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Methods of electoral analysis

The range of electoral studies

Major problem areas


Voting is a means of aggregating individual preferences into collective decisions. It is not the sole means: market mechanisms frequently perform a similar function, as do processes of informal interaction in many social and political groups. The aggregation of individual preferences by voting raises a variety of issues (How many alternatives are voted upon? Is a complete or a partial preference ordering required of the individual elector? What rule shall determine the collective outcome?) which properly belong to the study of elections [See Elections]. The study of electoral behavior may be viewed as concerned more narrowly with the formation and expression of individual preferences.

The diffusion of voting gives the study of electoral behavior an exceedingly broad empirical terrain. However, electoral studies have, in fact, mainly treated the behavior of large-scale electorates in the national states of North America and Europe. By the end of the nineteenth century the spread of liberal democracy in these nations had given the public the power to intervene in government through the choice of elective officeholders. Since the voting of mass electorates was a significant element of the politics of these nations, it was inevitable that it should attract the attention of later empirical studies, and the systematic study of voting has now extended to a number of Western and non-Western nations.

Methods of electoral analysis

In any large electoral system, the aggregation of individual preferences through voting involves extensive record keeping, and the immense wealth of data issuing from the conduct of elections has been a primary resource of the study of voting. Indeed, many of the earliest systematic studies relied entirely on data of this kind (Siegfried 1913). Increasingly strict traditions of secrecy surrounding the ballot have prevented direct access to records of the preferences of individual voters (though not always to records of individual participation), limiting the investigator, in almost every case, to preference data aggregated by electoral units such as precincts or communes. As a result, legal or administrative regulations affecting these data have had wide impact on research. Since the time of Andre Siegfried, French electoral studies have been able to use data for communes, whereas British electoral research (psephology) has been obliged to work with the larger, parliamentary constituencies, since the Ballot Act of 1872 requires that all ballot papers for a constituency be brought together and physically shuffled prior to counting. The German Federal Republic offers a limited exception to the unavailability of individual-level data on party preference: the ballots cast in a sample of Wahlbezirke, “electoral districts,” are tallied within demographic categories jointly defined by sex and age, and the distributions of party preference within these categories are then published by the Kohlhammer Verlag.

The returns for a given election in a given electoral unit furnish two kinds of information: (1) the total of ballots will measure the level of participation or turnout, if the size of the electorate is known and if the turnout is not obscured by some form of multiple voting, and (2) the totals of votes for particular parties or candidates will measure the distribution of preference. The analytic use to which these two kinds of information are put has varied according to whether the investigator examines a single election only or change between two or more elections. Single-election analyses typically have considered the tendency of the vote to vary with other known characteristics of the electoral units involved. Thus, Ogburn and Talbot (1929) compared the proportions of votes cast for Alfred E. Smith in each of a sample of counties in the 1928 U.S. presidential election with the proportions of electors within each county who were Roman Catholic, foreign-born, urban, traditionally Democratic, and favorable to the repeal of prohibition. They found that the presidential vote varied less by religion than by attitude toward prohibition. Similarly, Allardt (1964) examined support for the Communist party in postwar Finnish elections across a set of electoral units, which he classified in social and economic terms, and demonstrated that the communists did better in poor and wealthy communes than in communes of intermediate wealth. Where candidates for several offices are voted for, analyses of single elections may exploit differences of turnout or party preference between offices. Thus, Silva (1962) has questioned Al Smith’s responsibility for the debacle of 1928, by contrasting the Democratic presidential vote with the party vote for other offices in that year.

Longitudinal studies of election returns may also classify electoral units by various social characteristics, but the introduction of change permits significant analysis with little or no additional information. Thus, the Nufneld studies have used the uniformity of interelection “swing” in Britain’s parliamentary constituencies to argue the dominance of national influences on change (Butler & Rose 1960) and have used the variations of swing by pattern of candidature to decide whether the intervention of a Liberal candidate was more damaging to the Labour or Conservative party (Butler & King 1965). Returns from five Congressional elections for districts which are “nested” within states and within the nation as a whole have been used to measure the relative influence of national, state, and constituency factors on changes of the Congressional vote (Stokes 1965).

Two main difficulties have stood in the way of studies of election returns. One of these—applying especially to static single-election analyses—is the problem of inferring the relationship between social characteristics and the voting behavior of individual electors from data on the relationship of social composition and voting behavior in aggregate units. Early investigators were aware of the hazards of making such inferences, but it remained for Robinson (1950) to demonstrate how real the dangers of the fallacy of ecological correlation are. Robinson, indeed, demonstrated that the direction of a correlation at the aggregate and individual levels might be reversed: the Democrats might, for example, poll a larger share of the vote in Protestant than in Catholic counties, even though they actually enjoyed wider support among Catholics than among Protestants, in the electorate as a whole. His work has stimulated the development of alternative modes of analysis (Goodman 1959; Duncan et al. 1961), which have application to dynamic analyses as well (Vangrevelinge 1961; Telser 1963).

An even greater difficulty in the way of studies of election returns is the exceeding sparseness of information about the composition of electoral units. At most a very few facts can be gleaned from census and other sources about the social and economic character of the electoral units whose turnout and preferences are to be analyzed. To penetrate the processes which relate these facts to electoral behavior, the investigator would need a great deal of information which is not gathered by any governmental agency. So long as measurement remains at the level of gross social and political indicators, many ambiguities will surround the motives and attitudes of the groupings whose behavior is described by the ecological method.

These difficulties supplied much of the impetus of the early survey studies of electoral behavior. Since the interview survey afforded direct access to individuals, the relationship of social characteristics to individual behavior could be a matter of direct measurement, rather than of inference. Similarly, repeated surveys of the same individuals could disclose the full pattern of electoral change over time. Most important, however, the interview survey could elicit from the individual elector— and, hence, from representative samples of the whole electorate—a much richer collection of information. In this fact, more than any other, lay the true significance of the advent of electoral surveys.

Merriam and Gosnell (1924) surveyed electors in the early 1920s, and by the middle 1930s several commercial opinion-polling organizations were engaged in sample surveys. But the true potential of such studies was first clearly displayed by the Erie County (Ohio) project of Lazarsfeld and his associates (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944), which was also the first “panel” study involving repeated interviews of the same electors. This and a companion study (Berelson et al. 1954) have inspired local electoral surveys in other countries (Degras et al. 1956) and were of great influence in the later nationwide studies by the University of Michigan Survey Research Center group (Campbell et al. 1954; Michigan…1960).

Interview surveys require scarcely a fraction of the resources expended in the administration of elections. But the expense of such studies is great enough to limit severely their scope and number. In some cases governments themselves have supported survey studies of voting behavior: both the Swedish and Norwegian governments have extended such support. But official election returns continue to be a prime resource of electoral research, especially studies of local or regional variations and studies of historical elections antedating the rise of survey methods. Indeed, voting returns and survey data have been combined with increasing frequency (Miller 1956; Outright & Rossi 1958). Hypotheses suggested by survey studies are frequently tested by analyses of election returns (Burn-ham 1965; Sellers 1965; Stokes & Iversen 1962). Recent computer models of electoral behavior have drawn in an eclectic fashion upon the data and findings of survey studies and analyses of election returns (McPhee 1963; Pool et al. 1964).

The range of electoral studies

The several traditions of method have been paralleled by broad differences in the focus of electoral studies. Since aggregate election units could be characterized most easily in terms of social composition, studies of official returns for single elections most often have treated the voting patterns of different ethnic, racial, religious, class, and other groupings. Studies of this kind have not lacked hypotheses about psychological factors which might intervene between social characteristics and political behavior, but these factors have typically been inferred rather than measured directly. Thus, Lipset and his coauthors (Lipset et al. 1954) reviewed evidence of higher participation and of “left” voting among certain sociologically defined groups in Western nations, offering explanatory hypotheses which were based on inferences from what was known of these groups. Longitudinal studies of election returns have been less exclusively sociological in character. Since there typically is more variation of voting behavior than of social structure, short-run political variations are difficult to explain in terms of social-structural factors. Key and Munger (1959) have argued this point and the complementary point that the conserving role of party loyalties can preserve the political tradition of local areas over long periods of time despite gross changes of social structure and economic activity.

Although the interview survey eventually permitted electoral research to deal with very different factors, the early survey studies reinforced the sociological tradition. The reasons were partly methodological. The first sample survey selected respondents by asking interviewers to fill a set of sociological “quotas,” obtaining sample proportions of the middle and working classes, Negroes and whites, males and females, and the young and the old that were equal to the known proportions of these groupings within the population. Having classified their respondents in this fashion, investigators tended naturally to report the turnout and distribution of party support within these same categories. As this type of information began to issue from the commercial polls in the 1930s and 1940s, it dispelled many of the uncertainties which had surrounded sociological inferences from the election returns. The sociological tradition was elaborated and reinforced by Lazarsfeld’s Erie County study (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944), which developed the Index of Political Predisposition to summarize the relationship of party preference to several social-structural factors and which gave the literature of voting research the aphorism “a person thinks, politically, as he is, socially.”

The work of Lazarsfeld and his associates showed the potential of the survey method for the exploration of very different kinds of factors. Indeed, the second of their community studies (Berelson et al. 1954) gave more sustained attention to psychological processes, discussing inter alia the way in which the partisan voter tends to misperceive the policy attitudes of his party’s candidate in order to make them consistent with his own. Psychological factors have been much more prominent in the work of the Michigan Survey Research Center, which has been influenced by the field-theoretic approaches of Lewin and others. The center’s first major electoral study (Campbell et al. 1954) conceived party identification, issue orientation, and candidate orientation as three factors in a field of psychological forces immediately influencing electoral behavior. A later report of the center’s work (Michigan …1960) dealt more inclusively with the influence of psychological forces on behavior and treated at length the causal dependence of these forces on antecedent social, economic, cultural, and other factors. The British community studies conducted by Milne and MacKenzie (1954; 1958) also gave close attention to the party “images” formed by electors, although these studies are less clear on the relation of such perceptual factors to the voters’ behavior.

Contemporary electoral studies have combined an interest in the beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, and motives of the individual elector with an interest in the functioning of the broad public within the political system. This tendency has been both the cause and a consequence of the rise of comparative research. Thus, Almond and Verba (1963) examined orientations toward the political system in the publics of five nations, identifying differences in the “political cultures” of these countries which were thought to explain certain differences in their politics. The attention given the place of electorates in a larger political order has created areas common to the study of electoral behavior and studies of political parties and party systems (Converse & Dupeux 1962; Valen & Katz 1964), extremist political movements (Lipset 1960), political representation (Miller & Stokes 1963).

Major problem areas

Electoral behavior has attracted the interest of an extraordinary range of disciplines, as social and clinical psychologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, and economists, as well as political scientists, have added to the body of empirical knowledge. It is quite impossible to survey the field thoroughly in a few pages. Several available book-length works (Hyman 1959; Lane 1959a; Lane & Sears 1964; Lipset et al. 1954; Milbrath 1965) integrate findings from a number of studies; indeed, one summary of findings from a limited group of studies lists several hundred empirically based generalizations (Berelson et al. 1954). In this enormous accumulation of findings, it is possible, however, to identify several problems which have attracted the widest attention.

Participation. There has, first of all, been sustained interest in the sources of the broad public’s participation or lack of participation in politics. This problem is not easily disentangled from the ideology of liberal democracy, in which the citizen’s participation in periodic elections is a basic norm. The tendency of actual participation to fall short of this norm is part of what has attracted attention to the “problem” of participation. But in view of the colossal dimensions of modern electorates and the tenuous links between electoral behavior and government action, an equally interesting problem is to identify the reasons why the citizen participates at all. [See Political participation.]

It is possible to categorize factors in participation as normative, instrumental, and expressive. By normative is understood a response to the value, usually positive, which the elector perceives the act itself to have. There can be little question that very broad parts of the mass public respond to the norms of “citizen duty,” which are so much a part of the ethos of liberal democracy (Michigan …1960) and which are heavily reinforced by the propaganda encouraging participation which suffuses many election campaigns.

Equally common in conceptions of liberal democcracy is the idea that electors participate for the instrumental reason of wanting to influence the actions of government. Although a long series of studies has shown how little the ordinary voter knows about government policies, there is no doubt that responses to perceived differences in the general policy images of the parties or their candidates are among the motives for participation. It is here that the forces governing the elector’s two choices —-whether to vote and how to vote—come together, and many of the factors which may lead the voter to prefer one party to another become forces inducing him to participate. Thus, the explanation of differing levels of participation offered by Lipset and his colleagues (1954) relies heavily on the assumption that electors will have used their ballot for instrumental purposes.

An attempt to explain participation mainly in these terms is confronted, however, by the obvious difficulty that a voter who knows that he is a minuscule part of the whole may think that his behavior will have very little effect on the result. There are really two questions here: whether the voter thinks that his ballot can influence the immediate electoral result and whether the voter thinks that the electoral result can influence the further course of government. As to the first, the familiar tendency for turnout to be higher when the party vote is close presumably reflects some sort of calculus of possible influence. Yet there is really very little data on either of these points. This information would be especially important in the analysis of electoral behavior within multiparty systems, in which elaborate bargaining among political leaders may intervene between popular elections and the formation of governments. [See Political efficacy.]

