It’s less than 50 days until Election Day, which means ballots will be in the mail soon and millions of people across the country will begin filling in bubble sheets, many of whom will have no idea what they’re voting on – or for.
Maybe this person is you. It’s okay, you’re not alone. I’ve been involved in politics since I was in my teens, spent several years working in the U.S. Senate, and still have those moments. Why? Because government’s complicated.
I could use my B.A. in Political Science and tell you why the founding fathers of our country designed it to be complicated. It’s inherently designed to lock things up, get nothing done, allow things to stall and fall by the wayside. They had the foresight to see that we are sinful, broken people with messed up, selfish priorities a lot of the time. And they also knew that with most things, if we just wait a while, things work themselves out without the government getting involved.
But we’ve done a good job of further complicating the process they put in place. We do this in the name of “getting things done” and because of various motivations and priorities of the electorate. And by doing so, we have made our elections, our government, the process of doing the business of the country a very confusing and convoluted system.
This post and the ones to follow are focused on providing a bird’s eye view of the system of government we have so that when you look at your ballot this fall, you’ll have some idea of what part of the system you’re voting on and how it can affect your family. Because here at Mom + Life, that’s our goal – to help you rock being a mom and make your life a little easier.
My intent is not to tell you what decision to make on your ballot, but rather to give you enough information about the process that you feel confident in making your own choice.
There are three divisions (or branches) of our system of government: legislative, judicial, and executive. The legislative branch deals with writing laws – a.k.a. legislation…thus, the name legislative branch– and is what we know as Congress. Contained within the legislative branch is the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. These two parts of the Congress are also sometimes called the upper and lower chambers, respectively.
Where things get confusing is that there is a legislative branch at the national level in Washington, D.C., and at the State Capitol. (Yes, each state has its own Capitol building and separate level of government.) Both use most of the same terms and deal with the same things, just one at the state level and the other at the national level. Some laws affect what the federal government has control over, and other laws affect what the state has control over. So depending on the law and what it does, it could be discussed, debated and voted on at either the State or U.S. Capitol.
A privilege of being a citizen is that we get to elect the people who belong to Congress, both at the state and national level, and we are supposed to vote for the person that most closely represents who we are and what we care about most. Thus, why we have a “representative” government. On your ballot, the differentiation between the state and national level is shown as “U.S. House of Representatives District X” versus “State Representative District X” or “U.S. Senate” versus “State Senator District X.”
The House of Representatives
All Representatives at the state and national level represent a geographical area of land called a district. How big of a district they have is based on population and is usually determined every ten years following the census. Our U.S. Constitution limits the total number of members in the U.S. House of Representatives to 435, so depending on your particular state’s population, you could have a large or small number of districts in your state. Currently, California has the most with 53 districts, and Wyoming has the fewest with one.
How many each state has is about to change in 2021 because there is a census this year. So depending on your state’s current population compared to 2010, you may gain or lose another member to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The intention of the lower chamber was that it would be a more direct representation of the people and their desires over time. Because of this, the entire chamber of government goes through an election every two years. Since campaigning is difficult and time consuming, it pretty much means that every member of the U.S. House of Representatives is always campaigning.
At the state level, it’s setup very similarly. The lower chamber (the House) is made up of people who represent districts, which are defined by population. The larger cities would have more representation – voting members – than the suburbs or the rural areas. Each state has the right to set up their state level of government as they see fit for their state, so it’s a little different state-by-state.
I won’t go into all of that here, but just know that when you look at your ballot and see that you’re voting for someone to “State Representative District X” they’ll be working at the State Capitol and should represent you and your values, mindset, and goals for where you live.
For example, if you meet someone running for State Representative, you don’t want to start talking to them about your views on military issues and our nation’s relationship with China. But they’d love to hear about the road conditions in your town and the challenges you’ve had starting your business.
The Senate is the upper chamber and is intentionally setup a little differently from the House. The number of members in the U.S. Senate is written into our Constitution at 100. Each state gets the same number of members in this chamber – two. In the Senate, each state has equal representation, whereas in the House, the more people you have in your state, the more members you have.
You may notice that with 100 members, you could potentially have a tie vote. Our founders thought of this, and if this happens, which it has, the tie breaking vote is cast by the Vice President of the United States.
At the national level, Senators are elected to a six-year term. The Senate was designed by our founders to be the long term, mainstay of the legislative branch. It is set up such that even though there is an election every two years, only a third of the Senators are up for election at any one time. Meaning that there will never be a time when the entire Senate is up for election. Further, no state has both of its senators up for election the same year, so there is continuity built into this chamber.
At the state level, State Senators are elected to either a two or four year term, as outlined by that state’s constitution. See where your state lands by looking at this map. Something else that’s different at the state level is that the State Senate has population defined districts, similar to the house. However, state senators have a larger geographical area and there are fewer of them than the state representatives. For example, in Colorado there are 35 state senators and 65 state representatives.
In the Weeds
There’s a lot more I could go into here….voting procedures, committees, what a legislative session is, and the politics of it all, but I’ll spare you those details for a later time. If you’re still reading, you’ve probably had enough.
When you see campaign ads or receive a mail piece about a particular candidate, I hope that now you can have an idea of the office they’re running for and what that job would focus on.