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Empowered Voices | Government 101: Elections in the United States of America
Empowered Voices | Government 101: Elections in the United States of America
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Government 101: Elections in the United States of America

Government 101: Elections in the United States of America

Kinds of Elections:

  1. General Elections – an election to fill public offices.
  2. Primary Elections – an election prior to the general election in which voters select the candidates who will run on each party’s ticket. Primaries are also used to choose convention delegates and party leaders, and may be open or closed.
  3. Open Primary – an election that permits voters to choose on Election Day the party primary in which they wish to vote. They may vote for candidates of only one party. (A blanket or “free love” primary is a type of open primary. In the voting booth you mark a ballot that lists the candidates for nomination of all the parties, and thus you can help select the Democratic candidate for one office and the Republican candidate for another.)
  4. Closed Primary – the selection of a party’s candidates in an election limited to registered party members. Prevents members of other parties from “crossing over” to influence the nomination of an opposing party’s candidate.
  5. Runoff Primary – if no candidate gets a majority of the votes, a runoff is held to decide who should win.
  6. Presidential Primary – a primary used to pick delegates to the presidential nominating conventions of the major parties.

Election Vocabulary

Electoral College – A group of persons called “electors,” selected by the voters in each state that officially elects the president and vice president. The number of electors in each state is equal to its number of representatives in both houses of Congress.

Initiative – An electoral procedure whereby citizens can propose legislation or constitutional amendments and refer the decision to a popular vote by obtaining the required number of signatures on a petition.

Machine – A hierarchically organized, centrally led state or local party organization that rewards members with material benefits (patronage).

Office-Block Ballot – A ballot listing all candidates for a given office under the name of that office; also called a “Massachusetts” ballot.

Party-Column Ballot – A ballot listing all candidates of a given party together under the name of that party; also called an “Indiana” ballot.

Split-Ticket Voting – Voting for candidates of different parties for various offices in the same election. For example, voting for a Republican for senator and a Democrat for president.

Straight-Ticket Voting – Voting candidates who are all of the same party. For example, voting for Republican candidates for senator, representative, and president.


Government 101: President of the United States


Must be a natural-born citizen of the United States (can be born abroad of parents who are American citizens).

  • Must be at least 35 years of age.
  • Must be a resident of the United States for at least 14 years

The Powers of the President

  • According to Article II of the Constitution the President has the following powers:
  • Serve as commander in chief of the armed forces
  • Commission officers of the armed forces
  • Grant reprieves and pardons for federal offenses (except impeachment)
  • Convene Congress in special sessions
  • Receive ambassadors
  • Take care that the laws be faithfully executed
  • Wield the “executive power”
  • Appoint Cabinet officials, White House staff and Supreme Court justices

Powers of the President That Are Shared with the Senate

  • Make treaties
  • Appoint ambassadors, Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices

Powers of the President that are Shared with Congress as a Whole

  • Approve legislation

Government 101: Congress – The legislative branch of the federal government.

Congress is the legislative arm of our government and its job is to make laws. Congress is made up of two houses: the Senate (upper) and the House of Representatives (lower). Each state has two senators in the Senate. The number of representatives a state has is determined by its population. While the house and senate are similar, there are some differences.

Major Differences Between the Two Houses of Congress:


435 members serving two-year terms

Speaker’s referral of bills to committee is hard to challenge.

Rules Committee powerful; controls time of debate, admissibility of amendments.

Committees almost always consider legislation first.

Debate usually limited to one hour.

Non-germane amendments may not be introduced from floor.


100 members serving rotating six-year terms

Referral decisions easy to challenge.

Rules Committee weak; few limits on debate or amendments.

Committee consideration easily bypassed.

Unlimited debate unless shortened by unanimous consent or by invoking cloture.

Non-germane amendments may be introduced (riders).

Qualifications for Entering Congress:


Must be 25 years of age (when seated, not when elected).

Must have been a citizen of the United States for 7 years.

Must be an inhabitant of the state from which elected.

