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Rundown on Elections

Presidential elections draw the most attention and voter turnout, but what’s the bigger picture?

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Every four years, America holds a new presidential election. Political ads, video clips, and voter registration efforts dominate the news. Although the presidential election is one of our country’s most significant votes, it is not the only impactful one. Elections at the city, state, and national levels are all crucial, and in most cases, their results impact the lives of everyday citizens much more than presidential elections.

We also have midterm elections, which take place halfway between each presidential election – this means the U.S. holds major votes every two years.

Presidential and Midterm Votes

Elections are broken down by the various term limits for politicians in the country. Politicians in the House of Representatives can serve an unlimited number of two-year terms, while those in the Senate can serve unlimited six-year terms. Representatives are all up for re-election every two years, while elections for the Senate are staggered so that only about one-third are competing for election at a time. In the case of retirements or deaths, “special elections” are called to fill the empty seats until the end of their term.

Each state has its own rules and procedures for elections, but most have similar voting processes. For Congress, states have primaries that nominate candidates, who then face off in a general election. Most of the time, whoever has the most votes wins the race, and this type of voting system is known as first-past-the-post voting. Some states may have election rules that make voters rank their preferred candidates in numerical order. In congressional elections, most states see Democrats, Republicans, and Independents end up on the final ballot to win a seat in Congress.

City, county, and state initiatives often go up for a vote during midterm elections. Americans are given a chance to vote for local officials, legislation, and statewide propositions. According to data from the U.S. Census, voter turnout during presidential election years is higher than during the midterm election years. Until recent history, midterm elections were not given so much importance in comparison to the presidential election. In 2018, midterm voter turnout was at its highest since 1914 at 53.4% –  though the 2016 presidential election still saw more attention with a 61.4% voter turnout rate.

Political Patterns

Elections follow similar patterns and trends throughout American history. A summary of these patterns can be listed as follows: Presidential elections occur. The president’s political party tends to have a better chance of winning a majority of seats in the House of Representatives and has momentum in winning available seats in the Senate. The president tends to have a favorable Congress and can put laws through without hindrance. Two years later, midterm elections occur. Dissatisfied voters tend to win back one or both chambers of Congress, resulting in a divided government where one party controls the presidency, and the opposing party controls one or both chambers of Congress.

Historically, politicians running for re-election have better chances of winning votes. This trend is seen at all government levels, pressuring challengers to form massive fundraising campaigns to beat the incumbent. Modern history also shows that it’s somewhat rare for one political party to dominate both the presidency and Congress for a long period of time, forcing politicians to worry about re-election. Critics have noted that this focus on re-election discourages politicians from remaining honest and voting on behalf of their constituents. This can lead to the disconnect many citizens feel with their representatives in Congress.

Jose Backer, General Assignment Reporter, is a graduate of St. Michael's College and is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Political Science. Born and raised in Southern California, he currently resides in the Pasadena area.

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