Local, State & National Elections in the U.S.

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Elections are a very important process in the United States. In this lesson, we will look at how elections work at the local, state, and national levels of government.

Elected Offices of the United States

The United States of America is a democracy. You've probably heard that before. There's only one minor problem with this: The United States of America is not a democracy. Not technically. In a true democracy, every citizen is eligible to vote on every matter. That would be unbelievably time-consuming, so citizens of the United States elect representatives to act on our political behalf. That makes us a democratic republic, in which the people still have a political voice through a government composed of elected officials. Therefore, the election of officials is amongst the most important things that citizens of the United States do. It's the very foundation of the country's political ideology. Yes, it can also be a hassle at times, but it's worth it.

Local Elections

The base level of government office is at the local level. Generally, this refers to the elections of a town, county, or other municipality. People elected to these offices have authority over their municipality, and that's it. It's up to each town to decide which offices are elected, but common ones include the sheriff, city council members, the mayor, and members of the school board. Local representatives are selected by a process of direct election. This simply means that the candidate with the most votes wins.

State Elections

Next are state government positions. These are important jobs with lots of power, as the United States Constitution grants any power not expressly given to the federal government to be under the authority of state governments.

Currently, every state in the USA directly elects its governor (the head of the state executive branch) as well as the representatives to the state legislature. In some states, members of the state judicial branch are elected, but generally these positions are appointed by the governor or legislature. Most other positions within the state government are appointed ones, so voters need to elect legislators and governors who will make wise appointments and fill the government with credible officials.

Most sheriffs are directly elected, so choose wisely
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State Representatives

Besides state officials, state representatives to the national legislature--Congress--are also directly elected at the state level. While these representatives are members of the federal government, not the state government, they are only elected by citizens of the state they represent. It would feel pretty weird if Oklahoma got to vote on the congressional representatives for Hawaii.

According to Article One of the United States Constitution, all members of the House of Representatives must be elected by the people of the state. However, the Constitution did not originally hold the same requirement for U.S. senators. In fact, senators were originally elected by state legislatures. This was an indirect election. This practice was changed in 1913 with the ratification of the 17th Amendment, requiring the direct election of senators. The direct election of senators still happens today.

Today, members of the Senate are directly elected
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National Elections

Finally, we get to the national elections, those in which all citizens of the nation can vote. Realistically, there's only one national election that we need to talk about: the presidency. The President is the leader of the executive branch of the federal government and the highest elected office in the nation. The rules for presidential elections are laid out in Article II of the United States Constitution. Originally, the candidate who came in first was elected president, while the runner-up was made vice president. This was changed with the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, which let presidents and vice-presidents run together. The change came because the runner-up in a presidential election often held a completely opposite ideology from the winner, and the two would bicker constantly.

What makes the American presidential election interesting is that it's the only major office in the nation today selected through an indirect election. The American people do not vote for their president. The President is selected by a representative body called the Electoral College. This body is full of electors, representatives elected by the people of each state. Every state gets a number of electors equal to its number of Congressional representatives.

Electoral map of the 1908 presidential election
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