The Basics of American Government 3E

Chapter 6: Political Parties, Voting, and Elections

Read or download the textbook here.


by Carl D. Cavalli

The 2 party system. Public Domain.As noted in chapters one and two, our government is a democratic republic, and the centerpiece of all such governments are elections in which eligible voters select candidates to represent them. The organizing of voter preferences through political parties is central to the electoral concept. Not only did the framers not foresee this, but they were actually hostile to the concept. This lack of foresight may have been their biggest failure. A strong case may be made that our two-party system traces its roots to the nation’s founding. This system is sustained by our most common electoral rules: single-member district, plurality (or “SMDP”) rules. Not only do these rules affect our party system, but there is strong evidence that they can affect the outcome of individual elections. Other rules affecting elections include campaign finance regulations.


Chapter 6: Political Parties, Voting, and Elections

I. What is a political party?
A. It is an organization that
1. Selects candidates for office to represent the party’s ideals
2. Conducts election campaigns to get their candidates into office
3. Organizes government to facilitate achievement of its goals
B. Why conduct elections?
1. Reward elected officials who appear to serve us well
2. Punish elected officials who fail to serve us well
3. Provides the public with a sense of influence
4. Voting replaces violence as the main means of political participation
C. Political Parties: The Beginning
1. Federalists wanted national power over local power. Evolved into the Whig party and eventually the Republican party.
2. Anti-Federalist wanted to maintain the nation’s agrarian roots. Evolved into the Democratic party.
D. Three Part Party Structure
1. Party Organization (Parent Organization)
2. Party in Government (Office Holders)
3. Party in the Electorate (Voters)
II. Nominating Presidential Candidates
A. All states and territories hold either a primary or caucus to choose their delegates to the national conventions (held in the late summer of presidential election years).
B. Delegates representing all 50 states and many territories vote to select the nominees.
C. Presidential Nomination
1. National nominating conventions
2. Primaries vs. caucuses
3. Proportional representation
4. Winner-take-all
III. Realignments
A. New events and new generations with new issues will alter the composition of—and competition between—the parties, leading to a new party system
B. Major Realignments
1. 1828 - expansion of the vote to ordinary (white, male) citizens
2. 1860 – Slavery
3. 1896 - how far to pursue industrialization and globalization
4. 1932 – Great Depression
5. 1960s – Civil Rights
C. Why are there only two major parties?
1. We divided into two major factions very early on, leading almost inevitably to our two major parties
2. Our divisions have never been so vast as to sustain many major parties
3. Our self-fulfilling skepticism of third parties
4. Most all of us are not so issue driven that we will back parties with little chance of winning, even if we agree with their issue positions.
5. Rules Matter!
6. Rules vary from election to election and state to state.
D. Modern Regional Bases
1. Democratic Party's bases are in the Northeast, Great Lakes region, and West
2. Republican Party's bases are in the South, Upper Midwest, and Great Plains
IV. Basics: Voting and Elections
A. Who votes?
1. Not many, even though our history is one of expanding suffrage (the vote)
B. Barriers
1. Literacy Tests
2. Grandfather Clauses
3. Poll Taxes
4. White Primaries
a. Difficult Registration and Voting requirements
5. Intimidation and Violence
6. Registration and Identification requirements
C. Voting: How We Decide
1. Candidate Characteristics
2. Party identification
a. Part of Political Socialization
b. Old School: the party was the source of political information
3. Incumbency
4. Issues
a. Valance (One-Sided) Issues – “Criminals should be punished”
b. Appeasing all sides – “I am personally opposed to it, but I don’t believe government should get involved.”
V. Money: Campaign Finance Reform
A. In the past, political parties and election campaigns revolved primarily around organizing and energizing people in order to win elections
B. With the complexity of the modern election, more money is needed to get the word out in the form of elite technology and marketing experts working behind the scenes to win us over
C. Tillman Act of 1907
1. Prohibited direct contribution of corporate funds to campaigns
D. Taft-Hartley Act of 1947
1. Prohibited direct contribution from labor unions
E. Federal Election Campaign Acts (1971, 1972, 1974)
1. Limited contributions to federal campaigns ($1000.00 per individual per election, $5000.00 per group per election)
F. Soft Money and Issue Ads
G. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002
H. 527s, Citizens United, and Beyond
1. 527s could run all the issue ads, using all the unlimited money, they wanted
2.Citizens United v Federal Election Commission
a. opens the door for corporations and unions to use their own money for any political activity they desire

American bumper sticker that says 'Vote America: Every vote counts'.


The following video examines the role of the Electoral College in American Elections.

Test Your Knowledge

Want to test your knowledge about political parties, elections, and voting in the U.S.? Check your understandings using the flashcards below!

Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA)


For Further Reading

Please see Chapter 6 References on pages 174-177 of the textbook for primary sources and readings.

Supreme Court Allows More Private Money in Election Campaigns, by Bill Mears and Tom Cohen.