Participation may also be expressive behavior, an act which is undertaken for gratifications that are not related to any policy of government. Many writers have commented on the similarity of the psychological involvement of mass publics in political contests and the involvement of spectators in sporting contests. Certainly, the vernacular of Western political competition is rich with the idiom of sport, and much of the political interest of electorates is similar to the interest shown by mass sporting publics. The expressive functions of voting broaden the sources of participation to include subconscious, or “nonrational,” factors (Lane 1959a), as in the case of voters whose adult partisan commitments express a rebellion against the political beliefs of their parents. [See Personality, Political.]

Of factors which may inhibit participation, none has received wider attention than the phenomenon of “cross pressures,” which was first made prominent in the work of Lazarsfeld and his associates (1944). Many studies have observed that electors who are subject to contradictory partisan stimuli will tend to defer their vote decisions or not vote at all. Thus, Allardt and Bruun (1956) have found that political participation among the Swedish-language minority in Finland is greater in areas of high Swedish concentration than it is in areas where the intermingling of Swedish-speaking and Finnish-speaking people can lead to substantial cross pressures. The theoretical point of view underlying the cross pressure hypothesis is that of theories of cognitive dissonance: confronted with dissonant stimuli (for example, middle-class work associates who are Republican; Catholic coreligionists who are Democratic), the elector resolves the conflict by putting the voting act out of mind. However, it is by no means clear how often the deferred or reduced participation of cross-pressured subjects should be taken as evidence of genuine avoidance behavior. Persons whose political stimuli are not mutually reinforcing will naturally have less strongly one-sided preferences and will therefore be less motivated to vote so as to affect outcomes or express symbolic support. But this is far from total withdrawal from voting motivated by a desire to resolve a situation of dynamic conflict. [See Cross pressure.]

A more diffuse set of ideas surrounds the assertion, variously rendered, that limited participation indicates the “alienation” of the citizenry from the party system, the regime, or society as a whole. Closely related is the concept of anomie, although the withdrawal of the anomie citizen from social and political participation presupposes less actual hostility on his part than on the part of the alienated citizen. The theoretical discussions of alienation and anomie may have extended a good deal beyond the evidence, yet they have shown that the low sense of political efficacy found in many non-voters is linked to a more general sense of their lack of competence in dealing with various aspects of the social environment (Milbrath 1965).

Those who consider nonparticipation to be simply the consequence of political uninterest and those who consider it the consequence of actual alienation from politics tend to offer very different judgments of the prospects of liberal democracy. The pessimistic view is that the changing structure of society, involving a disintegration of relationships binding the individual to the wider social order, tends to produce a mass society characterized by low participation and high potential support for extremist or authoritarian movements. But those who see nonparticipation as a sign of acquiescent uninterest maintain that the presence of a nonparticipating stratum prevents the polarization of society into fanatical political elements, and that the relative freedom of this stratum from partisan bias allows it periodically to supply the needed support for political change. [See Democracy.]

Partisanship and political socialization. Empirical studies of voting quickly shattered the naive view of the elector as unbiased juror reaching a fresh verdict in each election. Research showed that, on the contrary, many electors had very long-established partisan attachments, “standing decisions” in V. O. Key’s phrase, which deeply influenced their perception of contemporary candidates, issues, and political events. The tendency for these dispositions to color the partisan voter’s response to new elements of politics (Lane & Sears 1964; Sullivan 1966) lessens the amplitude of change in the electorate as a whole and tends to increase the stability of party systems. What is more, although the relationship is a complex one, data from several nations suggests that because political interest and information tend to increase with strength of partisanship, the less informed, less interested elector may be the one more likely to change his vote and to bring about a change of government (Daudt 1961).

Studies of both adult electors and children have shown that partisan ties often extend back deep into childhood, with the family as the main agency of political socialization. Greenstein (1965) has found the frequency of party identification among a sample of schoolchildren in one New England city to be as great as in the youngest age groups of the American adult population. Adult studies relying on recall of early partisanship have repeatedly shown that large majorities of electors continue to hold the party allegiances of their parents. These findings are far from unambiguous, however, since parents give their children a social location in terms of class and other factors which have partisan significance in adult life, quite apart from the child’s exposure to political values in the home (Lane 1959b). The relative importance of family, school, friendship groups, and other influences in the early years of the political life cycle is increasingly the focus of research. Such work is by no means confined to the development of partisanship; many types of affective and cognitive orientations to politics have come under review (Hess & Easton I960; Hyman 1959). [See Socialization, article on Political Socialization.]

In general, the longer a party allegiance is held, the stronger it becomes. Measures of the strength of party identification have repeatedly been found to increase with age (Michigan …I960; McPhee & Ferguson 1962). The relative plasticity of party ties in younger voters partly accounts for the phenomenon of political “generations”—differences in the direction of partisanship among age cohorts. Voters entering the electorate in a period which is strongly favorable to one party are likely to hold the same party allegiance in later years; thus, the great depression’s generation of American voters held a Democratic partisanship and the first postwar generation of British voters kept a party allegiance to Labour. [See Generations, article on Political Generations.]

Political systems vary in the amount of short-term electoral change. In some systems, such as the Norwegian (Valen & Katz 1964), where party loyalties are tightly bound to a social structure which itself changes little, there is slight variation of party preference between elections, although the variation still may be enough to bring a change of government. In other systems, such as the American, in which the ties of party identification to social-structural factors are looser, substantial short-term change may occur even in the absence of change in the electorate’s underlying party loyalties. Understanding the interplay of basic partisan predispositions and short-run party preferences can help in the analysis of immediate forces on the electorate, preventing mistakes of interpretation which can be made if enduring dispositions are not taken into account (Converse et al. 1961).

Class and group influences. In many cases early learning of political attitudes within the family involves the perception of political values appropriate to the family’s social identity. Thus, a working-class child may perceive that his parents are Labour because of their class or a Negro child may perceive that his parents are Democratic because of their race. In fact, a wide range of class, regional, ethnic, racial, religious, and other identifications may be involved in long-term partisan commitments and shorter-term movements of political opinion. [See Identification, Political.]

The ways in which these identifications are related to party will vary greatly. In general terms, we may speak of three types of relationship— interest-related, symbolic, and subcultural, or normative. Where the relationship involves some interest, those identified with a given group accord support to a party out of a sense of some benefit actually or potentially accruing to the group. A well-defined example of such a tie is the appeal of rival parties to social classes whose interests are seen as opposed. The “democratic class struggle,” in S. M. Lipset’s phrase, has probably been the mos obtrusive basis of partisanship in Western political systems, and parliamentary revisions of Marxist thought, the most widely accepted explanation of group voting. Empirical studies have cast doubt on the idea that class consciousness, in any full Marxist sense, plays much of a role in the thinking of mass publics (Eulau 1955); yet the tie between class and party still may be interest related for the person who sees a party as favoring his class, even if he does not consider any other class or party particularly hostile.

Other examples of interest-related group voting are plentiful enough. A series of sectional interests have influenced the alignments of American electoral history, and regional or sectional interests have competed with class as the basis of party alignments in a number of Western nations. Sectional interests may be primarily economic, as they were in the struggles over American tariff policy for more than a century. But they may also reflect important ethnic, racial, or religious interests, as in the long sectional conflict leading to the withdrawal of Ireland from the United Kingdom.

The interests of a group may attach individually to its members or they may attach more to the group as a collective whole, conferring primarily psychological benefits on members or identifiers. But some ties between group and party which have demonstrable effects on voting lie so far outside the concept of interest as to constitute a symbolic relationship. This was true, for example, of the massive influences on American voting behavior of the two candidacies of Roman Catholics for the presidency. There is no evidence that either Protestant or Roman Catholic voters expected major policy changes affecting religion if John Kennedy were elected president; their reaction to his candidacy had to do rather with the symbolism of a Catholic assuming the presidency. The processes by which voters are bound to political leaders on the basis of class, racial, ethnic, or even geographic identifications are very similar.

A good deal of class or group voting, however, must be ascribed to the acceptance of subcultural norms. Party attachments, particularly long-established ones, may simply pass into the content of a given subculture and be maintained in much the same way as differences of dress, speech, or child-rearing are maintained between classes, regions, and racial groups. Because conformance to normative expectations is involved here, some writers have connected this type of behavior to the concept of role (Eulau 1962). Participation, as well as party attitudes, may involve conformity of this kind, and turnout differences between men and women have been treated in terms of culturally defined roles (Michigan …1960).

Any of these types of group effects, but especially symbolic or normative influence, will depend on the strength of the individual’s attachment to the group; the stronger his identification, the more likely he is to behave politically in accord with the group. The psychological identifications involved here may be quite unrelated to formal membership, although the relationship of “objective” criteria to “subjective” identifications, explored most extensively in the case of social class (Centers 1949; Eulau 1962), is itself an important area of inquiry. Once it is distinguished from formal membership, the concept of identification can include the negative identifications of those who may be hostile to a class or group. Thus, the endorsement of trade unions may be the kiss of death for a political candidate seeking office in an area which is strongly hostile to unions.

Face-to-face ("primary") groups may play an important role in making effective the standards of a wider ("secondary") group, particularly when group effects involve the acceptance of political norms. Berelson and his associates (1954) have indeed argued that this is the principal means by which group differences are preserved and that the sharpening of secondary-group differences during an election campaign is the natural consequence of the convergence of opinion within the network of face-to-face groups which forms within a class or other social group. The relationship between primary-group and secondary-group influence is a complex one. The face-to-face group may, for example, determine the receptiveness of the individual to the political standards of the wider group; a worker may owe his attitude toward the trade union to his workmates and be accessible to union political influence only if his co-workers identify positively with the union.

Variation in the strength of individual identification, in the closeness of the symbolic ties or interests which connect group to party, in the clarity of a group’s political standards—all of these can produce differences of group effects over time or between political systems. Comparative measurement has been most satisfactory in the case of social class. Alford (1963) has compared class voting across five nations of the Angle—American culture area, offering a range of explanations for the sharp differences found. Converse (1958) has compared the extent of class voting in America over a 12-year period, proposing that the condition of the economy is a fundamental determinant of the level of class “polarization.”

Political information and public issues. Compared with traditional democratic beliefs, the findings of modern voting research present a sobering account of the information actually possessed by the electorate. Many electors are, of course, well informed, but the gradient of knowledge is so steep that very large parts of the public are, indeed, ignorant of very elementary political facts—such as, in the American case, the identity of the party holding a majority of seats in Congress (Stokes & Miller 1962).

The limits to the public’s information force substantial revision of the liberal democratic view of the role of issues in electoral choice. However reasonable it may have seemed in an era of restricted franchise to think of electors as perceiving the decisions of government in much the same terms as they were seen by the decision makers themselves, such a view is almost wholly fanciful when applied to mass electorates. Contemporary studies which have probed the public’s knowledge of detailed issues leave little doubt that this knowledge is typically slight.

Sometimes the conclusion drawn from such evidence is that issues play no real part in electoral choice, a view which is easily reinforced by evidence that most party loyalties go back far beyond the political issues of the day. This conclusion must be sharply qualified, however, if “issues” is understood to mean something more than the immediate, detailed policy questions confronting government. Many more people, including many long-term partisans, can be shown to have some sort of conception of what the parties or other elites contending for power have done in the past and would be likely to do in the future, and these conceptions are of demonstrable importance for electoral choice. That is to say, the diffuse images of the parties have discernible issue elements, and these help sustain the party loyalties of the relatively committed and help sway the party choices of the less committed (Key 1966).

The cognitive structure of these issue beliefs is still relatively unexplored (Michigan …I960; Converse 1964). It is clear, however, that the parties’ images can differ without the parties actually taking divergent positions as to what government should do. Some of the great issues of electoral politics do involve a marked difference of view both at the elite and mass levels about what ought to be done; America’s entry into the League of Nations presumably was such a position issue. But many issues of electoral importance do not involve such a difference of belief either between the contending party elites or between the parties’ mass supporters. In these cases the parties gain or lose support to the extent that they are associated in the public’s mind with a condition or goal which is valued positively or negatively by the entire electorate. In modern times economic prosperity has been a clear example of such a valence, or image, issue: all of the parties and the entire electorate typically want it, but there may be widely diverging views as to how likely the parties are to achieve it.

A concern with cognitive and motivational elements of the public’s response to issues has broadened the relevance of voting research to the study of a larger political order. Electoral research has an obvious role to play in formulating and testing theories of the party system, such as the models of party competition adumbrated by Hotelling (1929), Smithies (1941), and Downs (1957) on the analogy of economic competition in spatial markets. Equally, an understanding of the public’s response to issues can clarify the normative and descriptive issues of democratic theory, as Jano-witz and Marvick (1956) have argued in their elaboration of the thought of Schumpeter. Clarifying the nature and extent of popular influence in government will require a knowledge of more than what is in the voter’s mind. But all theories of democracy must contain propositions about the public’s response to the actions of government and the proposed actions of those who contend for electoral support. Assessing the adequacy of such propositions is widely recognized as a task for future electoral studies.

Donald E. Stokes

[See alsoElections; Political participation; Public opinion. Directly related are the entriesLegislation, article on Legislative behavior; Parties, Political; Representation, article on Representational behavior. Other relevant material may be found inCommunication, Political; Political behavior; Political sociology.]


