State of Elections

William & Mary Law School | Election Law Society

Election Law Glossary


A meeting of party leaders to discuss official business, most prominently for the choosing of nominees for the Presidency.  Caucuses were a dominant political force in Presidential nominating contests prior to 1968, with nominees for President focusing on currying favor with caucus-state leaders to amass enough party delegates to capture the party’s nomination.  Since the switch to primary-dominated Presidential politics in the 1970’s, the caucus system has been used with less frequency, today only being used in a fraction of states to determine delegates to the party conventions.  The caucus states are not without sway, however; a prime example of their remaining influence came in 2008, where then-Senator Barack Obama significantly outperformed Senator Hillary Clinton in caucus states like Iowa and Nevada, providing him with enough momentum to capture the nomination.

Citizens United

The 2009 decision by the United States Supreme Court that found that corporations are allowed to make financial contributions towards “electioneering communications.”  The decision struck down a federal statute barring such expenditures as a violation of the First Amendment rights of corporations.  Justice Kennedy, delivering the opinion for the Court, argued that First Amendment protections of campaign contributions do not depend on the wealth of the contributor, since everyone contributes money to campaigns from the same economic marketplace.  The decision has been heavily criticized as opening the floodgates for a dangerous level of corporate money disproportionately affecting the electoral process.  One consequence that opponents of the decision have pointed to is the subsequent rise of SuperPAC organizations, who are able to accept unlimited amounts of money from individuals, unions, and corporations, and whose financial might could potentially have a serious, and even corrupting, effect on the electoral process.  Supporters of the decision have countered with the assertion that just because some speakers have influence over elected officials through their contributions does not mean that they or the officials they contribute to are therefore corrupt.


The process by which electoral districts are manipulated by officials in charge of redistricting in order to benefit a particular incumbent or political party.  Named for Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, whose contorted state legislative districts (including one that resembled a salamander) helped his Democratic-Republican colleagues sweep the 1812 election, the process has been a common and controversial one throughout American history.  The process usually often involves two techniques: diluting the political power of a particular group by spreading their numbers out over many districts, or concentrating the power of a particular group in one district and preventing their influence from spreading to other districts.  The Supreme Court, while deciding in Davis v. Bandemer, found that challenges to such districts may be justiciable on equal protection grounds, but in that case and others, the court has declined to strike down a redistricting plan based on the practice of gerrymandering.

Instant runoff voting (IRV)

A system of conducting elections that involves voters ranking the candidates in order of preference with the eventual goal of electing one candidate.  Under the IRV system, voters will rank the candidates numerically on the ballot.  A first round of ballot counting takes place in which each ballot where a candidate is ranked first is counted as a vote for that particular candidate.  At the end of the first round of voting, if one candidate has a majority of the first preferences, he or she is declared the winner.  If no candidate garners a majority, the candidate with the least amount of first place votes is eliminated, and all of their first place ballots are recounted with the second place candidate receiving credit for those ballots.  The process continues in this manner until one candidate receives a majority of the votes.  While this process is more popular outside of the United States, especially in intra-party elections in countries like the United Kingdom and Canada, a number of American jurisdictions do use the IRV system, including San Francisco, California, and Minneapolis and St. Paul Minnesota.

Judicial Elections

The process conducted by some states of electing members of the judiciary to the state bench through a popular vote.  Currently, seven states hold a partisan election for state judges, while fourteen states hold non-partisan elections for that purpose. Seven states have a strict executive or legislative appointment process for selecting judges that mirrors the federal model, and involves no election of any kind.  The remaining states have a wide variety of processes, including merit selection by an independent nominating commission.  The process of electing judges has been met with criticism at times, with some arguing that the process threatens judicial independence and allows for a monetary influence upon the judiciary through campaign contributions.


The process by which the districts of the House of Representatives and State Legislatures are redrawn after every census to account for population changes.  The process for the House of Representatives takes place shortly after the reapportionment of seats for each state based on relative population changes.  Once the reapportionment process determines the amount of districts for each state based on the decennial census, each state redraws the district borders based upon intrastate population shifts.  At the same time, the states will also redraw the district lines for their state legislative districts. There are a variety of different methods used by states to engage in redistricting.  Many states still require the state legislature to conduct the redistricting efforts, but other states have tried to remove partisanship and self-interest from the process by creating various nonpartisan bodies to redraw the district borders, sometimes independently of the legislature, and other times subject to the legislature’s approval. The process is governed by a few overarching requirements, including the apportioning of districts that have a majority of the residents come from a minority group.


An electoral process that allows citizens to put up to a popular vote acts of the legislature, with the desired goal of defeating that measure.  When a prescribed number of citizens sign a petition in opposition to the act, the act is placed on the ballot, and the entire jurisdiction votes on whether to uphold or strike down that measure at the next election.  A total of 24 states allow referendums, most of which are Western states.  Referendums are similar to (but independent from) initiatives, which are proposals for new laws or constitutional amendments that originate from a group of citizens themselves, not the legislature.  Initiatives are also put to a popular vote after a prescribed number of citizens sign a petition, and are usually allowed in the states that have referendums.

Voter Fraud

The process by which electoral results are manipulated through the mechanisms of voting.  The most common forms of voter fraud involve tampering with the voter registration rolls by adding ineligible voters, intimidating eligible voters, and unduly influencing the vote tallying process.  Claims of voter fraud have ranged from isolated incidents involving individual races to major political machines controlling the electoral process of a jurisdiction for many years.  One of the most prominent examples of such an alleged effort came in the 1960 presidential election, where the defeated Republican party made claims of widespread ballot stuffing and manipulation of final vote counts in Chicago, where Democratic Mayor Richard Daley had a firm grasp on the electoral mechanisms.  While Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon did not formally contest the election, the overwhelming majority Kennedy received in Cook County (Chicago) alone, over 450,000 votes, negated the Nixon majority throughout the rest of the state and gave Kennedy the 9,000 vote victory needed to garner a majority in the electoral college.

Voting Rights Act

Federal law passed in 1965 designed to provide legal protections for the rights of African Americans to register and vote.  The Act voided voting laws across the country aimed at depressing African American registration, most prominently the  literacy test requirement implemented in a number of southern states.  The Act further established strict supervisory powers of the federal government, through the Department of Justice (DOJ), over the electoral process in states with a history of voting discrimination.  The most famous of these powers, referred to as “preclearance,” requires that the DOJ to pre-approve any attempts by these states to change voting qualifications and practices, which includes redistricting plans passed as a result of the Census.  Congress renewed the Act in 2006 for another 25 years, which was overturned in part by the Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder.

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