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Election Process and Political Parties, Responsibility for Elections

racial gerrymandering, local ballots, Voting Act, National presidential elections, gerrymander

In the United States, elections are held at regular intervals. National presidential elections take place every four years. Congressional elections occur every two years, and state and local elections usually coincide with national elections. In addition to elections for office, many state and local ballots include referendums and initiatives, which allow the people to directly determine a government policy.

State and local governments are largely responsible for organizing elections. State, county, and municipal election boards administer elections. These boards establish and staff polling places and verify the eligibility of individuals who come to vote. State laws specify the qualifications of candidates and how elections are to be administered, including registration procedures, the location of polling places, and even the kind of ballots used.

More importantly, states also determine the boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts. In the past, because many legislative districts were drawn based on area and not on population, regions with small populations had substantially more representation per person than did regions with large populations. Thus in the allocation of seats in the state legislature, rural districts were overrepresented in relation to their population. For example, in Vermont in the 1960s, the small town of Stratton, with a population of 38, had the same number of representatives in the state legislature as Burlington, with 40,000 residents. The U.S. Supreme Court in a series of decisions beginning in 1962 mandated that each elected official must represent roughly the same number of people.

Many people also debate whether the state legislatures should be allowed to gerrymander, or draw legislative lines to favor a special interest. In the early 19th century, to further his own and his party’s interests, Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry encouraged the legislature to design a district so as to contain as many of his party’s opponents as possible. By doing this he hoped that his party would lose that district by a large majority but would then be able to win all the other districts by small majorities. The district Gerry created was so convoluted that it was described as being shaped like a salamander, and it is from this that the term “gerrymander” derives.

Gerrymandering has also occurred on racial lines, both to prevent and to ensure minority representation in government. After the Voting Act of 1965 made it possible for blacks to vote, racial gerrymandering that favored whites was instituted to prevent blacks from being adequately represented. In recent years, however, gerrymandering has been used to facilitate the election of members of minority groups, such as blacks or Hispanics, by creating a district in which such a group holds the majority. This process—sometimes called “loading a district”—has been used by some legislatures such as that of North Carolina to attempt to assure the election of a black representative. The intent of such districts is to adequately represent the diversity of the United States population in Congress. Opponents of this process claim that such procedures are unfair, that they create resentment against blacks and other minority groups, and that they produce racial segregation. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that the states’ ability to set legislative and congressional boundaries is a powerful tool in the determination of public policy.

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