The Electoral Process

The Republican and Democratic parties contest public office at every level of political life including town councils, mayoralties, state governorships, Congress and the presidency. The selection of these officials is a two-part process, first, to win the party nomination, and second, to defeat the opposing party's candidate in the general election.

Methods of nominating candidates have evolved throughout U.S. history. The earliest, which dates from colonial times, is the caucus, an informal meeting of party leaders who decide which candidates they will support. As the nation developed and political organization became more complex, various local caucuses began to delegate representatives to meet with representatives from other local caucuses to form county and then state groups, which finally selected candidates. These enlarged bodies, known as conventions, were the prototypes of the great presidential nominating conventions of today. The third nominating method is the primary election. Primaries are statewide intraparty elections; which are designed to give voters the opportunity to select their party's candidates directly for various offices.

The electoral process culminates in the quadrennial election of the president of the United States. Party candidates are selected in nominating conventions held several months before the general election. Delegates to these conventions, chosen within each state, are generally pledged to vote for a particular candidate, at least on the first ballot.

General elections pit the candidates of the political parties against each other. In most cases, the party candidates for all offices -- federal, state and local -- run as a block or slate, although voters cast their ballots for each office individually. In addition, each party draws up a statement of its position on various issues, called a platform. Voters thus make their decisions on the basis of the individuals running for office, and the political, economic and social philosophies of the parties they represent.

It is possible for a candidate to run for office in a general election without the backing of a political party. To run as an independent, a person must present a petition, signed by a specified number of voters who support his or her candidacy. Still another device is the write-in vote: A candidate's name that does not appear on the ballot can be written in by voters in a space provided for that purpose.

Persons elected to office exercise the power to make and execute laws as representatives of the people. In certain circumstances, the people can exercise this power directly. The example of the New England town meeting is one such instance. In addition, in some states, a substantial number of voters may petition for the adoption of a law, bypassing the normal legislative process. The proposal, called an initiative, is submitted for approval of the voters at a general or special election. If approved, it becomes law without legislative action. In other cases, the people may be asked to express their opinions by voting on specific issues in a referendum. The referendum may be only an expression of the popular will to guide the legislature, or it may be made binding on the legislators. In the latter case, an act of the legislature may be overturned by the voters.