The US is a constitutional republic with indirect democracy. When people go to the polls this year, they won’t just select who they want to run the country, but they will also choose who they want to serve their congressional district in the House of Representatives. A third of the country will also vote in senatorial elections, while state and local positions may also be on the ballot, as well as ballot initiatives and referendums.
The people will not directly elect the president, however, and that can lead to a lot of confusion. First, each political party selects its nominee, usually through the primary and caucus system. Then the citizens vote. Finally, the Electoral College selects the next US president, based on how people vote in each state.
Who gets to vote?
At the federal level, any naturalized or native-born US citizen at least 18 years of age is eligible to vote, as long as they are registered to do so. Beyond that, each state has its own rules regarding the eligibility of convicted felons, whether voters are required to show a photo ID and more. Americans living abroad and in the military are still able to vote, usually by an absentee ballot that is mailed in. Registered voters who cannot go to the polls on November 8 can also vote via absentee ballot or, in some states, in person during an early voting period that begins up to 46 days before Election Day. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, early voters are able to change or “spoil” their votes under specific circumstances.
What is the Electoral College and how does it work?
The candidate who wins the election may not be the person who won the popular vote, which is based on the total number of votes cast throughout each country. George W. Bush in 2000 was the most recent example of an election winner who lost the popular vote. Instead, victory is based on the 538 members of the Electoral College, each of whom represent a state or the District of Columbia based on population. The number of electoral voters a state gets is equal to its representation in Congress, with a minimum of three (Delaware, DC, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming) and a maximum of 55 (California). The winning candidate must receive at least 270 votes in the Electoral College.
Although representation in the Electoral College is based on a state’s representation in Congress, the Constitution specifically prevents any “Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States” from serving as an elector. Instead, the political parties choose a slate of electors for each state. Voters then choose the electors that will represent their state in the Electoral College. Electors’ names may or may not appear on the ballot below the presidential candidates, depending on the state, according to the National Archives.
In Maine and Nebraska, the electoral votes are split by congressional district, with the winner of the state’s popular vote gaining the two statewide votes. Traditionally, any districts that opt for the losing candidate will cede their votes to the winner. In the remaining 48 states, the electoral votes are winner-take-all. There are no federal laws that require electors vote with their state’s popular vote, but several states have enacted such requirements. In other states, electors are bound by pledges to the political parties to do so. No elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as they pledged, according to the US National Archives, but at least two electors have done so, once in 1972 and once in 1976.
What’s a “swing state”?
A swing state, also known as a battleground state, is one that does not historically vote with one major political party or the other. The current swing states (and their electoral votes) are: Colorado (9), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18) and Virginia (13). Although they have voted for the Democratic candidate since at least 1992, some political analysts consider Michigan (16), Pennsylvania (20) and Wisconsin (10) to be current battlegrounds as well. Candidates tend to spend a lot of time and money in those states, as they are often the deciding factors in the election. In fact, no Republican has won the White House without also winning Ohio since the party was established in 1854.
What happens if no one gets 270 electoral votes?
Historically “blue” states ‒ those that have voted for a Democrat in at least the last five presidential elections ‒ total 247 electoral votes, while “red” states ‒ those that historically vote for a Republican ‒ total 191 electoral votes. Swing states have a total of 100 electoral votes up for grabs. It is possible, though improbable, that neither candidate will snag the required number of votes to win the presidency. At that point, it heads to Congress to decide who will enter the White House, according to the 12th Amendment of the Constitution.
The House of Representatives will vote for the next president from among the top three candidates. The Senate will vote for the next vice president from among the top two candidates. This has happened once in US history: In 1824, no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College, so the House elected John Quincy Adams as president. At that point in time, candidates did not run as a combined presidential and vice presidential ticket, and John C. Calhoun won the vice presidency outright.
What about these “third parties” I keep hearing about?
As mentioned above, if no one wins a majority in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives will select the next president from the top three vote-getters. Although much of the focus has been on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, there are nearly 1,800 people who have filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as candidates. There are a total of 31 individuals who are on at least one state ballot; of those candidates, 13 are on multiple ballots and only three (Clinton, Trump and Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson) are on the ballot in all 50 states. Green Party nominee Jill Stein is on the ballot in 44 states and has achieved write-in status in another three. Constitution Party Darrell Castle nominee is on the ballot in 24 states and is a write-in candidate in 22 other states. Another candidate to watch is Evan McMullin, an independent, who could make a play for his home state of Utah and its six electoral votes.