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Key, V. O. Jr.; and Munger, Frank J. 1959 Social Determinism and Electoral Decision: The Case of Indiana. Pages 281-299 in Eugene Burdick and Arthur J. Brodbeck (editors), American Voting Behavior. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Lane, Robert E. 1959a Political Life: Why People Get Involved in Politics. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1965.

Lane, Robert E. 1959b Fathers and Sons: The Foundations of Political Belief. American Sociological Review 24:502-510.

Lane, Robert E.; and Sears, David 0. 1964 Public Opinion. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Lazarsfeld, Paul F.; Berelson, Bernard; and Gaudet, Hazel (1944) 1960 The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign. 2d ed. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1960 Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

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views updated Jun 08 2018


The right to vote is a fundamental element of the U.S. system of representative democracy. In this form of government, policy decisions are made by representatives chosen in periodic elections based on the principle of universal suffrage, which requires that all citizens (or at least all competent adults not guilty of serious crimes) be eligible to vote in elections. Democratic governments are premised on political equality. Although individuals are inherently unequal with respect to their talents and virtues, they are deemed equal in their essential worth and dignity as human beings. Each individual has an equal right to participate in politics under the law.

Though these principles of representative democracy and universal suffrage have been idealized throughout U.S. history, citizens often have needed to struggle to make these principles a reality. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution did not explicitly define qualifications for voting but delegated to the states the right to set voting requirements. At the time the Constitution was ratified, property qualifications for voting still existed, and the franchise was granted originally only to white men.

The Growth of Enfranchisement

The movement toward universal suffrage can be traced to the advent of Jacksonian democracy in the 1830s. Property qualifications rapidly diminished for white voters by the beginning of the u.s. civil war. The end of slavery led, in 1870, to the adoption of the fifteenth amendment, which theoretically granted the right to vote to African Americans. It was not until the 1960s, however, that this right became a reality.

The nineteenth amendment, ratified in 1920, removed gender as a qualification for voting. The twenty-fourth amendment, ratified in 1964, abolished poll taxes as prerequisites for voting in federal elections. Finally, the twenty-sixth amendment, ratified in 1971, lowered the voting age to 18. These constitutional amendments reveal the slow movement toward universal suffrage, but it would take court decisions as well as federal legislation to ensure that citizens were not denied their constitutional right to vote.

Attempts at Disenfranchisement

For a hundred years the legislatures of southern and border states used a succession of different types of legislation to disenfranchise African Americans and the members of other minority groups. These laws were challenged in court, leading to a steady stream of decisions that restricted the ability of legislatures to limit voting rights. Beginning in the 1960s, the federal government became actively involved in ending discriminatory voting practices. In addition, the federal government set new procedures for voter registration, which made it easier to register and vote.

Despite the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, African Americans had difficulty exercising their right to vote. In some states, public officials ignored the Fifteenth Amendment, and in other areas, groups such as the ku klux klan used terrorism to prevent African Americans from voting. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down congressional attempts to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment in United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. (2 Otto) 214, 23 L. Ed. 563 (1875). The Court reversed itself in Ex Parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, 4 S. Ct. 152, 28 L. Ed. 274 (1884), yet in the 1880s Congress showed little interest in securing African American voting rights.

Southern and border states realized, however, that the federal government had the power to ensure the enfranchisement of African Americans. Therefore, these states sought ways of excluding African Americans from the political process; such methods appeared neutral but were employed solely against persons of color.

Grandfather Clause The most blatant official means of preventing African Americans from voting was the grandfather clause. First enacted by Mississippi in 1890, this method soon spread throughout the southern and border states. Typically these clauses required literacy tests for all voters whose ancestors had not been entitled to vote prior to 1866. This meant that African Americans were subject to literacy tests arbitrarily administered by white officials, whereas illiterate whites were exempted from this requirement because their ancestors could vote in 1866. In 1915, the Supreme Court struck down Oklahoma's grandfather clause in Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 35 S. Ct. 926, 59 L. Ed. 1340.

Rock the Vote and Motor Voter

The campaign to pass the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973gg et seq.), popularly known as the "motor-voter" law, was led by the Motor Voter Coalition (<>), an umbrella organization of nonpartisan groups. Some of the organizations that participated, such as the League of Women Voters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), had a long history of promoting voting rights. Many secretaries of state, the state officials who administer elections, also supported the NVRA.

The most publicity, however, was attracted by the Rock the Vote organization. Rock the Vote (<>) is a non-partisan group based in Los Angeles, California, that is funded primarily by contributions from the popular music industry. Rock the Vote was established in 1990 to fight music censorship and promote the first amendment through the registration of voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. Soon, however, Rock the Vote became a vocal supporter of the motor-voter bill, which simplifies voter registration and relaxes residency requirements.

Rock the Vote enlisted the help of many famous popular singers, rock bands, and rap artists to encourage the passage of the motor-voter bill. The rock group R.E.M. even included a postcard with one of its recordings that could be sent by a listener to Congress in support of the bill. President bill clinton, who benefited from Rock the Vote's 1992 drive to register young voters, acknowledged the organization's efforts at the bill-signing ceremony on May 20, 1993.

White Primary After the grandfather clause was ruled unconstitutional, southern states adopted the white primary as a way of excluding African Americans from voting in a meaningful way. The democratic party, in many states, adopted a rule excluding African Americans from party membership. The state legislatures worked in concert with the party, closing the party primaries to everyone except party members. Because nomination by the Democratic Party was tantamount to election in these essentially one-party states, African Americans were effectively disenfranchised. The Supreme Court, in Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 64 S. Ct. 757, 88 L. Ed. 987 (1944), struck down the white primary as a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment's prohibition against voting discrimination based on race.

Literacy Tests The end of grandfather clauses and white primaries led to the use of other exclusionary tactics. Many states relied on literacy tests that, despite superficial neutrality, were administered in a racially discriminatory manner. White people rarely had to take the test, even if their literacy was questionable. However, because the Constitution had left the determination of voting qualifications to the states and the literacy tests were on their face racially neutral, the Supreme Court refused to strike them down. Ultimately, Congress abolished literacy tests through the voting rights act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.).

Poll Tax Another less common means of preventing African Americans from voting was the poll tax. At the time the Constitution was adopted, poll taxes were used as a legitimate means of raising revenue. By the 1850s poll taxes had disappeared, but they were revived in the early twentieth century by states seeking to exclude African Americans from the political process. The tax generally amounted to $2 per election, an amount large enough to deter most persons of color, as well as poor whites, from voting.

On its face, the poll tax was racially neutral. The Supreme Court initially upheld the tax in Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277, 58 S. Ct. 205, 82 L. Ed. 252 (1937), but over time it became clear that it was being used in a racially discriminatory manner. The Twenty-fourth Amendment, ratified in 1963, abolished the use of the poll tax in federal elections. In 1966, the Supreme Court, in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663, 86 S. Ct. 1079, 16 L. Ed. 2d 169, struck down the use of poll taxes in state and local elections, ruling that such taxes violated the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment.

Voting Reforms

Voting Rights Act of 1965 The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a watershed event in U.S. history. For the first time the federal government undertook voting reforms that had traditionally been left to the states. The act prohibits the states and their political subdivisions from imposing voting qualifications or prerequisites to voting, or standards, practices, or procedures that deny or curtail the right of a U.S. citizen to vote because of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. The act was extended in 1970 and again in 1982, when its provisions were renewed for an additional 25 years.

Southern states challenged the legislation as a dangerous attack on states' rights, but the Supreme Court, in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 86 S. Ct. 803, 15 L. Ed. 2d 769 (1966), upheld the constitutionality of the act, despite the fact that the law was, in the words of Chief Justice earl warren, "inventive."

The initial act covered the seven states in the South that had used poll taxes, literacy tests, and other devices to obstruct registration by African Americans. Under the law, a federal court can appoint federal examiners, who are authorized to place qualified persons on the list of eligible voters. The act waived accumulated poll taxes and abolished literacy tests and similar devices in those areas to which the statute applied.

In addition, the act (under Section 5) required the seven states to obtain "preclearance" from the justice department or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before making changes in the electoral system. The 1982 extension of the act revised this provision, extending it to all states. This means that a voter may challenge a voting practice or procedure on the ground that it is racially discriminatory either by intent or by effect.

Motor Voter Laws A state has the right to require bona fide residency as a prerequisite to the exercise of the right to vote in its elections. The courts have also upheld durational residency requirements (how long a person must have resided in the state) for voting. Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, many states began to abandon durational requirements, making it possible for a new resident to register to vote when he applies for a state driver's license. This "motor voter" statute was first enacted in Minnesota (Minn. Stat. Ann. § 201.161 [1992]) in 1992. By year's end, 27 states had some form of motor voter law. Congress eliminated durational residency requirements for voting with the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973gg et seq.). The act allows anyone over the age of 18 to register to vote while obtaining a driver's license.


Guaranteeing an individual the right to vote does not necessarily mean that the voters in a particular district have the same voting strength as voters in another district. Since the 1960s, however, the implementation of the concept of one person, one vote has meant that unreasonable disparities in voting strength have been eliminated. Nevertheless, racially discriminatory dilutions of voting strength have led the federal courts to become intimately involved in the drawing of election districts.

One Person, One Vote The Supreme Court, in reynolds v. sims, 377 U.S. 533, 84 S. Ct. 1362, 12 L. Ed. 2d 506 (1964), established the principle of "one person, one vote" based on the equal protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision resulted in almost every state's redrawing its legislative districts and in the shifting of power from rural to urban areas. All subsequent constitutional law on apportionment has relied on the principles established in Reynolds.

Until the Reynolds decision, most state legislatures gave more seats to sparsely populated rural areas than to heavily populated urban areas. Because rural legislators controlled the legislature and had a vested interest in perpetuating this apportionment scheme, legislative change had proved impossible. In Reynolds the Supreme Court concluded that to permit the minority to have power over the majority would be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The dilution of the weight of a person's vote because of where that person lives qualified as invidious discrimination, just as if the decision had been based on that person's race or financial status. Therefore, the Court required that "each citizen have an equally effective voice in the election of members of his state legislature."

Racially Discriminatory Apportionment The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave the courts the right to review racially discriminatory election districts. The federal courts have struck down at-large elections, in which a number of officials are chosen to represent the district, as opposed to an arrangement under which each of the officials represents one smaller district or ward. Southern cities where whites were in the majority used the at-large election system to perpetuate all-white rule. Courts have required the creation of smaller wards or districts that give African Americans and other protected groups a reasonable opportunity to elect a person of color to city council.

Racial Gerrymandering The courts have also tackled the issue of racial gerrymandering, which is the intentional manipulation of legislative districts for political purposes. In these cases, districts have been drawn in bizarre shapes to include or exclude voters of a particular race.

In early cases white politicians gerrymandered districts to prevent African Americans from having any voting strength. In the 1990s, the debate moved to the legitimacy of creating, under the authority of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, unusually shaped congressional districts to ensure that they contained a majority of minority voters. The perceived hope was that minority unity would lead to the elections of persons of color. The Supreme Court, in shaw v. hunt, 517 U.S. 899, 116 S. Ct. 1894, 135 L. Ed. 2d 207 (1996), ruled that the redrawing of a North Carolina congressional district into a "bizarre-looking" shape in order to include a majority of African Americans could not be justified by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice sandra day o'connor found it "unsettling how closely the North Carolina plan resembles the most egregious racial gerrymandering of the past." O'Connor agreed that prior cases had never made race-conscious redistricting "impermissible in all circumstances," yet agreed with the white plaintiffs that the redistricting was "so extremely irregular on its face that it rationally can be viewed only as an effort to segregate races for purposes of voting, without regard for traditional districting principles and without sufficiently compelling justification."

The Supreme Court continued its review of allegedly racially gerrymandered districts in Abrams v. Johnson, 521 U.S. 74, 117 S.Ct. 1925, 138 L.Ed.2d 285 (1997). The Court upheld a legislative redistricting plan that reduced from three to one the number of majority-black congressional districts in Georgia. The Court supported the district court's decision not to preserve three majority-black districts because the area's African American population was not sufficiently compact to sustain three, or even two, districts. According to the ruling, drawing multiple districts would have resulted in racial gerrymandering. The Court also ruled that the plan's creation of only one majority-black district would not violate the Voting Rights Act by causing retrogression in the political position of African American citizens. It noted that in the 1992 elections, held under the challenged plan, all three African American incumbents won reelection, two of whom while running against white candidates from majority-white districts. This confirmed for the Court that the plan was not discriminatory.

In Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board, 528 U.S. 320, 120 S.Ct. 866, 145 L.Ed.2d 845 (2000), the Supreme Court effectively resolved the relationship between Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 applies to all 50 states, while Section 5 applies to seven southern states (including Louisiana) that had used poll taxes, literacy tests, and other devices to obstruct registration by African Americans. The Court ruled that a redistricting plan may be precleared under Section 5, even if the proposed plan might seemingly violate Section 2. As a result, the Court reversed 25 years of federal policy by limiting the power of the Justice Department to block proposed redistricting changes for state and local elections.

