. In a semi-open primary, a public declaration in front of the election judges is made and a party-specific ballot given to the voter to cast. Certain states that use the open-primary format may print a single ballot and the voter must choose on the ballot itself which political party's candidates they will select for a contested office.
    5. Run-off: A primary in which the ballot is not restricted to one party and the top two candidates advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. (A run-off differs from a primary in that a second round is only needed if no candidate attains a majority in the first round.)
    6. Mixed Systems: In West Virginia, where state law allows parties to determine whether primaries are open to independents, Republican primaries are open to independents, while Democratic primaries were closed. However, on April 1, 2007, West Virginia's Democratic Party opened its voting to allow "individuals who are not affiliated with any existing recognized party to participate in the election process".

    Video: Primary Elections Explained

    Many states use another system called caucuses to select their candidates. In a caucus, voters attend a public meeting where they hear speeches from the different party candidates and at the end take a “straw vote” to select the candidate of their choice in a more public forum. This system is primarily used in smaller states like Iowa and often take place very early so they tend to get very early attention from candidates because they can generate a “buzz” of support for the candidate.



    Voting method

    Voting is conducted at local party meetings and is done by raising hands or breaking up into groups.

    An election is held/ secret ballot

    Who can vote

    Only members registered with the political party can participate (if closed system)

    Depends upon the state. Some states allow only registered party members to vote; some allow party registrations on the same day; some are completely open to all residents of the state.


    States that use the caucus system are Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Iowa

    All others

    To get a better understanding of caucuses and primaries, go to Caucus Vs Primary

    Video: Caucuses Explained

    Step 4: Nomination

    In order to be placed on the ballot, a candidate must either win his/her party’s nomination by receiving enough delegates during the primary and/or caucus OR must receive enough signatures from registered voters in order to be placed on the ballot. In most states, getting on the ballot without the nomination of one of the major parties (Democrats or Republicans) is a daunting task that can often require more than 50,000 signatures from each state. For this reason, the primary acts as a way of narrowing the field of choices to two or three candidates. Statewide candidates and Congressional (House or Senate) candidates must win their state’s primary or caucus in order to win a sufficient number of delegates at the state convention to be awarded the nomination of their party.

    In the case of national presidential candidates, they must win more state primaries than the other candidates in order to be awarded their party’s nomination at a national convention. In either case, the two-party system serves as a way of narrowing the number of candidates. Remember, it is still possible to run as an independent or third-party candidate for president, but the candidate must get on the ballot in every state (whereas the two major parties automatically get their nominees on the ballot in every state).

    Step 5: Campaigning (Phase 2)

    After earning the party’s nomination OR earning enough signatures to be placed on the ballot, the candidate goes on “the campaign trail” as a candidate in the general election. In this phase of the campaign and election process, the party nominees have a great deal more financial and logistical support from their respective political party organizations. In fact, this is why political parties exist – to help their chosen candidates win the general election. This is a major reason the two-party system has become such an important part of the American political process.

    For candidates running as third-party nominees or as independents, this part of the campaign is much more difficult because they lack the financial and organizational resources the major political parties offer to their chosen candidates. So third party candidates must work much harder to raise money and support whereas the major party candidates can focus on getting their political agenda and the party’s campaign platform across to the voters through debates, public forums, political advertising, personal appearances, media events and Internet/social media opportunities.

    Third parties often place emphasis on topics that are of importance to the mainstream American public. Also, third parties can impact the result of an election because the vote is split. Current third parties include Libertarian, Reform, Green, and Constitution.

    Video: A Look at Political Campaigns

    Step 6: The General Election

    The general election is the point at which the people directly participate in choosing their elected officials. In most cases, this will be the last step in the electoral process. In the case of presidential elections, there is still one more step (the Electoral College) in which electors who represent the winning candidate in each state meet to actually select the next president. The people do not directly elect the president in the United States. The Electoral College actually elects the president.

    There are two types of general elections. The first type is called a plurality election. In this type of election, the winner is the candidate with the most votes, regardless of how many votes that may be. For instance, if you had an election with five candidates and were selecting the winner by a plurality election, whichever candidate got the most votes would win the election. This type of election is usually conducted after having a primary (in order to narrow down the field of candidates on the ballot).

    The second type of election is called a majority election. In this type of election, the winning candidate must have at least 50 percent (plus ONE vote) of the total vote in order to be declared the winner. If no candidate has more than 50 percent plus one vote then another election must be conducted between the two top candidates. This is called a runoff election. This type of election is usually conducted when the general election does not follow a primary or caucus. This type of election is also sometimes described as “non-partisan” because candidates do not run in primaries before the general election and are not nominated by their party. The majority of elections are most common at the local level while plurality elections are more common at the state and national level.



    Winning candidate must earn “the most” votes

    Winning candidate must get MORE THAN 50 percent of total votes.

    Possible to win an election with less than 50 percent of votes. No runoff is necessary

    If no candidate has more than 50% of the vote than the top two candidates must go against each other in a run-off election so that the winning candidate gets a majority.


    Number of Votes


    Candidate A



    Candidate B



    Candidate C



    Candidate D



    Candidate E



    Total Votes Cast



    Looking at the results of the sample election above, what would happen in a plurality and majority election?

    In the case of a plurality election, Candidate D would be declared the winner (because the candidate got more votes than any other candidate). In the case of a majority election, there would be a runoff between Candidate D and Candidate B because no one candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote and these two candidates received the highest percentage of votes.

    Video: Majority and Plurality Elections (Explaining the Math):

    Step 7: The Candidate Takes Office

    After being declared the winner of the general election (or after being selected by the Electoral College in the case of the President), the candidate will then be allowed to take office on a specific date. Most elected officials are required to take an “oath of office” in order to take elected office.

    Figure 6.5.3

    Study/Discussion Questions

    1. How does the modern election process differ from the way in which citizens participated in Ancient Athens?
    2. What role does the national government play in protecting the suffrage rights of citizens?
    3. What are the most common requirements to vote in the United States?
    4. What specific qualifications must you meet if you wish to register to vote in Texas?
    5. If you were considering running for elected office, what methods would you use to gain public interest in your campaign? Which method would you place most of your effort into? Why?
    6. What is the difference between a primary and a caucus? Which of these two is more representative of direct democracy where individuals directly participate In the decision process?
    7. How do the two phases of campaigning differ from each other? What particular steps or activities are usually involved in each?
    8. What is the difference between a general election and a primary?
    9. What is the difference between plurality elections and majority elections? Give an example.
    10. How does the presidential election system differ from other elections at the state or national level?

    Boundless. “Purposes of Elections.” Boundless Political Science. Boundless, 25 Jan. 2015. 
    Retrieved 05 Mar. 2015 from
    Boundless. “Purposes of Elections.” Boundless Political Science. Boundless, 25 Jan. 2015. 
    Retrieved 05 Mar. 2015 from
    1-1903/ accessed March 16, 2015. n

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