Political Parties and the Right to Vote
• Explain the ways political parties serve the country.
• Explain the roots of the Democratic and Republican parties.
• Describe the process of electing a President.
• Explain why the right to vote is important.
• Describe the laws on voting rights.
Every four years, the nation’s two political parties hold their national conventions. Here, Democrats cheer for their candidates.
Words to Know
candidate a person running for government office
nominate to name someone as a possible candidate for election
convention a large meeting of a group of people who share common ideas or goals
political party a group of citizens who share common ideas about the way the government should carry out its work
primary election a state election held to help select candidates within a party
delegate a person chosen to represent other party members at a convention
platform a set of policies that a political party agrees to work for
citizen a person belonging to or living in a country
naturalized citizen someone who was not born a citizen but who became one by law
register to sign up
ballot a list of people running for government office and a list of choices
about new laws
literacy test a test to see whether a person can read and write
The National Convention—A Giant Party Every Four Years
It is the summer before the national election for President. The huge hall is filled with people. They wear red, white, and blue ribbons. They carry signs with the names of their favorite candidates. Thousands of red, white, and blue balloons float near the roof. Bands play, and people cheer.
The order in which the political parties hold their conventions depends on which party is currently in the White House The party that controls the White House always holds its convention last
These people all belong to the Republican political party. A candidate has just been nominated to run for the office of President of the United States. Television, radio, and newspaper reporters bring news of the event to the rest of the nation. This is the Republican party’s biggest meeting, the national convention, held once every four years. It seems like a giant party.
A few weeks later, a Democratic party convention will take place. It will also nominate a candidate for President. All the same things will happen. Candidates will make speeches. Balloons, bands, and ribbons will fill the convention hall. Democratic delegates from 50 states will carry signs naming their favorite candidates. People around the nation will watch and listen to the convention’s activities.
The national candidates, one Democrat and one Republican, will run against each other for the office of President. From Labor Day in September until election day, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the most exciting political race in our nation will take place.
Republicans, Democrats, and the Two-Party System
In a democracy, there is power in numbers. The more people there are who work for a new law, the more likely that the law will be passed. However, politics is more than just passing laws. It is the work of getting candidates elected to office. It is joining with others who want the same things from their government as you do. It is working together to gain the support of other citizens for your ideas. For these reasons, people join political parties.
A political party is a group of citizens who think more or less alike about government. These people work together to see that government carries out their
ideas. The United States has two main political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.
Political parties play a great role in the way our government works. They serve the country in at least five important ways.
1. They choose candidates to run for local, state, and federal offices. Each political party puts up candidates.
2. They point out the weaknesses and poor ideas of other political parties and their candidates.
3. They ask the government for new programs and laws.
4. They spread news and information about party ideas. This helps keep people interested in the work of government.
5. They help keep an eye on how elected officials and lawmakers do their jobs. If they do poorly, they might not be nominated or elected again.
The Roots of the Republican and Democratic Parties
Today’s Republican and Democratic parties have their roots in the Federalist and anti-Federalist groups from our nation’s earliest years. The Federalists stood for a strong central government. The anti-Federalists favored strong state’s rights and strong protections for the personal freedoms of people. George Washington, the nation’s first President, was a Federalist.
The chart on the next page shows when the nation’s political parties first gained the presidency. The anti-Federalists first came into power in 1801, with the election of Thomas Jefferson as President.
In 1787, the Federalists were in favor of the newly written U.S. Constitution. The anti-Federalists were against the Constitution until it included a Bill of Rights.
Development of Political Parties
1789 Federalists (George Washington)
1801 Anti-Federalists (Thomas Jefferson)
1829 Democrats (Andrew Jackson)
1861 Republicans (Abraham Lincoln)
Later on, they changed their names to the Democratic-Republicans. In 1829, Andrew Jackson left the Jefferson party and started the Democratic party. He claimed the party would better represent the common man. This party was popular among working people and Americans in the newer western states.
In the early 1800s, Federalists became the Whig party. By the 1840s, the Whigs had become bitterly divided over the question of slavery. Whigs who were against slavery formed the Republican party in 1854. Eventually, the Whig party disappeared entirely. The Republicans first came to power in 1861, when their candidate, Abraham Lincoln, became President. Since that time, the Republicans and Democrats have been the two major political parties in the country.
