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Thank retired baby-boomers

FOR Americans who love road trips but despise Democrats, the Obama years have been a golden age. Rural America does not like this president—an antipathy that only deepened between his election in 2008 and his re-election four years later, when he picked up just 37% of rural voters. Add that trend to a decades-long swing of southern states away from the Democratic Party, and the size of conservative America, measured in square miles of majority-Republican territory, has grown and grown. In 2012 the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, won fully 77.9% of the counties of America (though, sadly for him, those counties are home to just 42.7% of the population). With a bit of planning, you can drive across the lower 48 states from east-to-west or top-to-bottom without entering a single county won by Mr Obama in a presidential contest—though you’d need a stomach for barbecued meat, country music and conservative talk-radio.

Small wonder that so many Democratic campaigns focus on cities and college towns, hoping to offset rural losses by running up huge margins of victory among such groups as urban youngsters, non-whites and highly educated liberals. In contrast Republicans need little prodding to don jeans, brag about their love of hunting and denounce gun controls or environmental rules as an imposition by bossy, out-of-touch Washington elitists. Each election sees campaign outfits pop up with names like “Farmers and Ranchers for Romney Coalition”.

But a paper published in the September issue of Political Geography, an academic journal, suggests that both parties may need to refine their thinking. The paper, by scholars at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), finds that rural America is far from monolithic in its politics. The country boasts roughly 2,000 rural counties. They cover three-quarters of its land area and are home to about 50m of its people, or just under one-sixth of the population. Most have mixed economies, containing everything from farms to slaughterhouses or prisons (guarding ne’er-do-wells is a big rural industry). One in five is classified as a “farm county” by the government, meaning that its economy is dominated by agriculture. At the other end of a socio-economic spectrum lie the 289 rural counties deemed “recreational”, meaning that their prosperity rests on enjoyment of the Great Outdoors and other forms of leisure. These counties range from Rocky Mountain ski valleys to New England hamlets teeming with baby-boomers, most planning active retirements full of hiking, cycling or organic bee-keeping.

The new paper, “Red rural, blue rural? Presidential voting patterns in a changing rural America”, focuses on farm and recreational counties. Counties dominated by the “old” rural economy of farming are sternly conservative, handing Mr Obama just over a third of their votes in 2012. Digging into a nationwide survey that included 9,000 rural voters, the Co-operative Congressional Election Study, the UNH academics found farm-county residents strongly opposed to gay marriage and legal abortion, and more sceptical than the average American about the menace posed by climate change. By contrast, the mountain-biking, canoe-paddling, golf-playing residents of recreational counties handed almost half their votes to Mr Obama in 2012 and take a liberal line on all manner of social issues (not least because they are significantly less likely than other country-dwellers to call religion “very important” in their lives).

Many farm counties have seen their populations stagnate or shrink for decades, and struggle to hold on to their youngsters once they reach adulthood. In contrast, far-flung counties offering pretty landscapes or such attractions as golf courses, ski slopes or even rural casinos have seen big inflows by what demographers call “amenity migrants”, though arrivals slowed during the recent recession. Such newcomers tend to be richer and better-educated than typical rural residents. The migrants bring different ideas with them and, although many of them are retired, they also create jobs for younger people. As Kenneth Johnson, an author of the paper, notes: “Somebody has to staff the hospitals and build the houses.” Some recreational counties have seen growth rates that rival those of successful cities.

Different strokes for different folks
In a few cases, migration flows have been large enough to help create new presidential swing states, argues another of the authors, Dante Scala. A case in point is New Hampshire, which wields outsize clout as an early-voting state in the Democratic and Republican contests to choose a presidential nominee. The lovely, thickly forested north of the state is the ancestral home of the Yankee Republicans—a flinty, taciturn bunch with little time for either government meddling or fire-and-brimstone social conservatives. But lots of those moderates have moved either to Florida or to meet their Maker, says Mr Scala, a political scientist. In New Hampshire’s four recreational counties, their places have often been taken by folk from such states as New York and New Jersey, who have brought their Democratic-leaning politics along with their walking books. In 2012 Mr Obama averaged more than half of the vote in those recreational counties, helping him to victory in New Hampshire. The president did equally well in the ski towns and hiking centres of Colorado, another battleground state.

