Voting and Elections for AP U.S. Government

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Apr 25, 2014

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Participation and Voting

Forms of Political Participation

  • voting in elections
  • discussing politics and attending political meetings
  • forming interest groups and PACS
  • contacting public officials
  • campaigning for a candidate or political party
  • contributing money to a candidate or political party
  • running for office
  • protesting government decisions

Most of these behaviors would be considered conventional or routine, within the acceptable channels of representative government. Less conventional behaviors have been used when groups have felt powerless and ineffective. Although Americans are less approving of unconventional behaviors, those tactics are sometimes effective in influencing government decisions. The often-violent protests against the Vietnam Conflict discouraged Lyndon Johnson from running for reelection in 1968. In the modern era of the Internet and other forms of "instant news," a single verbal gaffe can cause major problems for a candidate; mistakes by candidates are often quickly spread by supporters of the opposing candidate.

The most common form of political participation in the United States is voting. However, Americans are less likely to vote than citizens of other countries.

Participation Through Voting

Democratic government is "government by the people." In the United States, participation through elections is the basis of the democratic process. According to democratic theory, everyone should be allowed to vote. In practice, however, no nation grants universal suffrage; all nations have requirements for voting.

Expansion of Suffrage

Suffrage is the right to vote. It is a political right that belongs to all those who meet certain requirements set by law. The United States was the first nation to provide for general elections of representatives through mass suffrage. The issue of suffrage is left to the states— the only stipulation found in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution is that individuals who could vote for "the most numerous branch of the state legislature" could also vote for their Congressional representatives.

The composition of the American electorate has changed throughout history. Two major trends have marked the development of suffrage: the elimination of a number of restrictive requirements and the transfer of more and more authority from the states to the federal government.

Changes in voting requirements have included:

  • elimination of religious qualifications, property ownership, and tax payments after 1800
  • elimination of race disqualifications with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870
  • elimination of gender disqualifications with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920
  • elimination of grandfather clauses, white primaries, and literacy requirements with the passage of federal civil rights legislation and court decisions (Civil Rights Acts, Voting Rights Act of 1965)
  • allowing residents of Washington, D.C., to vote in presidential elections with the passage of the Twenty-Third Amendment in 1961
  • elimination of poll taxes in federal elections with the passage of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964 (all poll taxes were ruled unconstitutional in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections 1966)
  • lowering the minimum age for voting in federal elections to 18 with the passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971

Issue or Policy Voting

The Progressive Movement of the early 20th century was a philosophy of political reform that fostered the development of mechanisms for increased direct participation. These included:

  • A direct primary allows citizens to nominate candidates.
  • A recall is a special election initiated by petition to allow citizens to remove an official from office before a term expires.
  • A referendum allows citizens to vote directly on issues called propositions (proposed laws or state constitutional amendments).
  • An initiative allows voters to petition to propose issues to be decided by qualified voters.

Although the recall, referendum, and initiative do not exist at the national level, several states allow voters to approve or disapprove ballot initiatives on specific issues.

Candidate Voting

Voting for candidates is the most common form of political participation. It allows citizens to choose candidates they think will best serve their interests and makes public officials accountable for their actions. In the United States voters only elect two national officeholders— the president and vice president. All remaining candidates represent state or local constituencies.

Low Voter Turnout

Voting has been studied more closely than any other form of political participation in the United States. Studies have shown that voter turnout in the United States has decreased when compared with other nations and when compared with the United States over time. Voter turnout is higher if the election is seen as important; voter turnout is higher in presidential elections than in off-year elections. Several reasons might account for the low voter turnout:

  • expansion of the electorate—increase in the number of potential voters (Twenty-sixth Amendment)
  • failure of political parties to mobilize voters—negative campaigning, numerous elections, frequent elections, lack of party identification
  • no perceived differences between the candidates or parties—both parties and their candidates are seen as virtually the same
  • mistrust of government—a belief that all candidates are untrustworthy or unresponsive, due in part to the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals
  • apathy—a lack of interest in politics; a belief that voting is not important
  • satisfaction with the way things are —a belief that not voting will keep the status quo
  • lack of political efficacy—people do not believe their vote out of millions of votes will make a difference
  • mobility of electorate—moving around leads to a lack of social belonging
  • registration process —differences in registration procedures from state to state may create barriers; the National Voter Registration Act of 1995 (Motor Voter Law) was designed to make voter registration easier by allowing people to register at drivers' license bureaus and some public offices

Who Votes?

Several factors affect the likelihood of voting:

  • education —The higher the level of education, the more likely a person is to vote. This is the most important indicator of voting behavior.
  • occupation and income —These often depend on education level. Those with white-collar jobs and higher levels of income are more likely to vote than those with blue-collar jobs or lower levels of income.
  • age—Older people are more likely to vote than younger people.
  • race—Minorities such as African Americans and Hispanics are less likely to vote than whites, unless they have similar socioeconomic status.
  • gender—At one time, gender was not a major predictor, but today women are more likely to vote than men.
  • religion—Those who are more active within their religion are more likely to vote than those who do not attend religious services, or rarely attend.
  • marital status—Married people are more likely to vote than those who are not married.
  • union membership —Unions encourage participation, and union members tend to vote regularly.
  • community membership —People who are well integrated into community life are more likely to vote than those who have moved recently.
  • party identification —Those who have a strong sense of party identification are more likely to vote.
  • geography—Residents of states with interparty competition and close elections may be more likely to vote than those who live in states with one-party domination.
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