African American citizens of Bossier Parish, Louisiana, objected to a redistricting plan drawn up by the Bossier Parish School Board, which had been precleared under Section 5 by the Justice Department. They argued that Section 2 barred the plan because it denied the creation of several majority-black districts. When it was supplied with evidence of possible discrimination and an alternative redistricting plan by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), the Justice Department moved to block the original preclearance. The school board challenged the decision before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court held that Section 5 was intended by Congress to prevent backsliding by states that had a history of past voter discrimination. As long as the new plan did not increase the degree of discrimination (which they felt it did not), it was not retrogressive, and therefore was entitled to Section 5 preclearance.

Voting Procedures

The passage of the federal motor voter law eliminated restrictive voter registration requirements. A person may now register when applying for a state driver's license. In addition, a person may register at the polling place in his voting district by showing a state driver's license and having two witnesses vouch for him. Persons who are not able to vote at a polling place on election day may apply for an absentee ballot and vote ahead of time. These ballots are not opened until after the polls close on election day.

Since 1884, the United States has used the secret ballot. Originally paper ballots were used, but in many areas of the United States mechanical voting machines are employed. Voting systems are also in place in which a machine optically scans a paper ballot and tabulates the votes for each office. Enhanced technology has allowed quicker reporting of results and fewer arithmetical errors. Nevertheless, candidates may ask for a recount of the ballots, and in circumstances where the vote is very close or where fraud is alleged, each ballot is examined for accuracy and compliance with the law. The 2000 presidential election results in the state of Florida provided a vivid lesson in the complications that can arise from poor ballot design.

Generally the results of each election race are reported to a local board, which certifies the result to the state's secretary of state. The secretary, in turn, reviews the results and issues an official certificate of election to the successful candidate.

further readings

Abramowitz, Alan. 2004. Voice of the People: Elections and Voting in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Burke, Christopher M. 1999. The Appearance of Equality: Racial Gerrymandering, Redistricting, and the Supreme Court. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.

Festa, Matthew J. 2001. "The Origins and Constitutionality of State Unit Voting in the Electoral College." Vanderbilt Law Review 54 (October).


Absentee Voting; Baker v. Carr; Civil Rights; Equal Protection; Gerrymander; Independent Parties; Republican Party; "Voting Rights Act of 1965" (Appendix, Primary Document); Women's Rights.


views updated May 23 2018








Voting is the central act of democracy, the method by which citizens influence the policy of the state by holding the leaders who represent them accountable for their decisions. It is also the means by which elected leaders make decisions in legislatures, and it is used outside government in businesses, civic organizations, social groups, and families in every modern society. This entry focuses on voting for elected offices because that type of voting defines democracy.


Does voting make a difference? Almost all political scientists agree that political leaders in democracies respond to voters in a way that leaders in undemocratic, or authoritarian, countries do not. Because representatives in democracies are accountable to voters, they are much more likely to do things that benefit large sectors of society (rather than their friends and families)for example, providing public goods such as infrastructure, public safety, and education and adhering to the rule of law rather than relying on arbitrary decisions about who should have access to government resources.

Political leaders in authoritarian countries are not entirely unaccountable to ordinary citizens. They must provide at least minimal government services or they eventually will face revolt or at the very least citizens who express their displeasure by cheating the system, refusing to do what they are told when no one is watching, and engaging in other subtle forms of resistance. When politicians must compete against one another for votes, the degree of accountability to ordinary citizens is much higher, much as merchants in a competitive marketplace offer better prices and higher quality than does a seller with a monopoly.

Though voting is clearly important for society as a whole, the question of why individuals vote is more problematic: One vote among thousands seems to matter very little. This is a classic example of a collective action problem in which many people working together can produce something that benefits them all but any individuals contribution adds little to the whole and its absence will not be missed; as a result any particular person has little incentive to contribute. For the individual, then, voting appears to be irrational because one vote would not change the outcome but voters and nonvoters alike share the results.

In some political systems politicians solve this problem by trading money or favors to the citizens who are willing to vote for them, a practice known as patronage. Although this strategy motivates people to vote, most scholars believe it compromises the nature of democracy. Another strategy is to instill civic pride and responsibility in voters so that they see voting as an important part of their role in the community. This strategy also can work for dedicated groups within a larger society, such as labor unions, which often expend a great deal of effort encouraging their members to vote. Some societies even adopt compulsory voting, forcing citizens who do not vote to pay fines. Also, whatever people perceive the benefits of voting to be, they are more likely to vote if casting a vote is easy to do.

In part because politicians, parties, and governments in different countries have adopted different strategies to encourage citizens to vote and in part because of differences in political cultures among countries, levels of voter turnout vary dramatically from one country to the next and often change over time. The United States, for example, had lower voter turnout rates throughout the twentieth century than those of most other rich democracies, and that pattern continued into the twenty-first century; however, turnout rates in most Western European countries declined after the 1970s, whereas U.S. rates remained stable over that period among eligible voters (though the presence of increasing numbers of noncitizens and disenfranchised convicts in the population created the appearance of a decline in U.S. turnouts). Especially low turnouts can call the legitimacy of elections into question because actual voters may not be representative of society as whole. Because poorer and less educated voters are less likely to turn out than are their fellow citizens, low turnouts harm parties that draw more support from those voters.


Voting dates at least from ancient times, with well-known examples including the Greek city-state of Athens, the republic of Rome, and the direct ancestors of modern legislatures: the assemblies, or parliaments, of medieval Europe. In all those cases the only people allowed to vote were males who held important social positions (members of the nobility or clergy) or owned a certain amount of property; the vast majority of adults, including women, could not vote.

The fight to create democratic government in Europe was therefore as much a fight over who got to vote as it was a fight over whether the king or the parliament would be supreme. Disenfranchised groups placed the right to vote at the forefront of their fights for equality both for its symbolic importance as the mark of full citizenship and because it gave them the political power to pursue other goals. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries pressure from the lower classes, often organized by labor unions, resulted in the lowering of property qualifications until finally universal male suffrage became the norm throughout Europe and the Americas. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, those countries witnessed a push to give women the right to vote, and by the late twentieth century nearly every country in the world had adopted universal suffrage.

As a result the right to vote ceased to be the true measure of democracy because authoritarians found ways to give people the right to vote without turning over real political power. One example was the American South, where the United States freed black slaves and gave them the right to vote after the Civil War ended in 1865. Strict requirements such as literacy tests and poll taxes (requirements usually waived for poor, uneducated whites) prevented blacks from voting until those measures were overturned by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the first decade of the twenty-first century laws in many U.S. states that prevented convicts and even ex-convicts from voting continued to affect blacks disproportionately.

A far more popular strategy has been to ban all political parties other than the ruling party or to make it difficult for other parties to organize and campaign. A more subtle method to reduce the power of the vote is the practice of patronage, or machine politics, in which politicians trade money or favors for votes; this practice was easier to implement before the secret ballot was adopted in most countries in the late nineteenth century, but politicians have devised numerous ways to reward loyalty and punish disloyalty even when votes are secret. Those politicians are accountable to voters, but there is little political competition; the politicians are political monopolists and are less responsive to voters than are politicians in a competitive system.

In a society with deep ethnic, racial, or national divisions, the members of each ethnic group typically vote only for politicians and parties of their own group. Some scholars consider ethnic solidarity in voting a reasonable exercise in self-determination, especially when minority groups attempt to oppose an oppressive majority. However, other scholars argue that not only does this situation produce a monopolistic relationship between leaders and voters that encourages patronage, but when the majority as well as the minority votes along ethnic lines, the majority wins every election and the minority has little reason to participate in the political system, a situation that leads to conflict that may turn violent.

In some countries legislators represent districts with unequal numbers of constituents, giving voters in smaller districts more power. This normally happens for historical reasons (for example, when people move from rural districts to urban ones), but parties with strong support in the smaller districts typically oppose any changes. In addition, officeholders sometimes gerrymander district boundaries, drawing them so that even if districts are equal in size, they tend to favor the election of one party or of incumbents in general.

Even when everyone has an equal right to vote and elections are competitive, casting votes may be difficult. In the United States citizens must register to vote before an election, and this requires extra time and effort. By contrast, in many countries all adult citizens are automatically eligible to vote. The actual act of voting may be problematic as well, especially when elections are held on working days or transportation to the polls is difficult to obtain. Low levels of education also may pose a barrier because people who cannot read or understand complex political concepts may have little ability to choose candidates wisely and little interest in doing so. Negative campaign ads and bad weather discourage many voters, strengthening the role of the most dedicated (and typically most extreme). Some scholars have argued that voters can grow apathetic as a result of election fatigue resulting from multiple elections within a specific period or multiple races at each election. The United States, with its many state and local as well as national elections, provides a clear example of this problem. Because many barriers to voting disproportionately affect the poor and less educated, efforts to raise or lower those barriers often become the objects of political dispute, with parties that draw more votes from the affected groups arguing for lower barriers.

At the other end of the spectrum the ability to provide campaign contributions or mobilize voters may give rich individuals and well-organized groups a more powerful voice in elections. Though all countries have restrictions on these sorts of activities, it seems unlikely that those advantages can be eliminated completely, and some scholars argue that private funding of political causes is necessary to provide true opposition to the government in power.


Except in a few small communities where citizens vote directly on every issue, voters elect representatives to a legislature and, in some countries, executive offices such as the presidency. The first traditional method of electing legislatures is single-member districts (SMDs), in which the candidate who receives the most votes is elected; in countries with presidential systems presidents usually are elected this way. SMDs tend to produce two-party systems because parties with similar ideologies are more likely to win in each district by uniting. This system encourages direct accountability of representatives to a set of constituents, and this can make individual politicians more important than parties; however, the presence of only two parties gives voters a clear choice.

The other traditional form of voting is proportional representation (PR), in which each district elects many representatives and people vote for parties rather than individual candidates, with each party receiving a share of seats in the legislature proportional to its vote (in a rare variant known as the single transferable vote system [STV] voters actually vote for individual candidates, listing them in order of preference, but the system nonetheless produces proportional representation of parties). PR produces multiparty systems, requiring parties to form coalitions to rule. Because people vote for parties in PR systems, parties are usually strong and have clear platforms. In addition, voters never fear that their votes will be wasted as a result of their living in districts where their parties are always in the minority.

Because of this, it is thought that PR systems favor minorities whose members are spread evenly across geographical districts: In an SMD system a minority that is a minority in every district will win no seats, whereas in a PR system it will win a percentage equal to its share of the population. In practice, however, a minority that would lose every seat in an SMD system would end up with a minority in a PR system and thus, despite having symbolically important seats in the legislature, would be unable to pass legislation unless it could take part in a coalition (and a coalition would work equally well to gain a majority in SMDs), though in most legislatures a sizable minority may be able to block certain legislation or at least prevent constitutional amendments.

This concern applies most clearly when an electoral minority is a permanent one, as is the case in an ethnically divided country. In a competitive democracy, whether SMD or PR, the greatest barrier to tyranny of the majority is that no majority is permanent and therefore the members of the current majority have incentives both to treat potential future allies in the current minority well and to institutionalize respect for the minority because they themselves will be in the minority eventually.

Some countries have adopted other systems in an attempt to combine the best features of SMDs and PR. An open-list PR system allows voters to choose specific candidates within each party. An SMD system with a primary election allows voters to choose among competing candidates with similar ideologies in the primary. This narrows the choice in the general election to a clear one between two (or at most a few) candidates; holding a runoff if no candidate wins a majority in an election works in much the same way. Multiple voting allows each voter to vote for several different candidates in one district; each voter receives a number of votes equal to the number of offices to be filled, with all candidates competing against one another. An SMD system with alternative voting lets voters rank candidates in order of preference, allowing someone to support a first-choice party without hurting the chances of a second-choice party to win out over parties the voter dislikes; like STV, this is a rare variant. A few countries have adopted a mixed system in which some representatives are chosen in SMDs and others are elected by PR.

Older democracies tend to use one system or another for historical reasons. Newer democracies and those that have undergone major constitutional reforms are more likely to use systems like those of neighboring countries or their former colonial rulers (SMDs in the Americas and PR in Europe, for example) or to use one of the new systems.

In addition to electing representatives and executive officers such as presidents, voters sometimes vote directly on important issues, especially constitutions or constitutional amendments. This practice, called a referendum, was pioneered by Switzerland and has become increasingly common throughout the world.


Voting is also important within legislatures: Governments and laws must be approved by a majority of representatives. Secret ballots are uncommon in legislatures because they make it difficult for constituents to hold legislators accountable. In addition, when parties are strong, legislators almost always vote as their party leaders direct. The result is that a government in a system with strong parties wins nearly every vote, especially in the typical parliamentary system, where a government must have a majority of the seats in the legislature to take power in the first place.

The electoral systems used outside government often mimic governmental systems. For example, the members of a large club usually elect a board of directors and a president and other executive officers. However, there may be important differences. For example, many organizations use open voting rather than a secret ballot, and in corporations the shareholders have as many votes as they own shares rather than one vote each.


Many factors enter into citizens decisions about how to vote, and with the exception of ethnicity in an ethnically divided country no single factor overshadows the rest. Profession and economic class, religion, gender, region, the values instilled by parents, and longtime identification with a party can all play a role, as can events during the lifetime of a voter, such as the Great Depression and the 9/11 attacks. This complexity is probably for the best because having voters pulled in many different directions by cross-pressures tends to moderate conflicts and forces politicians to compete for votes.