The popular vote does matter when it comes to third parties, however. If a third-party candidate receives 5 percent of the vote, then their party is eligible to receive federal grants from the FEC in the 2020 general election. Candidates may retroactively qualify for public funds if they receive 5 percent of the popular vote this year.
Are US representatives and senators on the ballot?
Presidents are elected to four-year terms; they are limited by the 22nd Amendment from serving more than two terms. They have to deal with the legislative branch, which has different terms. In the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, lawmakers serve two-year terms, with all 435 seats up for election every two years. In the upper chamber, the Senate, lawmakers serve six-year terms, and only a third of seats are up for election during any one election cycle. Neither chamber has term limits. Representatives serve congressional districts within each state that are based on population, while two senators represent each state.
During this election cycle, seven Democratic and 22 Republican senators are running for reelection, while another three Democrats and two Republicans are retiring and leaving their seats up for grabs. Only 12 of the races are considered competitive, and the Democrats need win just five of them to take control of the Senate.
What about people in DC and in US territories?
US citizens living in the nation’s capital or in the American territories of American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands do not have voting representation in Congress. DC residents, however, are eligible to vote for president, and receive three votes in the Electoral College. Those living in US territories are not eligible to vote for president, but they are able to participate in the primary process.
Tim Kaine is a senator. What if he becomes the vice president?
If Clinton wins the presidency, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) would become the vice president and will have to resign his Senate seat. Governor Terry McAuliffe, another Democrat, would be able to name Kaine’s replacement. The state would then hold a special election in 2017 ‒ aligned with the Virginia gubernatorial race ‒ to fill the remainder of what would have been Kaine’s term, which ends in 2018.
Mike Pence is a governor. What if he becomes the vice president?
If Trump wins the presidency, Governor Mike Pence (R-Indiana) would become the vice president. Pence was running for reelection until Trump tapped him to be his VP nominee. At that point, he withdrew his gubernatorial candidacy. Win or lose, Indiana will elect a new governor on November 8.
What other positions are up for election?
Like Indiana, many other states have gubernatorial elections this year. Local, county and state positions are on ballots across the country, and ballots differ down to the precinct. To view what a specific ballot looks like, visit that state’s election office website.
What are ballot measures and initiatives?
A ballot measure ‒ also called a proposition, referendum or question ‒ is an issue or piece of legislation put to the voters as a measure of direct democracy. A referendum can be used to enact or repeal a statute passed by the legislature. An initiative is an issue or constitutional amendment that makes it onto the ballot after a petition is signed by a certain number of registered voters.
Field & Organizing
Hosting Your Chapter’s First Meeting For General Members
Filling The Room
- Pass out fliers the week before, the week of and the day of the meeting.
- Use a simple, professional design for your flyers – less is more.
- Your flyers should be a quarter-page size to cut down on printing costs. These are the ones you will hand out in classrooms, on campus, in the cafeterias, etc. It’s like the old saying goes: “Wherever you go, there you flyer!” Create larger whole-page and half-page flyers to hang around campus in student areas, bathrooms, hallways, classroom doors, staircases, dormitories and wherever else the Student Activities Office allows it.
- Ask your professors to let you make an announcement before class about the chapter and your upcoming meeting. Place a flyer on the overhead or hand them out to your fellow students.
- Talk with the leadership of other student organizations and see if they will let you make an announcement about your chapter and upcoming meeting at their next convening.
- Invite all of your friends on Facebook to attend the first meeting and encourage your friends to do the same. You can @mention people to bring attention to the inaugural meeting. Create an official Facebook event page (because if it’s on Facebook, it’s a thing).
Getting the Room
- Select and reserve your room early. Depending upon your Student Activities Office, rooms available for student organizations may be limited and consequently may get reserved early. While you’re at it, try to reserve the same space for the remainder of the semester for your general meetings.
- Rooms should have technology like a computer, projector, screen and DVD player available for the use of student groups. Make sure you’re able to access the technology – whether that means signing out the keys or jotting down a password – and test it out beforehand!
