Congressional elections

Congressional Elections Overview

  • Congress is America’s legislative body, made up of two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives.
  • Members of Congress are directly elected by the public in congressional elections.
  • The House of Representatives consists of 435 seats, with representatives serving 2-year terms. All seats are up for election every 2 years.
  • The Senate consists of 100 seats, with senators serving 6-year terms. Elections are staggered, with approximately one-third of seats up for election every 2 years.
  • Congressional districts are drawn by state legislatures, but can be subject to gerrymandering.

Election Procedures

  • Candidates for Congress typically receive nominations from the two major political parties in the US, the Democrats and the Republicans.
  • Multi-stage primary elections are usually held to determine the candidate for each party.
  • The dates and rules for these primaries vary by state.
  • The general election in November selects the winner, typically based on a ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) system.

Campaigning and Fundraising

  • Campaigning and fundraising are pivotal parts of congressional elections, with candidates needing to raise substantial amounts of money.
  • Funds are typically raised through donations, often from Political Action Committees (PACs), Super PACs, and individual contributors.
  • Campaign finance is a contentious issue in American politics, with criticisms around transparency, influence of wealthy donors, and potential for corruption.

Impact of Congressional Elections

  • Regular congressional elections are intended to ensure representatives are accountable to their constituents.
  • Elections can significantly shift the balance of power between the parties in Congress, affecting the ability to pass legislation.
  • The mid-term elections, held halfway through a President’s four-year term, are often viewed as a referendum on the President’s performance.

Noteworthy Features

  • Incumbent advantage is a key characteristic of congressional elections: sitting congressional members are often re-elected.
  • Congressional elections are often impacted by national issues and events, despite being local in scope. This phenomenon is called the nationalization of elections.
  • Split-ticket voting, where a voter chooses candidates from different parties on the same ballot, has become less common over time.

Challenges and Criticisms

  • Polarisation between the two main parties has been increasingly evident in congressional elections.
  • Critics argue that gerrymandering distorts representation in the House of Representatives, leading to ‘safe’ seats and reducing competition.
  • Low voter turnout, especially in mid-term elections, raises concerns about the representativeness of Congress.
  • The role of big money in campaign financing, and influence of special interest groups, is another major point of criticism.