Every two years, voters elect all of the members of the House and one-third of the Senate. Although the Constitution lays out certain rules about how members of Congress should be elected, the states determine the details of elections, such as who can vote, how the votes will be counted, and the appearance of the ballots. There are three types of congressional elections: primary elections, general elections, and special elections.
Type of Election
|Primary Election||Contest between candidates within a party to choose the party’s nominee|
|General Election||Contest between all party nominees and independent candidates; the winner becomes a member of Congress|
|Special Election||Contest to replace a member of Congress who leaves office in between regular elections|
Midterm elections are general elections that fall between presidential elections (or in the middle of the president’s term). The general election of 2002, for example, was a midterm election because it fell between the general elections of 2000 and 2004 in which George W. Bush was elected and then reelected president.
Who runs for Congress? Congress consists of a self-selecting group of people who choose to run on their own initiative. Sometimes the party organizations will ask a particular person to run. The table on the next page summarizes the requirements for holding office in the House and Senate.
House of Representatives
|Minimum Length of Citizenship||7 years||9 years|
In the past few decades, congressional elections have become very expensive. In the early 2000s, the average winning House race cost roughly $750,000, whereas a winning Senate campaign cost about $5 million. The money comes from a variety of sources: individual donors, political action committees (PACs), and party organizations (some of which is soft money—unregulated money given to political parties and advocacy groups). Federal law regulates donations, limiting how much an individual and a PAC can donate in a given election cycle. In 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (commonly known as McCain-Feingold), which banned soft money.
An incumbent is a person who currently holds an office. Incumbents running for reelection have an incumbent advantage, which makes them extremely difficult to defeat. Incumbency gives a candidate significant benefits: better name recognition, a track record of pork and casework, and privileges of congressional membership, such as franking, which is the ability to mail letters to constituents for free. More than 90 percent of all incumbents win reelection in House races, although that number is a bit lower in the Senate. Challenging an incumbent, particularly one who has been in office for a while, is an uphill fight.
Members of Congress can be reelected as many times as the people will reelect them, and some members have served many, many years in office. In May 2006, for example, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia became the longest-serving senator after having served eight six-year terms. Some people argue that the number of terms members serve should be limited in order to maintain democracy. Term limits exist for many state and local offices, as well as for the office of the president, but establishing them for members of Congress would require a constitutional amendment.
In order to keep representation in the House in line with population shifts, the Constitution mandates that a census be taken every ten years. Representation is then adjusted after the census: Some states lose members, whereas others gain members. Political scientists call districts that have become unfairly populous or empty because of population shifts malapportioned districts. The process of correcting malapportionment is called reapportionment.
If a state gains or loses seats, the state government must redraw its district boundaries, a process known as redistricting. Sometimes the party that controls the state government uses redistricting to its own political advantage, a process known as gerrymandering. By combining areas that usually vote for one party, politicians can all but ensure their party will win that seat.
The courts have gotten involved in reapportionment and redistricting, declaring that such matters are justiciable questions (matters that the courts can review). Drawing on the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, the courts have forced states to treat voters equally. In Baker v. Carr (1962), for example, the Supreme Court ruled that districts within a state must have the same population.
Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, some states began to draw district boundaries to maximize minority representation in Congress. To accomplish this, states created minority-majority districts, districts specifically created to have more than 50 percent minority voters. These districts might combine neighborhoods that are far apart, a process sometimes called racial gerrymandering. The Supreme Court has overturned racial gerrymandering, but because racial gerrymandering is as difficult to prove as ordinary gerrymandering, the process continues.