Feeding the Room
- TFNEF will cover the cost of food for your events – either purchase the food on your own and have TFNEF reimburse you, or ask TFNEF to order food for your meeting. NOTE: Please provide at least 24-hours notice to TFNEF staff for food orders.
- The amount of food provided to attendees each meeting will vary depending upon the type of event you’re hosting. For example, having pizza or an equivalent meal is appropriate for the first meeting and special occasions, like officer elections. For other meetings, light refreshments, like bottled water and cookies, nuts, or candy is perfectly fine.
- Always try to provide food that accommodates dietary restrictions or preferences that members may have, including vegetarian and vegan options.
- Save all receipts! You must have a receipt to be reimbursed.
Organizing the Room
Wowing the Room
- Greet people as they come in. Shake their hands, look them in the eyes and thank them for coming.
- Ask them to take a moment to sign in. Have officers standing with sign-in sheets on clipboards or a table. Sign-in sheets should have space for attendee’s first and last names, cell phone numbers, email addresses, mailing addresses, year of birth, and, depending upon how your chapter decides to leverage social media, Twitter handles. While attendees are signing in, officers are making their nametags and handing them agendas. Officers are also responsible for holding on to the sign-in sheets, as those sheets are the chapter’s Holy Grail and will be used to build your chapter’s member database after the meeting.
- Direct attendees to the food, and point out vegetarian and vegan options.
- If possible, play background music while people are arriving – it breaks the proverbial ice that often accompanies any inaugural meeting when people are first getting to know each other. Playing background music after the meeting has adjourned may also be helpful. It lets attendees know the official meeting is over and they’re welcome to relax a little and hang out. Just like it’s important for officers to have time to get to know one another without talking business, it’s good for your chapter’s members to socialize informally as well.
Keeping The Room
Field & Organizing
Progressive Public Policy
Field & Organizing
Public & Political Leadership
Editor’s note: we wrote this resource in partnership with Texas Freedom Network Education Fund (TFNEF) as part of our work to develop a Civic Engagement Manual. So while the examples here are about Texas, and directed towards students, we hope they’re helpful to organizers, young and old, across the country.
The radical right’s attacks on Texans’ religious freedoms, individual liberties and public schools certainly provide more than enough fodder for outrage. Unfortunately, righteous indignation alone has never achieved a progressive victory. Rather, disciplined strategies supported by diverse tactics are necessary for raising awareness, rallying others and creating change. Whether organizing your campus, working on an election, or creating a policy agenda, having these tools in your proverbial arsenal will position you – and the communities you represent – for sustainable success.
Although the importance of planning may seem obvious, it is often overlooked because organizations are caught up in the passion of their cause and certain of their convictions. However, having a written plan is essential because it provides focus and context so we know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Planning allows us to use our resources efficiently and also establishes benchmarks that hold us accountable and enable us to strategically redirect midstream if we encounter bumps in the road. Ultimately, planning democratizes knowledge – meaning that everyone involved in the effort knows the players, the strategy and the timeline, and we are drawing on the team’s collective knowledge and expertise.
And while we at TFNEF strive not to hit anyone over the head with a particular point, this one is worth reiterating – a plan is not a plan unless it is written down.
In addition to being written down (and saved to USB drives, and Cloud-like systems like Dropbox or Google Docs, and perhaps tattooed on particularly committed individuals’ arms) a strategic plan determines who will do what with whom by when and for how much. This play on the 5 W’s “who, what, when, where, and why” we all learned in grade school translates into determining who will be responsible for managing and executing the most effective activities and actions to demonstrate and leverage our power to key decision makers and outreach targets in a timely fashion and within budget. That’s a mouthful, right? Luckily for you, our friends at Wellstone Action have broken down strategic planning into four steps: Vision, Assessment, Strategy, and Tactics.
The Progressive’s Existential Crisis: AKA – Identifying Our Vision
Establishing our vision means determining our goal. Our goal is what we want to achieve through our strategic plan. More often than not, the problems we face are intertwined and complicated. Without a process to identify root causes and achievable solutions, it’s all too easy to bite off more than we can chew and find ourselves overwhelmed, out-resourced and in over our heads. This is how we lose. To avoid this, we need to follow a process that zeroes in on the specific problem and points to a goal that is strategic, measurable, powerful and achievable.