Researchers generally agree, however, that except in patronage systems, voters rarely vote on the basis of narrow self-interest; they are more likely to vote on the basis of the interests of a large social group or the country as a whole. Citizens also tend to vote retrospectively, rewarding or punishing incumbents for the results of previous years, especially economic results, rather than guessing how candidates may perform in the future.

SEE ALSO Compulsory Voting; Democracy; Elections; Electoral Systems; Party Systems, Competitive; Political Parties; Suffrage, Womens; Vote, Alternative; Voting Patterns; Voting Rights Act; Voting Schemes; Womens Movement


Campbell, Angus, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. New York: Wiley.

Lawson, Steven F. 2003. Civil Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community, and the Black Freedom Struggle. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

LeDuc, Lawrence, Richard G. Niemi, and Pippa Norris, eds. 2002. Comparing Democracies 2: New Challenges in the Study of Elections and Voting. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Niemi, Richard G., and Herbert F. Weisberg, eds. 2001. Controversies in Voting Behavior. 4th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Popkin, Samuel L. 1994. The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rae, Douglas W. 1967. The Political Consequences of Electoral Laws. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Weatherford, Doris. 1998. A History of the American Suffragist Movement. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Scott D. Orr


views updated May 23 2018


The right to vote forms the basis of the democratic ideal. For the individual, it symbolizes the fundamental requisite of citizenship; for the polity, it provides legitimacy without which governing institutions in a democratic society could not function. Voting is thus the currency of the social contract formed between the government and the governed in any democratic nation. When individuals vote, they tacitly consent to be governed by those who win elections—no matter for whom they vote. When individuals are granted the right to vote, the democratic nation reaffirms the compact with its citizenry to remain a government—in the words of Lincoln—"of the people, by the people, and for the people."

An analysis of voting rights in the United States from the late colonial period through the early decades of the nineteenth century reveals a good deal about the limited nature of democracy in the United States at that time, about existing concepts of citizenship and who counted as one of "the people," and about the social contract formed by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that lie at the basis of America's liberal system of government. Ultimately, however, a look at voting rights during these formative years tells the United States how far it has come to make good on the promise of the democratic ideal of inclusion and participation.

Throughout the colonial period, British-style class hierarchies dominated the concepts of political rights and voting. To be sure, each colony had leeway in crafting its own sets of laws and regulations, but the one outstanding requirement for the franchise across the thirteen colonies consisted in some form of landed property qualification. This requirement essentially disenfranchised all servants and laborers. The first colony to put in place a property qualification for voting was Connecticut in 1715; Delaware followed in 1734. Later in the eighteenth century, a handful of the colonies began to relax these laws—mostly to sustain the support of lowerclass Englishmen. These changes usually occurred in the more populous colonies. On the eve of the Revolution, however, only five colonies had lowered personal property requirements as well as landowning requirements. Furthermore, throughout the colonial period, and throughout the colonies themselves, laws were constructed to reinforce the notion that "citizenship" in America really meant "British citizenship." For example, in 1762 Virginia passed a statute denying the right to vote to free blacks, mulattoes, women, minors (under twenty-one), Native Americans, and non-Protestants—especially Catholics, who were specifically banned.

The Revolutionary War swept away the shackles of the British Crown, but not necessarily the property qualifications for voting. The universal equality Thomas Jefferson so eloquently referred to in the Declaration of Independence extended only so far. And yet some states were less restrictive than others. In its state constitution of 1777, Georgia allowed any white male to vote who had lived in the state for six months and who "possessed in his own right of 10 pounds value, and liable to pay tax in the state, or being of any mechanic trade." The year before, Maryland had declared any "freeman" eligible to vote if he owned fifty acres of property above the value of thirty pounds. He also had to have been in the country for more than one year. In 1784 New Hampshire permitted any male to cast a ballot who paid a poll tax at the time of voting. By contrast, in 1778 South Carolina barred anyone from voting who was not a white male, who had not been in the state for at least a year, and who either did not own fifty acres of land for six months or was not eligible to pay a tax at least six months before the election. During the Revolutionary era, only four states did not disenfranchise women by state statute or constitutional provision: Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Of these, only New Jersey explicitly allowed women to vote, but just until 1807.

the constitution

In 1787 the federal Constitution was written. It consolidated power in the national government and created a federalist system in which two sovereign entities—the national government and the state governments—acted upon the citizen, sometimes simultaneously, and at times even ambiguously. For example, it took more than a century after the ratification of the Constitution for the courts to settle the question of whether the Bill of Rights actually applied to the state governments (what is known in jurisprudence as "dual citizenship"). Yet, nowhere are these ambiguities clearer than in the area of voting rights. To be sure, the original document is almost totally silent on some of the fundamental questions of voting rights—who has them, who does not, who should have them, who should not, and so on. Article I, section 2 states 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." Thus, while the "people" in each state have the right to elect their representatives to Congress, it remains up to the states to determine who the "people" are. Issues such as race, gender, and age are left unaddressed, and would remain unaddressed until the ratification of, respectively, the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-sixth Amendments.

Article I, section 3 states: "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." Not until the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 did "the people" have the right to directly elect their senators. This task had previously been left to the state legislatures who, once again, were elected by "the people" as determined by state law. As early as the 1820s, however, individuals running for the U.S. Senate were campaigning amongst the "people" in their states, imploring them to elect as state lawmakers only those who would in turn elect them to Senate.

Finally, and perhaps best known, the president of the United States was originally chosen through the electoral college, a group of individuals who were chosen, as stated in Article II, section 1, by each state "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct." In the early national period, the state legislatures chose the electors directly; over time, state after state changed its laws so that the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in the state would receive all the electoral votes of the state. (At the turn of the twenty-first century, only Maine and Nebraska do not have this winner-take-all system.)

This brief review of how the Constitution dealt—or did not deal—with the voting rights of American citizens is significant because to a large extent it left the status quo in place: After the ratification of the Constitution, it was still left to the states to determine who was eligible to vote in all elections—state and federal. A person qualified to vote for the House of Representatives in one state might not be qualified to vote for the same office in a different state simply because the qualifications for voting were different from state to state.

race and suffrage requirements

In fact, the qualifications varied markedly from state to state. And yet, as the eighteenth century closed and the nineteenth century commenced, a set of patterns began to emerge across the country, cutting across state lines. First, state after state began to drop the property qualifications for voting as they had applied to the largely white male electorate. Vermont

States Restricting the Franchise to White Males
StateYear Enacted
South Carolina1790
New Jersey1807
Illinois and Connecticut1818
North Carolina1835
Florida and Texas1845
West Virginia1863

dropped its qualification in 1786, five years before statehood. Kentucky followed in 1792, the year it attained statehood. Maryland followed shortly thereafter. As the nineteenth century progressed, most states decided to follow suit. By 1855, only three states had some form of property qualification for voting: New York, Rhode Island, and South Carolina. In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, South Carolina finally dropped its property qualification, the last state to do so.

At the same time property qualifications were being lowered, however, another pattern emerged: racial barriers to voting were put in place by state legislatures in all regions of the country. Table 1 reveals the states restricting the franchise to white males along with the years that they were enacted.

In a constitutional amendment of 1821, New York allowed black males to vote, provided they had $250 worth of property. Only four states did not disenfranchise blacks throughout this period: Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Rhode Island disenfranchised blacks in 1822 and then reenfranchised them in the wake of the Dorr War in 1842, primarily because a black militia patrolled the streets of Providence during the insurrection, thus proving their loyalty. The Law and Order Party rewarded blacks by granting them the right to vote after the rebellion was quashed.

Once again it should be emphasized that these two developments—the move toward universal white male suffrage on the one hand, and the racial restriction on suffrage on the other—happened state by state over the course of the opening decades of the nineteenth century. The national government played no role in these developments. Given the way in which these two developments unfolded during this period, what explanations can be offered?

Three different but related factors can be identified in seeking to understand how voting rights changed in this period. While all revolve around the issue of slavery and race, the first is economic in nature, the second is political, and the third is ideological.

From 1790 to 1820, the size of the country increased by two and one-half times. Landless white immigrants flooded to the United States in this thirty-year stretch. Slavery was proliferating in the South while blacks were being freed through gradual manumission in the North. At the same time, there was a small but significant free black population in the South. Blacks and poor whites began to compete at the lowest rung of the economic ladder in the North and parts of the South. The economic competition bred racial conflict.

Landless whites began to push for changes in voting laws across the states. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, political leaders saw the potential of this new stream of voters into the electorate and took advantage of it. Democratic Republican leaders like Martin Van Buren in New York pushed vigorously for the lowering of the property requirements in their home states. Many scholars have looked to Van Buren as one of the architects of Jacksonian democracy, built upon a white working-class ideology and fueled by the sustained electoral mobilization of landless white male voters. In 1824, about 365,000 votes were cast for president. Four years later, that figure tripled. Politicians—mainly Jacksonian Democrats—seeking to build a solid political party base saw the enormous potential of universal white male suffrage and moved on it.

But in order for them to do so, two things had to occur: first, a wedge had to be placed between poor whites and poor blacks. The economic conflict mentioned above was a natural starting point. Second, there had to be a justification for disenfranchising blacks and relegating them to second-class citizenship. Here the ideological component becomes vital. It is no coincidence that, at the very moment poor white males were granted the vote and black males were disenfranchised, the "science" of white supremacy emerged. Reginald Horsman's Race and Manifest Destiny (1981) speaks eloquently to this movement. In order to justify slavery in the South and deny blacks the rights of citizenship in the North, whites had to make the case that blacks were inferior and that the United States should be a "white republic." This sentiment reached its apex when Chief Justice Roger Taney declared in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) that blacks were never considered citizens of the United States because they were an inherently inferior race.

In many ways, then, the expansion of voting rights for white men and the contraction of voting rights for black men have their origins in the same movement. That movement was the creation of mass-based political parties and the advent of Jacksonian democracy.

See alsoAfrican Americans: Free Blacks in the North; African Americans: Free Blacks in the South; Democratization .


Bartley, Numan V., and Hugh D. Graham. Southern Politics and the Second Reconstruction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Black, Earl. Politics and Society in the South. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

——. The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Borden, Morton. Parties and Politics in the Early Republic, 1789–1815. New York: Crowell, 1967.

Carrol, Peter N., and David W. Noble. The Free and the Unfree: A New History of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Dawson, Michael C. Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Glaser, James M. Race, Campaign Politics, and the Realignment in the South. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest among Northern Free Blacks, 1700–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Smith, Rogers. Civil Ideals: Conflicting Visions of American Citizenship in U.S. History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Christopher Malone


views updated May 17 2018


California Court Restores Voting Rights to Prisoners

The California 1st District Court of Appeals in December 2006 restored voting rights to about 100,000 inmates serving a year or less for felony convictions in local jails. These rights had been suspended when Secretary of State Bruce McPhearson determined that those who served short-term sentences in county jails were not eligible to vote under the California Constitution. These rights were restored permanently when the State of California decided not to appeal the decision.

The first California Constitution in 1849 included a provision that permanently disenfranchised anyone who was "convicted of any infamous crime." The courts struggled in several cases with the meaning of "convicted." In Stephens v. Toomey, 51 Cal. 2d 864, 338 P.2d 182 (1959), the California Supreme Court determined that a person against whom a guilty verdict had been rendered, but whose sentence had been suspended, had not been "convicted" for purposes of determining whether the convicted person was disenfranchised. In 1960, a proposed amendment to the constitution would have eliminated voting rights for those who were on parole or probation but would have reinstated voting rights to those who had paid the penalties imposed by law. The California Legislature never adopted this proposal.

A 1972 amendment to the constitution established that persons who were "under court order" but who were not "under sentence" retained their voting rights. This amendment also retained the "infamous crime" language, which had begun to give the courts problems. In 1973, the California Supreme Court considered whether the state could continue to disenfranchise those who had been convicted of an "infamous crime." In Ramirez v. Brown, 9 Cal. 3d 199, 107 Cal. Rptr. 137, 507 P.2d 1345 (1973), the court held that the California provision violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because its denial of the right to vote of all ex-felons was not the least restrictive method of protecting the ballot box against voters who may be morally corrupt or dishonest.

In response to Ramirez in 1974, California approved article II, section 4, which established the modern restrictions on the voting power of certain prisoners. The text of the provision provides as follows: "The Legislature shall prohibit improper practices that affect elections and shall provide for the disqualification of electors while mentally incompetent or imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony." Previous secretaries of state established that this provision only disenfranchised those persons who were serving time in a state prison as a result of a felony conviction, or who were on parole from a felony conviction. Opinions issued by former officials indicated that the law did not apply to those who were on probation due to a felony conviction.

McPhearson in November 2005 asked the California Attorney General Bill Lockyer for an opinion about whether a person who is incarcerated in a local detention facility for the conviction of a felony was eligible to vote. Lockyer departed from prior interpretations and deter-mined that article II, section 4 applied not only to those felons who were serving time in state prisons or who were on parole, but also to those who were confined at a local jail as a condition of probation. Lockyer's opinion focused on the term "imprisoned" in the constitution and concluded that the meaning of the term should not exclude those who served time in a local jail. Moreover, the attorney general determined that the California Legislature never gave an indication that it intended to grant voting rights to those who were in custody, even if custody meant a local detention facility.

