Elections: The Basics

The U.S. has more elections than any other democratic nation, with the electorate (voting-eligible population) expected to vote for candidates seeking election to local, state, and federal offices that have fixed terms of office.  This is especially true in Texas, where voters directly elect numerous federal, state, and local officials to represent us.

Elections are essential in democratic governments because they serve as the principal means by which popular sovereignty and majority rule are supposed to work.  Substantive representation posits that elections serve as a correspondence mechanism between the electorate and elected officials, allowing elected officials to represent their constituents’ beliefs, ideas, values, and preferences.  The extent to which elections ensure that governments will do what the people want depends on various factors, including (but not limited to) campaigning and voting behavior.

Election Systems: At-Large vs. Single Member District

Texas voters select public officials to serve in state government using a combination of at-large and district elections.

At-large elections are used to select members of a governing body who are elected to represent the whole membership of the body (which may be a city, county, state, or country), rather than a subset of that membership.   In at-large elections, every citizen of a political subdivision (i.e., state, county, city, special district) votes for public officials to fill seats that are up for election.

At-large elections are used in Texas to select:

  • U.S. Senators
  • most of the offices in the plural executive that we discussed earlier in this course (governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller of public accounts, land commissioner, etc.)
  • judges serving on the Texas Supreme Court and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (statewide) or in other state courts (at-large within the judicial district)
  • some local government offices, such as county constitutional court judge and mayor

In single-member district elections, a geographic area is divided into separate districts, each of which has one elected representative, and voters within these districts vote for the candidate they would prefer to represent them in government.  Voters can identify which voting precinct and districts they live in by looking at their voting registration certificates.  Drawing election districts is a political process, and redistricting sometimes results in gerrymandering.

Image of Texas voter registration certificate
Sample Voter Registration Certificate.  From Waller County Elections

Single-member district elections are used to select:

  • members of the U.S. House of Representatives
  • state representatives serving in the Texas House of Representatives
  • state senators serving in the Texas Senate
  • members of various executive boards and commissions, including the State Board of Education
  • some local government offices, including county commissioners and justices of the peace

Competitive Seats vs. Open Seats

Competitive seats are election races in which challengers run against incumbents, or current officeholders (example: M.J. Hegar challenging incumbent John Cornyn in the 2020 senate race).  Incumbents are more likely to win competitive seat election races than their challengers.  This phenomenon is known as the incumbency advantageOpen seats, in contrast, are election races in which no incumbent is running for reelection (example: 2014 gubernatorial election, when neither Greg Abbott nor Wendy Davis was the incumbent).

Types of Elections in Texas

Primary Elections

In Texas, political parties coordinate primary elections to select their candidates for elected offices through primary elections and caucuses coordinated by party organizations.  In primary elections, voters choose convention delegates committed to voting for a certain candidate.  There are three different kinds of primary elections:

  • closed primaries, in which only voters registered with a party may vote for that party’s candidates
  • open primaries, in which any registered voter may vote in any party’s primary
  • top-two primary, in which the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party, become the nominees for the general election

Political parties in Texas use a hybrid primary system that is a cross between an open primary and a closed primary to select nominees for the general election: on primary election day, voters must publicly choose the party in whose primary they wish to participate.

Primary elections are majority elections; to become the party’s candidate for an office, a candidate must obtain the majority of the votes in the primary election (at least 50% + 1 vote).  If no candidate receives a majority of the votes, a runoff election between the top two candidates will be held.

Primary elections in Texas take place on the first Tuesday in March of even-numbered years.  Runoff elections occur on the first Tuesday in April, following the primary election.

General Elections

General elections are used to fill national and state offices.  In the general election, voters choose between candidates for each of the major parties (and, when applicable, candidates from minor parties or independent candidates with no party affiliation).  General elections are plurality elections; whichever candidate receives the most votes wins the election.  Note that “most” is not the same as “majority” in theory — in practice, however, whoever wins the election usually receives the majority of the votes because minor parties do not fare well in Texas.

General elections are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years.

Other Elections

There are several other types of elections in Texas, including:

  • local elections for city, school district, and special district officials; these are usually nonpartisan elections (i.e., candidates are not affiliated with a political party) and are usually held on odd-numbered years so they do not coincide with general elections
  • special elections called outside of the normal election calendar (ex: to approve local bond issues; to fill unexpected gaps in the state legislature; etc.)
  • noncandidate elections, which include:
    1. bond elections, or elections to obtain voter approval for a local government going into debt
    2. local option (wet-dry) elections, which are used to determine whether an area will legalize the sale of alcoholic beverages
    3. constitutional amendment elections, which allow voters the opportunity to ratify constitutional amendments with a majority vote
    4. recall elections*, which allow voters to remove elected officials from office before the end of their term
    5. initiative process*, through which citizens can propose legislation by gathering a certain number of signatures on a petition
    6. referendum*, in which citizens can oppose existing legislation by gathering a certain number of signatures on a petition

*Note that while many Texas cities provide for initiative, referendum, and recall, the state of Texas (i.e., our state government) does not.

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