(NOTE: custom, but not the Constitution, requires that a representative live in the district that he or she represents.)


Must be 30 years of age (when seated, not when elected).

Must have been a citizen of the United States for 9 years.

Must be an inhabitant of the state from which elected.

To find more information on the House or Senate, go to: ­ Contains information on current legislation, the Congressional Record, congressional committees and current members of Congress. ­ Contains information on current members and legislation in the Senate. ­ Contains information on current members and legislation in the House.


Congressional Leadership

  1. Senate

PRESIDENT PRO TEMPORE – Selected by majority party. Usually most senior member of the Senate majority party.

Majority Leader – Leads the party.

Majority Whip – Assists the leader, rounds up votes, heads group of deputy whips.

Chairman of the Conference – Presides over meetings of all members of the Senate majority party.

Policy Committee – Schedules legislation.

Legislative Review Committee – Reviews legislative proposals and makes recommendations to senators of the majority party.

Steering Committee – Assigns Senators of the majority party to committees.

Republican/Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – Provides funds, assistance to Republican/Democratic candidates for the Senate.

Minority Leader – Leads the party.

Assistant Minority Leader – Assists the leader, rounds up votes.

Chairman of the Conference – Presides over meetings of all senators of the minority party.

Policy Committee – Makes recommendations on party policy.

Committee on Committees – Assigns Senators of the minority party to committees.


  1. House

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE – Selected by the majority party.

Majority Leader – Leads the party.

Majority Whip – Assists the leader, rounds up votes, heads large group of deputy and assistant whips.

Chairman of the Caucus – Presides over meetings of all members of the majority party.

Steering and Policy Committee – Schedules legislation, assigns members of the majority party to committees.

Republican/Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – Provides funds, advice to Republican/Democratic candidates for the House.

Minority Leader – Leads the party.

Minority Whip – Assists the leader, rounds up votes, heads large forum of deputy and assistant whips.

Chairman of the Conference – Presides over meetings of all members of the minority party.

Committee on Committees – Assigns members of the minority party to committees.

Policy Committee – Advises on party policy.

Research Committee – On request, provides information about issues.


The Powers of Congress

  • To levy and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises
  • To borrow money
  • To regulate commerce with foreign nations, among the states, and with Indian tribes
  • To establish rules for naturalization (that is, becoming a citizen) and bankruptcy
  • To coin money, set its value, and punish counterfeiting
  • To fix the standard of weights and measures
  • To establish a post office and post roads
  • To issue patents and copyrights to inventors and authors
  • To create courts inferior to (that is, below) the Supreme Court
  • To define and punish piracies, felonies on the high seas, and crimes against the law of nations
  • To declare war
  • To raise and support an army and navy and make rules for their governance
  • To provide for a militia (reserving to the states the right to appoint militia officers and to train the militia under congressional rule)
  • To exercise exclusive legislative powers over the seat of government (that is, the District of Columbia) and over places purchased to be federal facilities (forts, arsenals, dockyards, and “other needful buildings.”)
  • To “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for the carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States.”

Government 101: State Governments

The Legislature

All states have a bicameral, or two-house legislature, except Nebraska, which has a unicameral, or single, house.

The Upper House called the Senate membership can range from 21 (Delaware) to 67 (Minnesota).

terms usually last four years.

The Lower House called the House of Representatives, General Assembly, or House of Delegates (Virginia), membership can range from 40 (Alaska and Nevada) to 400 (New Hampshire).

terms usually last two years.


Each house in a state legislature has a presiding officer. The Lieutenant Governor presides over the Senate, but the majority leader assumes most of the leadership roles. The house elects a Speaker who serves as its leader. Leaders of each house are responsible for recognizing speakers in debate, referring bills to committee, and presiding over deliberations.