McPherson responded to the opinion in December 2005 by issuing a memorandum to all county clerks and registrars of voters, ordering them to cancel voter registrations for all person who were imprisoned or on parole for conviction of a felony. According to the memo, "Where the sentence is physically served is immaterial with respect to voting eligibility, the fact of a felony conviction is what triggers the restriction on the felon's voting rights."

The League of Women Voters of California (represented by the American Civil Liberties Union), along with other voter and groups who advocate prisoners' rights brought suit against McPherson and others in the First District Court of Appeal of California. This type of case fell within a limited category of cases where the appellate court had original jurisdiction to hear the case. The petitioners asked the court to issue an order directing the Secretary of State and the San Francisco Director of Elections to allow prisoners held in local jails to register to vote. According to these petitioners, the opinion adopted by McPherson and Lockyer was overly broad.

The court, in an opinion by Associate Justice William Stein, agreed with the petitioners. According to Stein, the Attorney General's opinion focused too heavily on the definition of the term "imprisoned" and disregarded the distinction between a person who is confined to a local jail as condition of probation and a person who is imprisoned in a state prison for a felony conviction. Stein noted that the history of the 1974 amendment shows that the legislature intended not to disenfranchise those who are on probation and that the Attorney General's opinion "ignored decades of judicial construction without regard for the history of the constitutional provision or the purpose of the 1974 amendment." Accordingly, the court ordered McPherson to inform various clerks and registrars that the constitution's prohibition only applies to those imprisoned in state prison or those who are on parole for the conviction of a felony. League of Women Voters of Cal. v. McPherson, 145 Cal. App. 4th 1469, 52 Cal. Rptr. 3d 585 (Ct. App. 2006).

Spokespersons for the ACLU said that most of the people affected by McPherson's actions were young men, often racial or ethnic minorities, who had not committee violent crimes. Probation officers also noted that the restoration of these voter's rights would help in the rehabilitation of these inmates.

Voter Identification Laws Receive Court Scrutiny

Following the 2000 national elections, Congress passed the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), P.L. 107-252, 116 Stat. 1666. The new law, addressing all aspects of the election and voting process, was implemented with sequential deadlines that started in December 2002 and ended in January 2007.

HAVA Title III set minimum national standards for the kind of identification voters must present at the polls before being allowed to vote. HAVA mandated that states require identification at the polls for all first-time voters who registered by mail, if the registration did not require identification. In addition, voters who had not voted in the previous election would now be required to provide identification.

Under HAVA, there are two approved forms of identification: photo and non-photo. Any current and valid government-issued photo identification (e.g., driver's license, passport, etc.) meets the photo ID requirement. Otherwise, a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, or other government document that shows a voter's name and address meets the non-photo ID requirement.

Originally, the Commission on Federal Election Reform (commonly known as the Carter-Baker Commission, named for the co-chairs, former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker III) contemplated a national voter identification card, Real ID. However, amid resistance and objections from many influential citizen organizations, a national ID card was, at least for 2007, shelved.

As new voter ID laws were implemented in compliance with HAVA, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that by February 2007, a minimum of 24 states had opted for broader voter identification requirements than what HAVA mandated. In these states, all voters must present identification prior to voting, and a minimum of seven of these states require photo ID. Notwithstanding, no voters are turned away if they fail to produce appropriate ID; all states have individual procedures to address this.

Several states had their laws challenged in court. In Arizona v. Gonzalez, consolidated Nos. 06-532 and 06-533, 549 U.S. ――― (2006), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Arizona's photo ID requirement as well as its requirement that voters prove their U.S. citizenship. The ruling vacated a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that had suspended those requirements pending further litigation.

In October 2006, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals came to the opposite conclusion in Perdue v. Lake, upholding an injunction barring the state of Georgia from enforcing its photo ID requirement, at least through the November 2006 elections. However, when the case was considered on the merits in June 2007, the Supreme Court of Georgia found that the sole plaintiff in the case did not have legal standing to challenge the law. This was because the plaintiff failed to show harm. She presented no evidence as to why she could not have voted in person without showing a photo ID, since she qualified as a first-time voter who had registered by mail and therefore needed only to show an acceptable document identifying her. She showed no evidence that she lacked such an acceptable document. Second, the plaintiff did possess an acceptable form of photo ID under the 2006 Voter ID law, a public transportation pass card that she had been using. The Court ordered the case dismissed. Meanwhile, Georgia's list of acceptable forms of ID is now much broader and includes some forms without photo identification.

In Indiana Democratic Partyv. Rokita, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Indiana's Photo ID law as constitutional in January 2007. It upheld a lower court decision that the law did not unduly burden the right to vote. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Indiana Democratic Party had claimed that the law would discourage voters from casting ballots, an argument that the appellate court discounted.

In October 2006, the Missouri State Supreme Court struck down that state's photo ID law. Earlier in the year, the state legislature had tightened its existing law by adding the requirement for photo ID, which was immediately challenged. But the state's high court found the law burdened the fundamental right to vote and violated the equal protection provisions of the Missouri Constitution. The problem was that the law allowed only four types of acceptable identification. Weinschenk v. State of Missouri, et al. The list of acceptable forms of ID has since been broadened and includes some forms without photo identification.

Ohio's photo ID law was temporarily suspended by the secretary of state for the 2006 national elections, but would be effective for future elections. The case that triggered the hold, Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and Service Employees International Union v. Blackwell case was ultimately settled. Terms of the settlement still required absentee voters to show proof of identification when applying for an absentee ballot, but absentee ballots already obtained without ID would be counted for the November 2006 elections. As to future elections, voters at polls may provide other forms of identification (e.g., ID cards from county or local governments and university ID cards) instead of just government-issued ID cards.

Voter Registration Statutes

Congress enacted the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993 not only to increase the number of citizens who register to vote, but also to enhance voter participation in elections and protect the electoral process. One of the ways the law did this was by effecting a variety of means to allow Americans to obtain and fill out voter registration forms. These included mail-in forms as well as the ability to register at state motor vehicle departments (while getting or renewing drivers' licenses) and at public assistance agencies.

While most states easily implemented voter registration programs in conjunction with state motor vehicle departments and mail-in procedures, registration through public assistance programs lagged behind. This resulted in the growth of third-party civil rights and ostensibly non-partisan groups that mobilized and attempted to enhance voter turnout, particularly in under-represented groups of the general population.

New problems and controversies arose for these "voter registration" groups in their efforts to recruit new voting registrants. For example, in the weeks leading up to the 2006 national elections, the media televised several instances of third-party groups bestowing money and gifts on inner-city and/or homeless persons in return for their efforts to register and vote, many times with a commitment to vote for a certain party or issue. In other instances, the media covered sto-ries of groups losing registration forms, not checking them for correctness, or submitting them too late, thereby disenfranchising the very persons they were purporting to empower. Even worse were isolated reports of third-party groups selectively destroying registration forms filled out by certain persons, -perhaps from the wrong political party or opposing viewpoint.

This, in turn, raised issues regarding a state's responsibility for counting or not counting 'provisional ballots' cast by voters whose registration forms had been rejected for these errors or allegedly lost. Before the next national election, many states vowed to create new laws addressing these issues.

The states themselves then became defendants in several lawsuits around the country. Two of the most publicized suits involved the states of Florida and Ohio. In Florida, the League of Women Voters filed suit, claiming that under the new Third-Party Voter Registration Organization law, the mandatory fines charged for losing forms ($5000 per form) or submitting them more than 10 days after they were collected ($250 per form) were unfair, excessive, and allowed for no exceptions. The group challenged the law's unequal treatment of political parties and non-partisan groups. It halted all efforts in Florida, fearing the possibility of facing criminal sanctions for any errors. Also joining the League as plaintiffs were the Florida AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and other groups.

In September 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Seitz declared the new law unconstitutional, saying that criminal penalties for violations threatened free speech rights. She also took exception to the fact that political parties were exempted from the law. The state defendants appealed her decision. As of June 2007, the case was still on appeal before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. League of Women Voters v. Cobbs, No. 06-14836D.

Likewise, in Ohio, civil rights groups protested the new rule that individuals who participated in voter registration drives and collected completed forms must personally deliver or mail the forms directly to election officials. Prior to the new law, they could return forms to a church or institution promoting a voter registration drive. The plaintiffs complained that the new rules were intimidating, particularly in low-income and minority areas, because criminal penalties were also imposed for violations. Plaintiffs alleged that the new rules violated their constitutional rights of equal protection, substantive due process, and procedural due process.

Defendants in the Ohio case (including the secretary of state and governor) asserted sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, and further asserted that the violations were not within the purview of defendants, but rather, of local boards of elections.

In September 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Kathleen O'Malley declared the new law unconstitutional, saying that criminal penalties for violations threatened free speech rights. Only the parts of the election law that dealt with voter registration were struck and the remainder of the law remained in effect. Judge O'Malley stated that voters should ignore the references to criminal penalties that were printed on the forms used to register new voters. Defendant appealed, arguing on appeal that the matter had become moot with the passage of Ohio's Amended Substitute House Bill 3. As of June 2007, this case was also on appeal before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. League of Women Voters v. Blackwell, No. 06-3335.

Voting Patterns

views updated May 17 2018

Voting Patterns






Political scientists often study voting patterns to determine partisan preferences among selected voter groups. Voter groups, such as those based on income levels, education levels, gender, age, regional location, religion, race, or ethnicity, have historically changed their partisan preferences at times in a process called realignment.

Political scientist V. O. Key Jr., in A Theory of Critical Elections (1955), defined realignment as occurring when cross-cutting issues tear apart old partisan alliances and create new ones during an election cycle. For instance, in the 1930s, American president Franklin Roosevelts New Deal policies of union rights, government jobs programs, and social welfare caused large groups of voters who had previously voted Republican to switch to the Democrats.

Political scientist Walter Dean Burnham (1970) elaborated on the critical election theory of American politics, finding a cyclical pattern of every thirty to forty years for such a phenomenon and stating that such elections tend to create a new majority political party for decades afterward.

Because no critical election has been apparent in modern American politics, more recent political science studies of voting patterns tend to focus on the more gradual realignment processes that appear to have occurred since the 1950s or on the concept of dealignment, a belief that partisan attachments among voters are in decline. Studies of modern voting patterns outside of the United States also usually examine long-term realigning processes or a decline of long-term partisan attachments among voters.

Throughout history, democratic elections and partisan divisions around the world have often been organized along regional, ethnic, and religious lines. Class distinctions in voting patterns became important in many countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And by the end of the twentieth century, partisan voting differences related to race, educational level, age, and gender also became apparent in many countries.

While specific issues are important in explaining some of the partisan divisions and voting patterns, shared cultural attitudes toward government, society, and other groups often provide a stronger explanation. Examples are plenty among democracies of one group in society favoring a political party while another group in historical, social, or political opposition to the first group favors another political party.


In the United States, regional divisions became strong immediately prior to and after the Civil War of 18611865. Following the war, many northern parts of the United States, which had favored the abolition of slavery, supported the new Republican Party, while most white voters in the southern United States, who had opposed abolition, favored the Democrats. While the South also had a large African American population, most of that population was prevented from voting through intimidation and legal measures for much of the period between 1877 and 1965.

These regional divisions strengthened in the 1890s when a Populist agrarian and fundamentalist Christian movement took over the Democratic Party, and most Catholic immigrant populations in the northern United States joined northern Protestants in voting solidly Republican for the following forty years. However, Catholic voters in New York City remained mostly Democratic, and by the 1910s and 1920s, the majority Republican Party had split between a conservative wing and a progressive wing.

During the years of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt put together a New Deal coalition of support for the now majority Democratic Party by supporting new social welfare programs and union rights for working-class Americans, including Catholics, Jews, and African Americans in the North, as well as government reforms to appeal to progressive, educated voters and infrastructure spending to continue the support from southern white voters.

However, a party that tried to create a coalition of northern progressive voters, African Americans, and southern white conservative voters in the United States was doomed not to last, and by the 1960s, the Democratic New Deal coalition fell apart over such issues as equal rights for African Americans, the Vietnam War, environmental and consumer regulations, religious and family values, and gun control and responses to crime.

Prior to the 1960s, both the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States were catchall parties containing members and politicians from all ideological persuasions. But the realignment that began in the 1960s made the Republicans into a clearly conservative party favoring less government regulation, more military spending, imposition of the death penalty for violent crimes, opposition to limits on gun ownership, and support for traditional cultural values such as prayer in schools and opposition to gay marriage. Much of this shift in Republican ideology came from the strengthened role of southern politicians and voters in the party. The Democrats took stances opposite to the Republicans on most of those issues. Moderates did remain in each party, however, sometimes taking positions closer to the majority from the other party.


This change in U.S. voting patterns has led to what many in the American media labeled the division of the red states and the blue states, named for a color-coded map used in the 2000 presidential election showing which states voted for the Republican presidential candidate and which voted for the Democratic candidate. On this map, Republican states were red, with Democratic states blue.

American voting patterns had evolved in the early twenty-first century to the regional opposite of what they had been a hundred years earlier. In the four presidential elections occurring between 1992 and 2004, the Democratic Party swept almost entirely the states of the Northeast and Pacific Coast areas as well as the states bordering on the Great Lakes in the Midwest region. The Republican Party during those elections swept almost entirely the states of the South and of the center of the country west from the Great Lakes through the Rocky Mountain region.