To assess the problem we need to write a “problem statement.” This statement defines the problem in a way that clarifies its causes. For example, a problem statement could be: “State Board of Education members have abused their authority to approve curriculum standards and textbooks so that they can use public schools to promote extremist political agendas, not facts and sound scholarship in Texas classrooms.”
After the problem statement has been determined, it’s time to brainstorm potential solutions. When brainstorming, it’s important to be inclusive of everyone’s ideas while remaining focused on your problem statement. We admit it’s a fine line to walk, but Wellstone Action and Midwest Academy have created a Goal Criteria tool to help evaluate possible solutions and ultimately identify the goal that best addresses the problem statement.
When evaluating if a possible solution improves people’s lives, consider whether this course of action will actually help anyone in concrete ways. Weighing if a possible solution is specific and measurable is helpful in ensuring the solution is actually achievable. Asking if the possible solution is winnable forces us to think about whether the “powers that be” would allow this solution to see the light of day. Considering whether the possible solution alters power relationships so people with less power gain access to more power is particularly relevant to achieving social change. Asking if a possible solution builds your organization’s strength through allies, membership, or funding is critical to determining if a solution increases your group’s long-term power. Finally, gauging if a possible solution excites your group is indicative of whether you’ll be able to generate, sustain and grow your organization’s interest and commitment to the campaign.
The Goal Criteria listed here isn’t definitive. In fact, it’s important for your group to include additional criteria that speak directly to your values, circumstances and needs. However, the criteria recommended here establish a strong foundation against which you can weigh possible solutions. After plugging in the possible solutions and checking off which solutions match what criteria, you’ll be able to identify the specific solution that best addresses your tailored problem statement. In other words: congratulations are in order. You now have your goal.
Assessment: Getting the Lay of the Land
Now that you’ve identified your problem statement and goal, it’s time to assess the environment you’re operating within. While there are a number of tools that can be used to determine who holds power and how to get it, “power mapping” is particularly powerful (pun intended). “Power mapping” is a visual representation of where power relationships currently stand around the issues your group cares about. It also illustrates how we can rearrange power dynamics to win.
A power map contains key players:
- Decision makers: the people who actually make the decisions needed to resolve the problem. These are the people with the power to give your group what it wants. Depending upon your problem statement and goal, this group may include the leadership and governing board at your university, City Council members, local voters, or members of Congress. Decision makers are primary targets in our power map because of their ability to directly enact change to solve the problem you’ve identified.
- Organized allies: organized groups who support your agenda. Organized allies are considered secondary targets in our power map because they influence decision makers
- Organized opposition: organized groups who oppose your agenda. Similar to organized allies, organized opposition are also secondary targets because of their ability to exert influence on decision makers rather than make the decisions themselves.
While secondary targets are traditionally organizations looking to advance their agenda, individuals with close connections to decision makers can also be secondary targets on our power map. For example, the partner or spouse of a decision maker, a trusted childhood friend, or even members of a decision maker’s religious congregation can be secondary targets because of their ability to influence the decision maker.
Once we’ve identified who should populate our power map – the decision makers, organized allies, organized opposition, and individuals of influence who are secondary targets – we need to examine the power map.
More likely, you’ll find yourself placing people who are able to make decisions and/or exert strong influence along the “8” or “9” portion of this gamut. For example, a person who is placed at “8” is someone who is sitting in the room as an active participant when the decision is being made. While most decision makers are at this level, few organized groups operate here. Rather, groups can be placed at the “5” or “7” level if they are able to meet with a decision maker and generate press coverage about an issue. These groups have power because their opinions will be taken into consideration by decision makers due to their demonstrated ability to effectively organize their members. Less effective organizations should be placed at a “2” or “3” level.
The horizontal axis measures relative support for our goal. Our core constituencies and die-hard supporters occupy the far left of this axis. These groups and individuals not only support our cause on paper. They are also actively engaged in working with us and commit resources like time, human capital, and funding to our cause. These individuals may be the founding members of your cause. (Like you – yes, you are included in the power map!)
Organizations and individuals who fall into the “Active Support” portion of this axis include those who give us their verbal or written endorsement. They may write a letter to the editor or testify on your cause’s behalf. However, the distinguishing factor between “Active Supporters” and “Die Hards” is that Active Supporters don’t commit significant resources to help us achieve our goal, whereas Die Hards adopt an “all hands on deck” mentality.
