In colonial America the election of church and public officials dates almost from the founding of the Plymouth Colony, and the paper ballot was instituted in elections to the Massachusetts governorship in 1634. Under the U.S. Constitution the right to hold elections is specified, but the method and place are left to the states, with Congress having the power to alter their regulations. The Constitution specified that elections to the House of Representatives be direct, or popular, and that the election of the Senate and of the president and vice president be indirect, Senators being chosen by the state legislatures and the president and vice president by electors selected by the people (see electoral college). The Seventeenth Amendment (1913) provided for popular election of senators.
Political candidates are usually chosen by delegate convention, direct primary, nonpartisan primaries, or petition. The candidate who receives the most votes is usually elected, but an absolute majority may be required; a majority has not been required in the U.S. federal elections since 1850 except in the electoral vote cast for the president and vice president. (In presidential nominating conventions an absolute majority is required; the Democrats required a two-thirds vote of the delegates from 1832 to 1936.)
Since 1824, when John Quincy Adams was elected president by the House of Representatives when no candidate had a majority in the electoral college (Adams' leading opponent, Andrew Jackson, had greater popular and electoral vote totals), the electoral-college system has many times permitted a president to be chosen without a majority of the popular vote (1844, 1848, 1856, 1860, 1876, 1880, 1884, 1888, 1892, 1912, 1916, 1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, and 2000); in 1876, 1888, and 2000 candidates without even a plurality succeeded in winning office.
Voting frauds and disorder at the polls were common after the rise of political machines, and the enactment of registration laws after 1865 did little to ameliorate conditions. Corrupt practices acts, poll watching, the institution of primary elections, and the introduction of voting machines after 1892 have been more effective in ensuring honest elections. Nonetheless, the disputes over the counting of the votes in Florida in the 2000 presidential election clearly revealed that some machine voting systems are more reliable than others and that less reliable systems can potentially distort the results.
All states have some residency requirements as a condition for suffrage. Originally the vote was typically restricted to white men who met certain property qualifications; such restrictions were later liberalized and removed. The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) and Fifteenth Amendment (1870) were designed to forbid the disenfranchisement of African-American men after the Civil War, and the Nineteenth (1920) conferred the vote on women. The Twenty-third Amendment (1961) permitted residents of the District of Columbia to vote in the presidential elections, while the Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964) outlawed payment of poll or other taxes as a condition for voting. The Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971) lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. The so-called motor voter law (National Voter Registration Act, 1993) was designed to reverse declining voter registrations by permitting registration at motor vehicle departments and other agencies. Certain classes of felons and some others are deprived of the vote.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.