Change will take a while. To borrow an elegant cultural measure invented by Justin Farrell, a Yale University sociologist, in lots of rural states drivers with gun racks still outnumber those with bicycle racks. In such electoral battlegrounds as Virginia and North Carolina, the Democrats’ rural bastions remain counties with lots of black residents. But some 70m baby-boomers are due to retire in the next two decades. If only some of them yearn to picnic in pine forests or swim in glacial lakes, local power-brokers such as farmers, ranchers or miners will find their clout challenged. Back-country road trips may never be the same.

http://www.economist.com/node/21676531/print

What is populism?
Broadly speaking, it's the belief that the will of ordinary citizens should prevail over that of a privileged elite. Throughout American history, movements based on anti-elitism have repeatedly sprung up on both the left and right, often stoked by charismatic firebrands who harnessed the resentment of marginalized people. Today, both the Democratic and Republican parties have been splintered by populist movements. Bernie Sanders, a self-described "democratic socialist" who rails against income inequality and the billionaire class, is mounting a serious challenge to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. The Republican race, meanwhile, has been roiled by the right-wing populist campaign of real estate mogul Donald Trump, who vows to deport all 11.5 million illegal immigrants and build a massive wall at the Mexican border. Neither Sanders' nor Trump's message is really new. Sanders has picked up where the late-19th-century Populist Party left off, and as former Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently observed, "Donald Trump is the modern-day incarnation of the Know-Nothing movement."

Who were the Know-Nothings?
They were a xenophobic political movement that arose in the 1840s, in reaction to a huge influx of Irish Catholic and German immigrants. Native-born Protestants saw these immigrants as job-stealing threats to America's cultural and religious identity. The Know-Nothings began as secret societies — asked about their ties to these groups, members were instructed to say they "knew nothing." But they came out of the closet in 1855 to form the American Party, demanding immigration restrictions and a 21-year residency requirement for citizenship. In 1856, the Know-Nothings chose former President Millard Fillmore as their nominee, and he won 21.6 percent of the vote. Later, a rift between anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions fatally splintered their movement, but nativism has flared anew with every successive wave of immigration.

What about left-wing populism?
The first movement of this kind was started in the 1880s, by farmers who were suffering because of plummeting cotton prices in the South and a drought in the Great Plains. As farmers sank deeper into debt, their simmering resentments of Eastern elites were ignited, especially by bankers charging exorbitant lending rates and railroad barons charging high prices. The farmers, labor unions, and their sympathizers formed what they officially called the People's Party but was commonly known as the Populists. The Populists felt "squeezed by the unfettered capitalism of the Gilded Age," says Rutgers University historian David Greenberg. The Populists wanted to nationalize railroads, break up big trusts, and get rid of the gold standard, which restricted the money supply. They also advocated an eight-hour workday, women's suffrage, and a progressive income tax. In 1892 Populist presidential candidate James B. Weaver won 8.5 percent of the vote. But it was downhill from there.

What happened?
The Populists split into two factions: "fusionists," who thought the party should merge with the Democrats, and Populists, who preferred independence. The fusionists prevailed, rallying behind 1896 Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, whose convention address decrying the gold standard — "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold" — remains one of American history's most famous speeches. He lost the election to Republican William McKinley, however — and went on to lose two more. But Bryan left a lasting Populist legacy. He "was the first leader of a major party to argue for permanently expanding the power of the federal government to serve the welfare of ordinary Americans," says biographer Michael Kazin.

What became of the Populists?
Many of their core ideas were absorbed by the Democratic Party and became the foundation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. More radical versions also sprang up during the Depression, which saw the meteoric rise of Huey P. Long. But during the Cold War, anti-elitism "began to slip its liberal moorings," Kazin says. After controlling federal power for a generation, liberals were the elite — and populism took a hard right turn. The anti-Communist crusade of Sen. Joseph McCarthy trained its rhetoric mostly on left-leaning academics, Ivy League–educated officials, and Hollywood actors and producers. In the 1960s, segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace played the working-class hero, snarling at "pointy-headed bureaucrats" and liberals. His third-party presidential bid in 1968 drew 13.6 percent of the vote. Conservatism has had a strain of anti-elitist populism ever since, most recently and effectively in the Tea Party.

Why has populism returned?
The 2008 financial crisis sparked an explosion of anger against Wall Street and Washington. In Sanders, left-wing populism comes full circle — his stump speeches would have played well in the 1890s. Trump has taken the old nativist message, added a big dose of narcissism, and turned his movement into a cult of personality. But throughout history, populists from left to right have had something in common besides anti-elitism. While they often influence mainstream parties, they don't win national elections. The majority of voters reject "their Us versus Them mentality," says columnist David Brooks, making the history of populism "generally a history of defeat."