Strong racial and religious voting patterns also emerged in the United States over the period after the 1950s, with African Americans and Jewish Americans overwhelmingly supporting the Democrats, and the most religious white Americans strongly favoring Republicans.

While a majority of higher income U.S. voters continued to support the Republican Party in the early twenty-first century because of the partys stance on low taxes, voting patterns based on educational levels began to change after the 1950s. Over the following fifty years, while the voters with the lowest educational levels and lowest incomes tended to remain as Democratic supporters, the voters with the highest educational levels, with graduate degrees, also became more Democratic, making the party to some extent a coalition of the most educated and least educated. The Republicans were at their strongest among those who had completed some years of university but had not finished.

A gender gap also opened up in the United States during the 1980s and continued into the twenty-first century. In every presidential election from 1988 to 2004, women preferred the Democratic presidential candidate, while men preferred the Republican presidential candidate, according to polls.

The presidential election of 2004 also showed the beginning of a possible new generation gap in American voting patterns, with voters under age thirty preferring the Democratic candidate for president, and older voters preferring the Republican.


Such voting patterns and divisions of voter groups can be found in most other countries with democratic elections. Traditional economic class divisions between working-class voter support for left-wing parties and middle- and upper-class support for right-wing parties in Europe were common for much of the twentieth century, but many of those divisions began to blur by the end of the century as some voters focused more on noneconomic issues.

Regional divisions in voting patterns have been strong in many countries. In Canada, the Conservative Party dominated in the western part of the country in the early twenty-first century, while the Liberal Party dominated the most populous province of Ontario, and parties advocating independence for Quebec tended to dominate politics in that province.

In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party in the early twenty-first century had trouble winning any parliamentary seats in the northern part of England, and in Scotland and Wales, limiting its ability to form a new majority in the House of Commons. Voting patterns in many other European countries showed a strong regional basis in the early twenty-first century, with a former Communist party winning many votes in the former East Germany in German elections, a Northern League regional party in Italy participating in government coalitions, and Basque and Catalan regional nationalist parties winning a number of seats in the Spanish Cortes Generales.


Voter turnout is a political phenomenon related to voting patterns, with voter turnout usually being defined as the percentage of the voting-age population who participate in an election, though the exact method by which turnout is measured can vary by country. In general, the United States and Switzerland have long had the lowest voter turnout among economically advanced countries, in part because of the frequency and complexity of elections in those countries. In the United States, only about half of adults were voting in presidential elections by the end of the twentieth century, with far lower numbers for other types of elections.

While turnout in other economically advanced democracies was generally much higher than in the United States during the 1900s, the trend in most countries has been toward declining turnout closer to the American tradition, with younger and less educated voters in particular among the least likely to participate in elections. Such a global decline in voter turnout may also have implications for changes in voting patterns throughout the twenty-first century.

SEE ALSO Conservative Party (Britain); Democratic Party, U.S.; Elections; Electoral Systems; Gender Gap; Great Depression; Jim Crow; New Deal, The; Politics, Black; Politics, Southern; Reconstruction Era (U.S.); Republican Party; Slavery; Voting


Burnham, Walter Dean. 1970. Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics. New York: Norton.

Flanigan, William H., and Nancy H. Zingale. 2006. Political Behavior of the American Electorate, 11th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Karvonen, Lauri, and Stein Kuhnle, eds. 2001. Party Systems and Voter Alignments Revisited. London and New York: Routledge.

Key, V. O., Jr. 1955. A Theory of Critical Elections. The Journal of Politics 17 (1): 318.

Mehra, Ajay K., D. D. Khanna, and Gert W. Kueck, eds. 2003. Political Parties and Party Systems. New Delhi, India, and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Speel, Robert W. 1998. Changing Patterns of Voting in the Northern United States: Electoral Realignment 19521996. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Sundquist, James L. 1983. Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Robert W. Speel


views updated May 18 2018


VOTING. The defining act of American democracy, voting is as complicated as its history. Colonial American governments imported property tests for suffrage from England, but the requirement that one own land or personal property worth forty or fifty pounds or land that would rent for forty or more shillings a year was much less restrictive in sparsely populated America than in Britain. Almost any white male who lived in the colonies long enough could accumulate that much property, and historians estimate that between 50 and 97 percent of the white male colonists could vote. Apparently, even these property tests were rarely enforced, especially in close elections. By 1800, property qualifications had been weakened or a taxpaying qualification substituted in all but three states. Noisy battles over universal white male suffrage in New York in 1821 and Rhode Island in the 1830s and 1840s were not typical struggles, but last, doomed efforts by opponents of white male equality. In 1860, only four states retained taxpaying or other minor requirements, while the rest had adopted virtually universal white native male suffrage. In addition, several states allowed free African American men to vote, and from 1777 to 1807, New Jersey enfranchised propertied women.

Then as now, not all those who were eligible voted. Although few early election returns survive, from 1730 on turnouts in various colonies ranged from 10 to 45 percent of the free adult males, with close contests stimulating more campaigning and voting than races dominated by one candidate or party. Turnout slumped during the turmoil of the Revolution, when pro-English Tories were often disfranchised; rebounded during the 1780s and 1790s, especially in states where Federalists and Antifederalists or Jeffersonian Republicans were both well organized; and fell off again as the Federalist Party collapsed after 1812. Presidential election turnout rose to 55 percent of those eligible to vote with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, reached 78 percent in the election of 1840, and continued above 60 percent until 1912, peaking at 83 percent in 1876.

Votes do not always count equally. At first, state legislators, not voters, usually chose members of the electoral college, who then chose the president. Elite control soon eroded, and by 1828 political parties ensured that the winner of a plurality of the vote in a state would get all or nearly all of the state's electoral votes. Ironically, democracy reduced the value of the votes for losing presidential candidates in a state to nothing. Likewise, before 1842, some states elected members of Congress on the "general ticket" system, instead of by districts, allowing voters from one party to elect every congressman in a state. Other states drew noncontiguous districts or tidier districts with wide population disparities. Not until 1872 were congressional districts required to be contiguous and nearly equal in population; these mandates were never strictly enforced and were completely abandoned after 1911. Before the Civil War, under the Constitution slaves counted for three-fifths as much as free people in congressional and electoral college apportionment, enhancing the power of the slaveholding South. Since 1788, every state, no matter how large or small, has been entitled to two members in the U.S. Senate, giving a resident of Wyoming in 2000, for instance, 69 times as much representation in the Senate as a resident of California.

After the Civil War, more African Americans sought the vote, and abolitionist Republicans granted it. Congress first secured voting rights to blacks in the federally controlled District of Columbia, then, in 1867, in ten states of the former Confederacy, and finally, through the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, in the nation as a whole. Since black suffrage had lost in twelve of fifteen referenda in northern states from 1846 through 1869, the Republicans' actions might have seemed foolhardy. But the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment robbed northern Democrats of an issue—the imaginary horrors of black suffrage, and it gave southern blacks a weapon with which to defend themselves—by voting Republican. As a further shield, Congress in 1870–1871 passed enforcement and supervisory acts to guard black voters against violence, intimidation, and corrupt or unequal balloting practices. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court emasculated these laws in 1876 in United States v. Reese and United States
v. Cruikshank.

The "white terror" that ended Reconstruction in the South in the mid-1870s did not immediately terminate African American voting. A majority of black males continued to vote in the South in the 1880s and in some states until 1900. African Americans were elected to Congress until 1901 and to southern state legislatures until 1907. It was legal, not extra-legal methods, that first constrained black political power, and then largely eliminated it. Gerrymandering, the substitution of at-large for district elections, and the establishment of partisan election boards facilitated fraud and elected racist Democratic state legislators. The new legislators then passed registration, poll tax, and secret ballot laws, which diminished voting by the poor and illiterate, white as well as black, Republicans, and Populists. These restrictions on the electorate, as well as continued ballot-box stuffing, allowed Democrats after 1890 to pass literacy and property tests for suffrage

in constitutional conventions or referenda. Biased administration of these and other regulations of voting, such as the all-white Democratic primary, disfranchised nearly all southern blacks and many poor whites until the 1940s and 1950s.

Because women were less predictably Republican than were former slaves, who owed their legal status to the party of Lincoln, and because adding another radical reform might have nullified the opportunity for any change whatsoever, Republicans rejected the bid by the fledgling women's rights movement to add a ban on gender discrimination to that on race in the Fifteenth Amendment. It took women fifty years, innumerable local and state campaigns, and ideological shifts by the suffragists away from racial and antiliquor crusades before they secured the vote nationally with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Continued discrimination against women by male political leaders, as well as such barriers as the poll tax in the South, which disproportionately diminished women's votes, curtailed electoral opportunities for women until a third wave of feminism in the 1970s. By the 1990s, women turned out to vote at higher rates than men, and female elected officials had become commonplace.

While the fact is seldom emphasized, European (though not Asian) immigrants to America obtained the right to vote with some controversy, but little real difficulty, despite the fact that many from the mid-nineteenth century on differed in language and religion from the dominant English-speaking Protestants. Politics in nineteenth-century America was a white male melting pot—a limited achievement, to be sure, but one that other countries' histories might make us appreciate.

Although the New Deal revived voter enthusiasm, along with active government, political power remained unequally distributed. One response was the Supreme Court's decisions in such malapportionment cases as Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which ended the practice of having one election district with up to 422 times as many people as another in the same state. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which reenfranchised blacks in the Deep South and gave courts and the U.S. Department of Justice the tools necessary to ensure that electoral rules were not biased against ethnic minorities. A third reform, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, sought to increase levels of participation, especially among the young and the poor, by allowing people to register to vote by mail and in government offices, including departments of motor vehicles, and regulating purges of voter rolls. Still, in the 2000 presidential election, only 55 percent of adult American citizens voted, one of the lowest percentages in a national election of any developed country. As the aftermath of that election reminded us, with its tales of incorrect registration records, confusing ballots, defective voting machines, inconsistent vote counts, biased officials, unprecedented judicial intervention, and defeat of the winner of the popular vote, voting involves much more than simply showing up at the polls.


Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Kornbluh, Mark Lawrence. Why America Stopped Voting: The Decline of Participatory Democracy and the Emergence of Modern American Politics. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Kousser, J. Morgan. Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

J. MorganKousser

See alsoBallot ; Election Laws ; Elections ; Gerrymander ; League of Women Voters ; Suffrage .


views updated Jun 11 2018


Illinois Democrats Convicted in Vote-Buying Scheme

In June 2005, five Democrats from East St. Louis, Illinois, were found guilty in federal court for their participation in a vote-buying scheme. The charges stemmed from activity during the November 2004 election. Three committeemen and an election worker had already entered guilty pleas to charges relating to the same investigation. It is perhaps the biggest voter fraud conviction in the city's history.

Prosecutors contended that the purpose of the scheme was to maximize the turnout for Democrats, including Barack Obama of Chicago and U.S. Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee. Obama was an Illinois state senator who was elected to the U.S. Senate in the November election. In the November election, Belleville, Illinois mayor Mark Kern, a Democrat, prevailed in a close race over Republican Steve Reeb, to capture the chair of the St. Clair County Board. Kern's win was spurred by his 83 percent win in East St. Louis.

Jurors deliberated more than five hours to reach a decision. The defendants were found guilty on all counts. East St. Louis Democratic Party leader, Charles Powell, Jr., age 61, was convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud. Jurors listened to a recording of Powell telling committeemen to calculate their budget request based on $5 per vote. In fact, they listened to hours of secret recordings involving the defendants and FBI informers. Other evidence showed that some voters were paid $10 each.

Four others were convicted of conspiracy and aiding and abetting voter fraud. Sheila Thomas, 31, was the party secretary for the city's Democratic Party. Also convicted were Kelvin Ellis, age 55; Yvette Johnson, 46, an election worker; and Jesse Lewis, 56, a precinct committeeman for the 42nd Precinct in East St. Louis.

Witnesses testified that East St. Louis has had a long tradition of vote buying. For example, in 1931, paid voters typically received $2 for a vote. Five voters were convicted of accepting money in exchange for their votes. In the 2005 trial, prosecutors presented evidence about a $79,000 transfer from the county Democratic Party to many of the precinct committeemen days before the election. The defendants allegedly received a total of $7,900 two days before the election.

Defense attorneys worked to discredit government witnesses, and brought out a number of inconsistencies. However, after the verdict, one juror remarked that although the prosecution's witnesses had some credibility issues, the secret recordings provided persuasive evidence of wrongdoing.

Jesse Lewis was sentenced to 15 months in prison, a $200 fine, a $200 special assessment, and a two-year term of supervised release following his release. Thomas, the Democratic Precinct Committeeman for the 17th Precinct in East St. Louis, was sentenced to 18 months, plus a $200 fine and $200 special assessment. She was also ordered to a two-year supervised release term following her incarceration. Johnson was sentenced to two years' probation, with the first five months to be served as home confinement.

Charles Powell, Jr., received a sentence of 21 months' imprisonment. He was also ordered to pay a fine of $2500, a $100 special assessment, and two years of supervised release following his incarceration.

At the time of his indictment, Kelvin Ellis was the Director of Regulatory Affairs for East St. Louis. He was terminated in April 2005, after his indictment. Ellis received a sentence of 54 months imprisonment. In addition, he was ordered to pay a fine of $2500, a $200 special assessment, and serve a three-year term of supervised release following his incarceration.

