The Political Process
Although American citizens age eighteen and older in all states have the right to vote, the manner in which they vote varies considerably from state to state and even from county to county. The U.S. Constitution gives states the right to determine how elections are run (with some limits), but states often delegate some of this power to local governments.
Types of Ballots
The ballots used in elections have changed significantly in American history. Originally, political parties printed their own ballots, listing only their candidates. Voters took ballots from the party of their choice and deposited them in the ballot box within full view of other voters. As a result, vote choices were public. Since 1888, however, state governments have printed ballots that list all candidates for all offices. Votes are cast in secret. Because Australia was the first country to adopt the secret ballot, this ballot is called the Australian ballot.
Elections in the United States use one of two kinds of Australian ballots:
- The office-block ballot (also called the Massachusetts Ballot): Candidates are grouped by office.
- The party-column ballot (also called the Indiana Ballot): Candidates are grouped by party.
Political parties do not like office block ballots because these ballots encourage people to vote for candidates from different parties (a practice known as split-ticket voting). Instead, political parties prefer party-column ballots because these ballots make it easy to choose candidates only from a particular party. Some of these ballots even allow voters to choose all of a party’s candidates by checking a single box, or pulling a single lever, a practice called straight-ticket voting.
Americans vote using a wide variety of machines:
- Mechanical voting machines: Voters flip switches to choose candidates and then pull a lever to finalize their vote.
- Punch-card machines: Voters mark their choices on a card using a pencil and then deposit their cards into a machine, which then tallies the vote based on the card’s holes.
- Touch-screen machines: Similar to ATMs, these increasingly popular machines “read” the voters’ choices.
But these methods have serious problems. Mechanical voting machines frequently break down, but many of the companies that made the machines have gone out of business. Punch-card machines are fallible because punching does not always create a complete hole (leading to debates about hanging and pregnant chads, as in the 2000 presidential elections). Many computer security experts see touch-screen voting as dangerously insecure. Others point out that most touch-screen machines leave no paper documents, a huge problem in cases of recounts.
Traditionally, people vote by filling out a ballot at their local polling precinct or voting center. But some voters, such as college students or people serving in the military, cannot get to their polling place to vote. The states allow these voters to use absentee ballots. Absentee voters usually receive their ballots in the mail several weeks before the election, fill them out, and mail them back to state election officials.
Voting by Mail
Usually states have provided absentee ballots to those who had good reasons for not being able to go their polling place. In recent years, though, some states have made it easy for anyone to vote by mail, in an effort to encourage voting. In 2000, for example, Oregon allowed all voters in the presidential election to mail in their ballots. Voter participation surpassed 80 percent, a remarkable number. Due to this success, Oregon has completely abandoned precinct voting.
But voting by mail has its critics. These people argue that voting by mail allows people to make their final choice early in the campaign, before debates or other events that could substantially change the race. Still others feel that voting in person at precincts builds a sense of civic-mindedness, which is not possible through voting by mail. Supporters of voting by mail argue that the increased turnout outweighs these criticisms.