Electing a President
In the United States, elections for the President are held every four years.
The most exciting time of work for political parties is during the year of a presidential election. The work starts early in the year, when the party leaders decide whether to run for office. Several candidates may “throw their hats in the ring” for the race to be President. Many states hold primary elections in late winter and early spring. Primaries are state elections held to nominate candidates for state and local offices. They are also held to narrow the choices of party candidates for President.
Presidential primaries have become very popular in the last 40 years. There are two kinds. In one, members of a party cast votes for delegates pledged to support one particular presidential candidate. If elected, these delegates must vote for that candidate at the convention. In the other kind, delegates are elected to the convention, but they do not have to support one political candidate. States that do not hold primaries hold state party meetings to choose delegates to the convention.
The national conventions take place during summer. A committee at each convention decides on a platform. This document is a list of programs and ideas that the party’s candidate will support. Each idea on the platform is called a plank. The job of the platform committee is to build the platform, plank by plank. The platform is complete when a majority of the members agree on the programs suggested.
The highlight of each convention is the nominating of a presidential candidate. The winners of the different primary elections try to get a majority of delegates to vote for them. The winner becomes the party’s candidate for President.
After the convention, the campaign for President begins. The candidates travel to all parts of the country. They meet people, give speeches, debate each other, and in general try to win votes. The news media help keep the race exciting and before the public throughout the campaign. Finally, election day arrives. After the votes are cast, many Americans stay up late at night to watch the election outcome. The winning party celebrates wildly.
The best of all outcomes for a party is when its candidates win both the presidency and a majority of seats in Congress. When the President and the Congress agree, the President can more easily put programs into action. Often, the President and a majority of Congress are from different parties. When this happens, the government continues to work, but the political battles are often fierce.
Check Your Understanding
1. Name at least three ways political parties serve the country.
2. Who was the first Republican to be elected President?
The United States basically has a two-party system of government. Democrats and Republicans hold most of the major state and national offices in the country. However, throughout U.S. history, many less powerful political parties have put forth ideas and candidates for office. These parties are called third parties.
Sometimes, the one issue of a third party is adopted later by one of the two major parties. Child labor laws were once a third party issue.
Supporters of third parties are often those people who feel that neither the Democrats nor Republicans express their views on government. These third parties nominate candidates for state and national offices just as the Democrats and Republicans do. However, very few third party candidates ever get elected to major political offices. There are several reasons for this.
Third parties are often one-issue parties. That means that a party is formed because the supporters feel strongly about just one issue. Therefore, the party membership remains small, and its appeal is limited. This also usually means that the party will receive very little financial support to push its ideas and its
candidates. In addition, it will be harder for the party to receive TV, radio, and press coverage. All these factors make it very difficult for third parties to play a strong role in the political system.
Third parties have sometimes been spoilers in presidential elections. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, who had been President from 1901 to 1909, split from the Republican party. He ran once again for President, this time as a member of the Progressive party. Roosevelt did not win. He actually received more votes than the Republican candidate, President William Howard Taft, who was running for reelection. This result allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to be elected.
In 1968, Alabama Governor George Wallace left the Democratic party. He formed the American Independent party and ran for President. Wallace received more than nine million votes, many of them from Democrats. This result allowed Republican Richard Nixon to be elected President with less than 50 percent of the nation’s total vote.
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt ran for President as a third party candidate.
Joining a Political Party
You have to be 18 years old to vote. You can join a political party at any time and work for the ideas that you support. Most of the work of political parties is done by volunteers, people who give of their time without pay. Campaigns are expensive. People are needed to collect donations. Others are needed to fold, stamp, and mail campaign letters. Volunteers walk door to door in every neighborhood, talking to people and trying to win votes for the party’s candidates. Many communities have groups of young adults and students who are active party members, such as the Young Republicans or the Young Democrats.
You will have to decide for yourself whether or not you want to join a political party. No one has to join. You can vote whether or not you belong to a party. By joining a political party, you become part of a powerful, large group that actively works for changes. By joining a party, you are likely to keep learning more about government. The more you know about government, the better able you are to decide on candidates and issues at election time.