The Kingfish
"Every man a king." That was the slogan of Huey Pierce Long Jr., the Louisiana governor and senator of the 1930s who was arguably the most flamboyant populist in American history. The pugnacious country boy called himself The Kingfish, and was a sworn enemy of oligarchs and corporate interests and boasted of buying legislators "like sacks of potatoes." In the depths of the Depression, Long's "Share Our Wealth" plan called for the federal government to confiscate the fortunes of anyone with more than $8 million in wealth to provide a $5,000 annual income ($71,450 in 2015 dollars) and health care for all American families. As governor, Long built thousands of miles of roads and improved education, but was also notoriously corrupt and dictatorial. Franklin Roosevelt called him one of the most dangerous men in America, with good reason: The Kingfish was widely considered a viable dark-horse candidate to defeat FDR in 1936. But he was assassinated by the relative of a political foe. Long's last words: "I wonder why he shot me."

http://theweek.com/articles/579018/brief-history-populism

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"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." — Preamble to the Constitution

The Constitution of the United States of America is the supreme law of the United States. Empowered with the sovereign authority of the people by the framers and the consent of the legislatures of the states, it is the source of all government powers, and also provides important limitations on the government that protect the fundamental rights of United States citizens.

Read the full text of the Constitution

Why a Constitution? | The Constitutional Convention
Ratification | The Bill of Rights

Why a Constitution?

The need for the Constitution grew out of problems with the Articles of Confederation, which established a "firm league of friendship" between the states, and vested most power in a Congress of the Confederation. This power was, however, extremely limited — the central government conducted diplomacy and made war, set weights and measures, and was the final arbiter of disputes between the states. Crucially, it could not raise any funds itself, and was entirely dependent on the states themselves for the money necessary to operate. Each state sent a delegation of between two and seven members to the Congress, and they voted as a bloc with each state getting one vote. But any decision of consequence required a unanimous vote, which led to a government that was paralyzed and ineffectual.

A movement to reform the Articles began, and invitations to attend a convention in Philadelphia to discuss changes to the Articles were sent to the state legislatures in 1787. In May of that year, delegates from 12 of the 13 states (Rhode Island sent no representatives) convened in Philadelphia to begin the work of redesigning government. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention quickly began work on drafting a new Constitution for the United States.

The Constitutional Convention

A chief aim of the Constitution as drafted by the Convention was to create a government with enough power to act on a national level, but without so much power that fundamental rights would be at risk. One way that this was accomplished was to separate the power of government into three branches, and then to include checks and balances on those powers to assure that no one branch of government gained supremacy. This concern arose largely out of the experience that the delegates had with the King of England and his powerful Parliament. The powers of each branch are enumerated in the Constitution, with powers not assigned to them reserved to the states.

Much of the debate, which was conducted in secret to ensure that delegates spoke their minds, focused on the form that the new legislature would take. Two plans competed to become the new government: the Virginia Plan, which apportioned representation based on the population of each state, and the New Jersey plan, which gave each state an equal vote in Congress. The Virginia Plan was supported by the larger states, and the New Jersey plan preferred by the smaller. In the end, they settled on the Great Compromise (sometimes called the Connecticut Compromise), in which the House of Representatives would represent the people as apportioned by population; the Senate would represent the states apportioned equally; and the President would be elected by the Electoral College. The plan also called for an independent judiciary.

The founders also took pains to establish the relationship between the states. States are required to give "full faith and credit" to the laws, records, contracts, and judicial proceedings of the other states, although Congress may regulate the manner in which the states share records, and define the scope of this clause. States are barred from discriminating against citizens of other states in any way, and cannot enact tariffs against one another. States must also extradite those accused of crimes to other states for trial.

The founders also specified a process by which the Constitution may be amended, and since its ratification, the Constitution has been amended 27 times. In order to prevent arbitrary changes, the process for making amendments is quite onerous. An amendment may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress, or, if two-thirds of the states request one, by a convention called for that purpose. The amendment must then be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, or three-fourths of conventions called in each state for ratification. In modern times, amendments have traditionally specified a timeframe in which this must be accomplished, usually a period of several years. Additionally, the Constitution specifies that no amendment can deny a state equal representation in the Senate without that state's consent.

With the details and language of the Constitution decided, the Convention got down to the work of actually setting the Constitution to paper. It is written in the hand of a delegate from Pennsylvania, Gouverneur Morris, whose job allowed him some reign over the actual punctuation of a few clauses in the Constitution. He is also credited with the famous preamble, quoted at the top of this page. On September 17, 1787, 39 of the 55 delegates signed the new document, with many of those who refused to sign objecting to the lack of a bill of rights. At least one delegate refused to sign because the Constitution codified and protected slavery and the slave trade.

Ratification

The process set out in the Constitution for its ratification provided for much popular debate in the states. The Constitution would take effect once it had been ratified by nine of the thirteen state legislatures -- unanimity was not be required. During the debate over the Constitution, two factions emerged: the Federalists, who supported adoption, and the Anti-Federalists, who opposed it.

