The American Electoral System
American political parties are something of a paradox. American political parties are among the oldest continuously established party organizations in the world and play a vital part in the conduct of American politics. Yet, by comparison with nearly any other democratic nation, American political parties are weak organizations that cannot control even such essential functions as determining which candidates run under the party's label.
Though seemingly contradictory, these two characterizations of American political parties are, in fact, quite compatible. American party organizations continue to exist and play an important part in American government because they have been able to adapt to the unique political environment of the United States. The American electoral environment itself is largely responsible for the type of political party system that exists in the United States today. In this chapter, we examine three important features of American election rules: the plurality system, the nomination process, and the electoral college.
One of the most fundamental features of any democratic system of government is the set of rules used to decide elections. The electoral rules help to determine the number of political parties, the competitiveness of elections, the stability of government, and even how well citizens' policy preferences are translated into public policy. Before explaining the effects of the American electoral system, we need to discuss electoral systems in general.
The political consequences of various electoral arrangements have been carefully studied by political scientists (see, e.g., Lijphart 1990, 1994; Rae 1967; Taagepera and Shugart 1989). Most scholars agree that the two most important features of any country's electoral system are the electoral