Who Can Vote?
In the United States, almost everyone 18 years old and over is allowed to vote. However, the sad fact is that almost half of these people do not vote. Why? Some of them say, “Oh, it’s too much trouble to vote.” Others say, “My vote does not count. It is just one out of millions.”
How much is your vote worth? Is it worth fighting for? Is it worth going to jail for?
In 1872, Susan B. Anthony led a group of women to the voting place in Rochester, New York. At that time, women did not have the right to vote in any federal elections. When Anthony and the other women tried to vote, they were arrested. They were tried and found guilty of breaking the law and were fined $100, which Anthony refused to pay.
Anthony and other people kept fighting for a woman’s right to vote. For almost 50 years, they marched, petitioned, and protested. Time after time, their leaders were thrown in jail. Finally, in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed. It gave women the right to vote. Today, the right to vote is promised to every adult American citizen.
The fight for a woman’s right to vote reached its peak in the early twentieth century.
Why the Right to Vote Is Important
In order to amend the Constitution, a two-thirds majority of Congress has to agree. Then three-fourths of the states must ratify the amendment.
We live in a representative democracy. We choose the people who represent us in government. The most direct effect you can have on the government is through your power to vote. If you lose your vote, you give up your chance to have a say in government. The same thing happens if you do not use your vote.
Even more important, if you do not vote, then all your rights are in danger. The Constitution guarantees your rights. However, the Constitution can be changed by your representatives. It could be changed to take away your rights. Of course, such a change is almost impossible to make unless nearly all of the people want it. Still, it could happen, and you choose your representatives by using your vote.
In the past, whole groups of American citizens were denied the right to vote. In fact, at one time over half of all the adults in the United States could not vote! Their lives were run by a government in which they had no say. African Americans and women have gained the vote over the past 140 years. In addition, the voting age has been lowered from 21 to 18 years of age. These groups represented millions of people. When these groups finally got the right to vote, all their problems did not suddenly disappear. However, they now have the power of a voice in government.
The Laws on Voting Rights
When the United States became a nation in 1776, only white adult men who owned land could vote. In 1870, African American adult men got the right to vote. In 1920, women got the right to vote. In 1971, 18-year-olds got the right to vote.
Today in the United States, a person has to meet only four requirements in order to be able to vote.
A voter must:
1. Be a United States citizen All persons born in the United States are U.S. citizens. A person born in a foreign country whose parents are U.S. citizens is also a citizen. People who are not citizens can become naturalized citizens. First, however, they must meet certain requirements. They must have lived in the United States for five years and be at least 18 years old. They must be able to read, write, and speak English. They must understand the Constitution and promise to uphold it. They must also take a test about U.S. history and government.
2. Be at least 18 years old This age was set by the Twenty-sixth Amendment, passed in 1971. Before that time, 21 was the voting age in most states.
3. Have lived in the area where they intend to vote for a period of time Usually, the requirement is 30 days. States have this rule so that only local people can vote in local elections.
4. Register before voting (in every state except North Dakota) To register, a person gives his or her name, address, age, and other facts to an election official. Then the voter’s name is added to the list of other voters in that state. States register voters to keep them from voting twice.
It is against the law for anyone to take away a person’s right to vote because of sex, race, background, or religion. A person cannot be stopped from voting because he or she has little money or does not own land. It is also against the law for anyone to use force or threats to stop or change a person’s vote.
A person can lose the right to vote in some cases.
Most states take away the voting rights of people who have been found guilty of serious crimes. The right to vote can also be taken away from people whose minds are so ill that they cannot care for themselves.
Check Your Understanding
1. What can a person gain by joining a political party?
2. Give two requirements a person needs to be able to vote.
People must register in order to vote in elections. The man in this photo is registering in Texas.
PREPARING TO VOTE
Did you know that voting begins before election day? A few weeks before the election, you get a sample ballot in the mail. It lists all the people who are running for office in the coming election. It also spells out the new laws and other matters upon which you will be asked to decide.
Before you vote, you should get all the information you can about the candidates and ballot measures. Only then can you decide how to vote. Read newspapers, check the Internet, and listen to the radio and television. They will have news stories about the candidates and the matters on the ballot.