Groups should be placed in the “Inclined Towards” area if they are likely allies who share an ideological predisposition for support, have worked with you in the past, or are major stakeholders who will be impacted positively by your agenda.
The middle area of this axis is for groups and individuals whose stance is neutral or unknown.
Organizations that are most likely opposed to our goal based on their beliefs and/or practices should be placed in the “Inclined Against” portion of the axis. Groups who have publicly dismissed our cause and voiced their opposition to our goal should be classified as “Active Against.” Finally, groups that are not only adamantly against our goal but are also allocating resources to defeat us should be deemed as “Die Hard Against”. While it may seem counterintuitive to include decision makers and groups who are against our cause in our power map, it’s actually critical to incorporate them as you assess your environment. Knowing and, more importantly, understanding your opposition and their connections allows you to anticipate their potential attempts to discredit your cause and empowers you to proactively inoculate yourself from attacks.
Now it’s time to put the targets we’ve identified on our power map. The placement of decision makers, allies, opponents, and key influential individuals is a critical activity and often involves a lot of discussion. At times you will see some disagreement among team members. This is okay, and in fact, it is expected. Remember: one of the main purposes of planning is to democratize knowledge so everyone involved knows the players and strategies. We want to draw on your team’s collective knowledge and expertise. The key to successful power mapping is to be self-aware when determining your own power and honest when evaluating other’s relative power – including the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
After your power map is complete, take a step back. Literally – step away from the map. Take a moment to absorb the full picture you and your team have created. Voilá – you have identified your key targets and know where they stand on the solution you’ve identified to solve your problem statement. This means you’re ready to move on to the third step of planning: developing your strategy.
Strategy: Creating Your Path to Victory
Now that you know who your targets are and their respective stances on your goal, you must determine how you’re going to earn enough support for your vision to become a reality.
There are three main ways to realign a power map to position yourself for victory. You can move your primary targets – the decision makers – to the left in greater support of your cause. Similarly, you can move your allies up and to the left – essentially making your coalition partners more powerful and enhancing their commitment to your cause. Finally, you can identify relationships between primary targets and allied groups and leverage those connections on behalf of your cause to shore up support from decision makers who are on the fence.
Use your power map as a tool when developing these strategies and bridging connections. Go nuts: draw arrows on your map or tie string from organizations to decision makers or between decision makers and back to organizations – whatever helps you understand their relationships and what will motivate them to support your goal.
Once you know what you need to do to secure the support of decision makers, write your strategy down. Forgive us for belaboring the point, but remember: if it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist. Your strategy doesn’t need to be a novel – Ulysses this is not. All a strategy statement needs to do is establish who will execute what actions to demonstrate power to key decision makers and targets by when. It’s the “5 W’s” from elementary school, remember? Turns out paying attention in third grade pays off in dividends when advocating for progressive change in your community. Who knew? Just in case you were absent from class that day (we won’t judge), here’s a sample strategy statement:
Texas Freedom Network Education Fund Strategy Statement for ABC Cause
Legislators X and Y are key to winning. Legislator A is our bill’s champion.
Legislator A will use her relationships to persuade Legislator X to co-sign the bill and secure Legislator Y’s vote in favor of the bill.
Group 1 will ask their close ally, Legislator X, to support the bill.
Group 2 will use their close ties with Group 3 to secure support from Legislator Y.
Group 1, 2, and 3 will participate in general mobilization activities to create visibility and energy for our bill.
But what general mobilization activities will the groups be participating in, you ask? Funny you mention it, because that leads us to the fourth and final step of strategic planning: tactics.
Tactics: Putting Your Strategy in Motion
Tactics are the activities you will use to execute your strategy. These are actions that educate and build your base around an issue, apply pressure to a decision maker, or, ideally, both! (Who doesn’t like a good two-fer?) Ultimately, we use tactics to persuade decision makers to support our agenda.
Some of the most common tactics involve earned media, like letter writing campaigns and op-eds to local papers from a trusted community member. While we don’t actually pay for earned media like we would fork over dollars for a television ad or a radio spot, we certainly have to work for it. After all, the average person has to hear a message five to seven times over a short amount of time in order for it to sink in. Luckily for you, we here at TFNEF happen to have some tricks up our sleeves to make sure your message cuts through the noise, resonates with your audience and compels people to take action.