Prior to his indictment in the vote-fraud scheme, Ellis had been indicted on charges of income tax evasion and obstruction of justice in January 2005. He pleaded guilty to those charges after the guilty verdict on the voting fraud charges. He received a 21-month sentence on the tax evasion charge. The vote-buying sentence and the tax evasion sentence will run concurrently.

The obstruction of justice charges stemmed from events during late 2004. Ellis learned that an individual had become a cooperating government witness in the federal grand jury investigation regarding election fraud and vote buying. Ellis and a government informant planned to discredit the individual by planting drugs on her, and then to have her arrested and jailed. The indictment also alleged that he later schemed to have the woman killed to prevent her ongoing cooperation.

Several States Fail to Comply with Election Reform Law, a nonpartisan group that studies the implementation of election laws, reported that many states are not compliant with a 2002 federal election law. The report noted that among the problems with implementation of the requirements were controversies regarding the need for paper trails and the legality of voter identification requirements.

Congress enacted the Help American Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), Pub. L. No. 107-252, 116 Stat. 1666, in order to provide funding for states to update voting systems and to establish minimum election administration standards for states and local governments. The enactment of HAVA was largely the result of the 2000 presidential election. The statute established the Election Assistance Commission to assist in the administration of federal elections. The statute established January 1, 2006 as a deadline for several of its deadlines. has advocated election reform since the 2000 elections. After Congress set forth requirements by enacting HAVA in 2002, the organization began publishing Election Reform: What's Changed, What Hasn't, and Why, which summarizes the effort among the states of implementing the statute's requirements. The report is available for free download on the organization's Web site, at

The organization's director, Doug Chapin, has noted the changes in voting procedures since the debacle of the 2000 presidential election. "The issue of election reform has matured rapidly in the past few years," Chapin said. "Two years ago, few people had ever heard of voter-verified paper audit trails; now, states are deciding whether to use them in recounts. In many states, the debate over whether voter ID should be required has evolved into whether voters should be provided IDs free of charge. In those states and others, fears about a lack of federal funding for HAVA mandates have subsided, leaving new concerns about state legislatures' ability (and willingness) to make funds available to maintain federally-funded improvements."

One of the major concerns addressed by the 2002 legislation was the replacement of the punch card and lever voting machines used by many states. It first appeared that paperless electronic voting machines would replace these older systems. However, electronic machines that were used in such states as Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, Maryland, and California have had prob-lems with certification questions, security concerns, and questions about reliability and accuracy. In one election in North Carolina, an electronic voting machine did not accurately count the votes for a statewide election due to a programming error. referred to this as a "nightmarish scenario."

One solution to the problems caused by paperless voting machines has been the implementation of voter-verified paper audit trails (VVPATs), which produce a printed record of each vote. These records can be used to conduct an independent audit of a paperless vote. The states of Florida, Maryland, and Georgia first implemented requirements of electronic voting with independent paper trails in 2003. As of 2006, 25 states require VVPATs.

People with disabilities have raised concerns with the newer voting methods, however. Many machines have been designed to be convenient for voters, but do not take into account all of the needs of disabled persons. For instance, some machines require the voter to handle marked ballots in order to vote. A disabled person who is unable to handle paper must rely on a non-disabled person to submit a vote. estimates that more than one-third of the states fail to meet requirements that every polling place have at least one machine available for use by those with disabilities.

HAVA included a somewhat unpopular provision that required voters to show IDs at polling locations. Prior to 2002, only 11 states had ID requirements. The issue of voter IDs has been a partisan one, with Republicans generally favoring their use and Democrats generally opposing them. In 2005, the Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former President Jimmy Carter, endorsed a universal ID system. Despite Carter's presence on the commission, Democrats immediately argued against the proposal.

The major concern over the requirement of IDs has been that many voters, especially those who are poor, elderly, or members of minorities, could effectively become disenfranchised as a result of ID requirements. The reason for this concern is that citizens that fall into those categories are less likely to have a driver's license or another form of a government-issued photo ID and would be less likely to obtain one. Supporters of the ID requirement say that the ID proposal would actually add citizens to the voter rolls.

The statute also requires the development of a uniform voter registration database in each state.'s report found that more than 20 percent of the states did not have compliant databases. The report noted additionally that Congress approved $3.9 billion to upgrade the election system across the country but has only allotted $3 billion since the statute's enactment.

According to the Justice Department, the state of New York lags behind all others in updating their election system. It is one of the states that does not have a HAVA-compliant database, and several proposals to upgrade voting machines have stalled in the state's legislature. The concern over New York's failure to upgrade its election procedures and equipment led the Justice Department to threaten to sue the state. State officials said that they were working with the department to avoid intervention by the courts.

Voting Schemes

views updated Jun 08 2018

Voting Schemes


Voting schemes are methods of combining individual preferences to arrive at the aggregate preferences of the group. The study of the effects of different voting schemes is called social choice theory. Perhaps the seminal work in the modern study of voting schemes is Kenneth Arrows Social Choice and Individual Values (1951). In that work, Arrow lays out five attributes that ought to exist in any fair and just voting scheme, then goes on to say that no scheme can simultaneously incorporate all five attributes.

Arrows impossibility theorem implies that there is no one best voting scheme. To that end, democracies have experimented with a number of different voting schemes. The question of which voting scheme to use is not merely trivia, because the type of voting scheme that is adopted almost certainly has effects on electoral outcomes. For example, consider the following election with three candidates, one hundred voters, and three types of voters:

  • There are thirty-five type-one voters who prefer candidate A most, then candidate B, then candidate C.
  • There are thirty-three type-two voters who prefer candidate C most, then candidate B, then candidate A.
  • There are thirty-two type-three voters who prefer candidate B most, then candidate C, then candidate A.

It is easy to see that the election above is not decisive under majority voting, since no candidate garners a majority of votes. Two very popular voting schemes are plurality rule, whereby the candidate who receives the most votes wins, and majority rule with runoff, whereby the top two vote-getters in the first election compete in a second election to determine the winner. Under plurality rule, which is used in countries such as Great Britain and Canada, candidate A would win with 35 percent of the vote. Under majority rule with runoff, which is used in countries such as France and Brazil, candidates A and C would go to the runoff election, where candidate C would win with 65 percent of the vote (since all type-three voters would join with type-two voters in supporting candidate C).

One important determinant of the voting scheme is the countrys type of regime. Democracies can differ on a number of variables. For example, in unitary systems, the country is governed in a single unit, often the parliament, which elects a prime minister to serve as an executive. Great Britain, Israel, and Chile are examples of unitary states. At the same time, other countries are federal systems, whereby governing authority is held in different locations. Often, states or provinces share governing authority with a national government. Examples of federations include the United States, Russia, and Brazil. Smaller countries often tend to be unitary systems, whereas larger ones are more likely to be federations, although there are exceptions. For example, Switzerland is a relatively small country, but has a federal system.

Many unitary countries use proportional representation (PR) electoral systems, although Great Britain and other Westminster systems are notable exceptions. In PR systems, parties receive representation in the nations legislature that is proportionate to the percentage of votes the party received in the last election. In these systems, parties prepare lists of candidates. In open-list systems, such as those of Chile and Sweden, voters can choose individual candidates from the parties lists. In contrast, voters in closed-list systems, such as that of Israel, select only the party, and the choice of the candidates is left up to party leaders. PR systems tend to have very disciplined parties within their legislatures, meaning that party members virtually always vote the same way on legislative proposals. This is because parties control the lists, and can therefore punish rogue representatives by keeping them off the lists.

On the other hand, many federal systems and some unitary systems use winner-take-all elections, whereby one candidate wins an election to represent the people living in a particular geographic area. This is how elections work in, for example, the United States and Great Britain. According to Duvergers law (1963), systems that use winner-take-all elections, sometimes called first-past-the-post elections, tend to have only two parties. This is because such systems provide no incentive for coming in second place. In winner-take-all systems, a candidate who receives 45 percent of the vote wins nothing, whereas such a candidate would receive about 45 percent of the legislative seats in a PR system. For this reason, politicians are better off coalescing into two parties prior to an election in winner-take-all systems, but do not face that same incentive in PR systems. As a result, PR systems tend to have many small parties, whereas winner-take-all systems tend to have only two.

Furthermore, political activists often advocate for implementing new voting schemes because the voting scheme selected has such a strong effect on the political landscape of a democracy. For example, we saw above that voting schemes affect the number of parties in an electoral system. Other systems are advocated because they could increase the amount of representation minority groups receive. For example, cumulative voting is a voting scheme in which voters elect several representatives, and have the same number of votes as there are empty seats to fill. Voters may opt to use those votes to vote for different candidates, or they may cumulate their votes onto one candidate whom they most prefer. In this way, advocates argue, members of minority groups can cumulate their votes onto one candidate, thereby increasing the chances that their one candidate will win. At the same time, advocates of approval voting argue that their system encourages voters to accurately report their true preferences, rather than misstating them in an effort to gain some strategic advantage. In this type of system, voters deem each candidate either approved or not approved, and the candidate with the most approved votes wins. Furthermore, advocates of single transferable voting, often called instant runoff voting, argue that their system discourages negative campaigning and provides incentives for sincere voting. In this system, voters provide a ranking of candidates from most to least favored. Counting votes entails adding up all of the most-favored votes and dropping the candidates with the lowest number of votes. Then, the votes of all those who ranked the dropped candidate first transfer to their next-most-preferred candidate, and the process continues until a winner is determined.

SEE ALSO Elections; Electoral Systems; Vote, Alternative; Voting; Voting Patterns


Arrow, Kenneth. [1951] 1963. Social Choice and Individual Values. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Duverger, Maurice. 1963. Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. 2nd English ed. Trans. Barbara North and Robert North. New York: Wiley.

Riker, William H. 1982. Liberalism against Populism: A Confrontation between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

Saari, Donald G. 2001. Decisions and Elections: Explaining the Unexpected. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Kristin Kanthak

Voter Registration

views updated May 21 2018


VOTER REGISTRATION is a government responsibility in most European countries; in the United States, it is a task each voter must accomplish individually. From 1968 through 2000, 87.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots in American presidential elections. But in 2000, only 69.5 percent of citizens of voting age were registered. White and black registration rates were comparable (70 percent and 68 percent), but rates for Asian American and Hispanic citizens were substantially lower, at 52 and 57 percent, respectively. It is the double barrier of achieving registration and turning out to vote that accounts for the

notoriously low American participation rates: only 55 percent of voting-age citizens voted in 2000.

Personal registration is the largest remaining barrier to political participation in America. It was designed that way. Before the Civil War, only a few New England states forced voters to register. After 1865, state legislatures required men who lived in large cities, and later in smaller cities and rural areas, to register periodically, often before each major election. Adopted by 31 of the 37 northern states by 1920, the laws were touted as efforts to combat ballot fraud, but many proponents also wished to eliminate lower-class, often immigrant, voters, especially those who favored parties opposed to the reformers. They succeeded. The best estimate is that registration laws were responsible for 30 to 40 percent of the 29 percentage point decline in turnout in the northern states between 1896 and 1924.

In the post-Reconstruction South, registration laws were even more openly used for racial and partisan disfranchisement. Registrars, almost always white Democrats, often had absolute discretion to add anyone they pleased to the voting lists and to reject as insufficient the information provided by others. Such power was dramatically employed before voting on constitutional changes in suffrage regulations. In Louisiana before an 1898 referendum on whether to hold a constitutional convention to disfranchise most African Americans, authorities wiped the registration books clean and allowed re-registration by fewer than 10 percent of blacks and 40 percent of whites who had previously been registered.

Gradually during the 1950s and 1960s, the laws were liberalized and registration offices were professionalized. By 1970 nearly all states made registration permanent, if registrants voted at least every two or four years, and in 1970 Congress amended the Voting Rights Act so that people could register until thirty days before a federal election. Many states began accepting applications by mail, opening convenient temporary offices in the weeks before the deadline, and allowing volunteers to distribute and return registration forms.

Still, registration rates were low, especially among young, poor, and minority voters. So Michigan and other states began to offer voting registration to people obtaining or renewing their driver's licenses, and after a twenty-year struggle Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993, popularly known as "Motor Voter." By 1999–2000, 38 percent of the 45.6 million people who registered initially or changed addresses did so at motor vehicle offices, and another 31 percent used the mails. The NVRA also regulated purges of inactive voters or felons and required the Federal Election Commission to gather and disseminate information about the election process in each state. Nonetheless, discriminatory purging of registration rolls and failures to send registration information from motor vehicle and other offices to registrars and officials at the polls disfranchised thousands of voters throughout the country in 2000 and probably determined the result of the presidential election in Florida and therefore the nation.


Federal Election Commission. The Impact of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 on the Administration of Elections for Federal Office, 1999–2000. Washington, D.C.: Federal Election Commission, 2001.

Jamieson, Amie, Hyon B. Shin, and Jennifer Day. Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, 2002.

Kleppner, Paul. Who Voted? The Dynamics of Electoral Turnout, 1870–1980. New York: Praeger, 1982.

Kousser, J. Morgan. The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880–1910. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.

J. MorganKousser

See alsoSuffrage andvol. 9:An Interview with Fannie Lou Hamer .