U.S. Congressional Elections: History, Processes & Influences

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  • 0:02 Congress
  • 1:21 The Senate
  • 2:55 The House of Representatives
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

In this lesson, you will explore the process of electing representatives to both houses of the U.S. Congress. Then, you will be able to test your understanding with a brief quiz.


If you saw a tree with only three branches, you may not be very impressed. However, a government with three branches is great. The government of the United States consists of three parts. The executive branch makes direct decisions about daily governance. The judicial branch upholds the law and enforces the Constitution. The legislative branch makes laws and policies affecting the American people and government.

This last branch is the one we are most concerned with today. At the national level, the legislative branch is defined by Congress, an institution of lawmaking officials, elected to represent the people of the United States.

You see, America is too large to be a true democracy. If every single person voted on every single issue, we'd never have time to do anything but vote and count those votes. So, we elect representatives to work in Congress on our behalf. Since representatives are elected by the people, it is their job to represent those people's interests before the legislature.

Representatives can be elected to Congress in two different positions, because our Congress is bicameral, or composed of two parts. These parts are the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Senate

The Senate is one part of Congress in which two representatives from each state serve. It does not matter how big or small your state is; every state elects two representatives who serve in the Senate for a term of six years. There is no limit to the number of terms a senator can serve. As long as the people from that senator's state think he or she is doing a good job, that person can be re-elected again and again.

Nowadays, senators are elected by popular elections, meaning direct voting by the people. However, when the Senate was first formed back in 1789, senators were selected by the legislature of their state. So, the legislature of Ohio selected two senators to represent Ohio, and so on. This was the case all the way until 1913, when the law was changed with the Seventeenth Amendment and popular votes were established for senatorial elections.

Rather than have all of the Senate elections at once, they are staggered so that new senators are elected every two years. The first Congress set up this system so that both senators from a state are not up for election at the same time. What this means is that one group of senators is elected to serve six years. Two years later, a second group is elected, and two years after that a third group is elected. Then, two years after the third group has been in office, the first group is up for reelection. This cycle keeps the Senate from ever being completely changed in a single election.

The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is the second part of Congress in which each state receives a number of representatives proportionate to their population. This means that states with a higher population receive greater representation. Right now, the most populous state is California, which gets 53 representatives in the House. Every state is guaranteed at least one representative and right now, seven states have small enough populations that they meet this minimum. Overall, there are 435 members of the House of Representatives, as opposed to the 100 members of the Senate. House representatives are elected for shorter terms than members of the Senate, serving for only two years, but also can be reelected as often as the people are willing.

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