What an Electoral
System Can Do
Most Americans give little thought to their electoral system. To them, it has a status like the days of the week or months of the year—something that just is. However, our electoral system, though seemingly mundane like our calendar, shares with it a very important trait. As the calendar structures the actions of our lives, so does an electoral system structure how our political system operates. As political scientist David Farrell (2001) puts it: “electoral systems are the cogs that keep the wheels of democracy properly functioning” (2). It is not a minor task.
This came home to me in a pointed way when I voted at my local precinct in Northfield, Minnesota, on November 7, 2000. My experience reflected a small part of the myriad activities that go into the conduct of elections in America. The vast majority of legal authority over elections lie at the state and local level. State legislatures establish the dates, rules, and administrative procedures for conducting the election. State laws or the state constitutions identify the administrative agency—usually the secretary of state's office—that oversees the conduct of elections. The legislature also draws boundaries for legislative districts (in many states, this is done by an independent bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting commission) and also sets laws for ballot access by candidates and parties. State legislatures, subject to guidelines set by federal laws, establish and conduct the voter registration process. State lawmakers pass laws to guard against election fraud and to regulate campaign finance in elections for state and local officials. Local and state officials conduct voter education programs to inform people of the characteristics of the ballot and where to register and vote. Once all of these laws are in place, Election Day occurs, after