By election day, you should know how you want to vote for everything on the ballot. Mark your choices on the sample ballot. Take it with you to the voting place. This way, you can remember how you decided to vote.
Your sample ballot also tells you when and where to vote. You can vote only at the one place listed on your ballot. In most states, the voting places are open from about 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning to 8:00 or 9:00 at night. If you have to be out of town, you can vote by mail. However, you have to tell the election officials ahead of time.
When you get to the voting place, someone makes sure that you are registered and that you are at the right voting place. Then someone shows you how to vote. In some places, you mark an official ballot by hand. In other places, you use a voting machine to mark your choices. In either case, you vote in private.
After the voting place closes, all the votes are counted. The results of the election are usually made public the next day.
LANDMARK CHANGES IN THE LAW
The Voting Rights Acts
To have any power in government, African Americans and others need representatives who will work for them. They need to vote to get these representatives elected to office. Before they can vote, however, they need to register. In the past, some states did not want African Americans to have any power at all. The white majority in these states tried to keep African Americans from registering to vote.
From about 1870 up through the 1960s, these states often used literacy tests to keep African Americans from registering. To register, people had to show that they could read and write. In addition, they had to show they understood the state constitution. All potential new voters had to take the test. The officials who gave the tests sometimes failed African American doctors who took the test. Meanwhile, these same officials passed white sixth-grade dropouts.
The literacy tests were tricks to discriminate against African Americans. Using such tests was legal under those states’ laws. Furthermore, the results were frightening. In 1960, for example, there were more than 15,000 possible African American voters in a county in one state. However, only 150 of them had been allowed to register to vote.
In 1965, the federal government passed the Voting Rights Act. This act made the use of literacy tests for registering voters illegal. The Voting Acts of 1968, 1970, and 1975 strengthened these laws.
Several southern states, where literacy tests were most often used, decided to fight against the federal laws. They went to the Supreme Court. They said there was nothing wrong with literacy tests. They said that voters should know as much as possible about the elections they vote in. How can someone who cannot read, write, or understand government be a good voter, they asked?
The lawyers for the federal government had two answers. First, they agreed that a literacy test was not necessarily a bad idea. However, for almost 100 years, literacy tests had been used to keep African Americans from voting. With a history like that, could anyone believe that the results of using literacy tests would suddenly change?
In many places, African Americans had also been cheated out of equal opportunities in education. Because of discrimination in education, African Americans would not have an equal chance to pass a fair literacy test.
The Supreme Court supported the federal government. It said the laws against literacy tests were constitutional. Furthermore, the laws were necessary to fight discrimination. Therefore, in the Voting Rights Act of 1975, the government did away with literacy tests for good.
Should literacy tests be allowed? Why or why not?
Chapter 24 Review
Political parties are groups of people who share similar ideas about government and politics.
The United States has a two-party system of government. The main parties are the Democrats and the Republicans.
Many states hold primaries to choose delegates to the national conventions. Other states hold party meetings to choose delegates to the conventions. The convention nominates its candidate for President.
In the United States, a person must meet four requirements for voting.
A person must: (1) be a U.S. citizen, or a naturalized citizen; (2) be at least
18 years old; (3) have lived in the area where he or she intends to vote for
some time; and (4) register before voting.
Write the term from the list that matches each definition below.
1. When states select candidates to represent them in the general election
2. Someone who was not born in the country in which he or she lives and has citizenship
3. A person for whom citizens vote in an election
4. A set of policies
5. Republicans, Democrats
Write your answers in complete sentences.
1. What are the names of the two major political parties in the United States today?
2. What are presidential primaries?
3. What happens at a national political convention?
4. When did women get the right to vote?
5. Why is it difficult for third parties to gain much public support?
6. Why is the Voting Rights Act of 1965 important in the people’s right to vote?
7. Critical Thinking Why do you think the right to vote is important? Give two reasons.
8. Critical Thinking Do you think there should be more than two major political parties in the United States? Explain your answer.
Write About Government
Complete the following activities.
You are in charge of a radio station and television advertising campaign to encourage all eligible citizens to vote.
First, list all the reasons people do not vote.
Then list four strategies you would use to motivate people to vote on election day.