States grant legislatures a variety of functions:

  • Enact laws
  • Represent the needs of their constituents
  • Share budget-making responsibilities with Governor
  • Confirm nominations of state officials
  • House begins impeachment proceedings, Senate conducts the trial if there is an impeachment.
  • Casework
  • Oversight – review of the executive branch. (e.g., sunset legislation)


Citizen Legislation

The people can perform legislative functions directly. The ways by which these methods can be implemented vary, but they usually require a certain number of signatures on a petition. After that, the issue is put on the ballot for a general vote.

  • Initiative – A way citizens can bypass the legislature and pass laws or amend the state constitution through a direct vote.
  • Referendum – A way citizens can approve of statutes or constitutional changes proposed by the legislature through a direct vote.
  • Recall – A way citizens can remove elected officials from office. It is allowed in 14 states and is hardly ever used.




The Governor is a state’s chief executive. A governor can serve either a two or four year term. Thirty-seven states have term limits on the governor.


  • Appointments

The Governor is chiefly responsible for making appointments to state agencies and offices. These powers include:

The ability to appoint for specific posts in the executive branch.

The ability to appoint to fill a vacancy caused by the death or resignation of an elected official

  • Chief of State

Chief Executive – draws up budget, also has clemency and military powers

  • Veto Power

Like the U.S. President, a governor has the right to veto bills passed by the legislature.

Vetoes can be overridden by a two-thirds or three-fourths majority in the legislature.

In many states, the governor has the power of a line-item veto.

In some states, the governor has the power of an amendatory or conditional veto.

Powers Reserved to the States

The Tenth Amendment declares, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” In other words, states have all powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution.

These powers have taken many different forms. States must take responsibility for areas such as:

  • ownership of property
  • education of inhabitants
  • implementation of welfare and other benefits programs and distribution of aid
  • protecting people from local threats
  • maintaining a justice system
  • setting up local governments such as counties and municipalities
  • maintaining state highways and setting up the means of administrating local roads
  • regulation of industry
  • raising funds to support their activities

In many areas, states have a large role but also share administrative responsibility with local and federal governments. Highways, for example, are divided amongst the three different levels. Most states classify roads into primary, secondary, and local levels. This system determines whether the state, county, or local governments, respectively, must pay for and maintain roads. Many states have departments of transportation, which oversee and administer intrastate transportation. U.S. highways and the interstate system are administered by the national government through the U.S. Department of Transportation.


States must also administer mandates set by the federal government. Generally these mandates contain rules which the states wouldn’t normally carry out. For example, the federal government may require states to reduce air pollution, provide services for the handicapped, or require that public transportation must meet certain safety standards. The federal government is prohibited by law from setting unfunded mandates. In other words, the federal government must provide funding for programs it mandates.


Grants are an important tool used by the federal government to provide program funding to state and local governments. The state must only meet the federal goals and standards. The national government can give the states either formula grants or project grants (most commonly issued).

Mandates can also pass from the state to local levels. For example, the state can set certain education standards that the local school districts must abide by. Or, states could set rules calling for specific administration of local landfills.

State Constitutions

The Basics

Each state has its own constitution which it uses as the basis for laws. All state governments are modeled after the federal government and consist of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The U.S. Constitution mandates that all states uphold a “republican form” of government, although the three­-branch structure is not required.

Therefore, in basic structure state constitutions much resemble the U.S.Constitution. They contain a preamble, a bill of rights, articles that describe separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and a framework for setting up local governments.

Length and Specificity

State constitutions also tend to be significantly more lengthy than the U.S. Constitution. State constitutions can contain as many as 174,000 words (Alabama), and have as many as 513 amendments attached (also Alabama). Much of this length is devoted to issues or areas of interest that are outdated. Oklahoma’s constitution, for example, contains provisions that describe the correct temperature to test kerosene and oil. California has sections that describe everything that may be deemed tax-exempt, including specific organizations and fruit and nut trees under four years of age.


All state constitutions provide for a means of amendment. The process is usually initiated when the legislature proposes the amendment by a majority or supermajority vote, after which the people approve the amendment through a majority vote. Amendments can also be proposed by a constitutional convention or, in some states, through an initiative petition.