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay set out an eloquent defense of the new Constitution in what came to be called the Federalist Papers. Published anonymously in the newspapers The Independent Journal and The New York Packet under the name Publius between October 1787 and August 1788, the 85 articles that comprise the Federalist Papers remain to this day an invaluable resource for understanding some of the framers' intentions for the Constitution. The most famous of the articles are No. 10, which warns of the dangers of factions and advocates a large republic, and No. 51, which explains the structure of the Constitution, its checks and balances, and how it protects the rights of the people.

The states proceeded to begin ratification, with some debating more intensely than others. Delaware was the first state to ratify, on December 7, 1787. After New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify, on June 22, 1788, the Confederation Congress established March 9, 1789, as the date to begin operating under the Constitution. By this time, all the states except North Carolina and Rhode Island had ratified — the Ocean State was the last to ratify on May 29, 1790.

The Bill of Rights

One of the principal points of contention between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists was the lack of an enumeration of basic civil rights in the Constitution. Many Federalists argued, as in Federalist No. 84, that the people surrendered no rights in adopting the Constitution. In several states, however, the ratification debate in some states hinged on the adoption of a bill of rights. The solution was known as the Massachusetts Compromise, in which four states ratified the Constitution but at the same time sent recommendations for amendments to the Congress.

James Madison introduced 12 amendments to the First Congress in 1789. Ten of these would go on to become what we now consider to be the Bill of Rights. One was never passed, while another dealing with Congressional salaries was not ratified until 1992, when it became the 27th Amendment. Based on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the English Bill of Rights, the writings of the Enlightenment, and the rights defined in the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights contains rights that many today consider to be fundamental to America.

The First Amendment provides that Congress make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise. It protects freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Second Amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms.

The Third Amendment prohibits the government from quartering troops in private homes, a major grievance during the American Revolution.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. The government may not conduct any searches without a warrant, and such warrants must be issued by a judge and based on probable cause.

The Fifth Amendment provides that citizens not be subject to criminal prosecution and punishment without due process. Citizens may not be tried on the same set of facts twice, and are protected from self-incrimination (the right to remain silent). The amendment also establishes the power of eminent domain, ensuring that private property is not seized for public use without just compensation.

The Sixth Amendment assures the right to a speedy trial by a jury of one's peers, to be informed of the crimes with which they are charged, and to confront the witnesses brought by the government. The amendment also provides the accused the right to compel testimony from witnesses, and to legal representation.

The Seventh Amendment provides that civil cases also be tried by jury.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments.

The Ninth Amendment states that the list of rights enumerated in the Constitution is not exhaustive, and that the people retain all rights not enumerated.

The Tenth Amendment assigns all powers not delegated to the United States, or prohibited to the states, to either the states or to the people.

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Established by Article I of the Constitution, the Legislative Branch consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together form the United States Congress. The Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to enact legislation and declare war, the right to confirm or reject many Presidential appointments, and substantial investigative powers.

The House of Representatives is made up of 435 elected members, divided among the 50 states in proportion to their total population. In addition, there are 6 non-voting members, representing the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and four other territories of the United States. The presiding officer of the chamber is the Speaker of the House, elected by the Representatives. He or she is third in the line of succession to the Presidency.

Members of the House are elected every two years and must be 25 years of age, a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, and a resident of the state (but not necessarily the district) they represent.

The House has several powers assigned exclusively to it, including the power to initiate revenue bills, impeach federal officials, and elect the President in the case of an electoral college tie.

The Senate is composed of 100 Senators, 2 for each state. Until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, Senators were chosen by state legislatures, not by popular vote. Since then, they have been elected to six-year terms by the people of each state. Senator's terms are staggered so that about one-third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years. Senators must be 30 years of age, U.S. citizens for at least nine years, and residents of the state they represent.

The Vice President of the United States serves as President of the Senate and may cast the decisive vote in the event of a tie in the Senate.

The Senate has the sole power to confirm those of the President's appointments that require consent, and to ratify treaties. There are, however, two exceptions to this rule: the House must also approve appointments to the Vice Presidency and any treaty that involves foreign trade. The Senate also tries impeachment cases for federal officials referred to it by the House.

In order to pass legislation and send it to the President for his signature, both the House and the Senate must pass the same bill by majority vote. If the President vetoes a bill, they may override his veto by passing the bill again in each chamber with at least two-thirds of each body voting in favor.

The Legislative Process | Powers of Congress | Government Oversight

The Legislative Process

The first step in the legislative process is the introduction of a bill to Congress. Anyone can write it, but only members of Congress can introduce legislation. Some important bills are traditionally introduced at the request of the President, such as the annual federal budget. During the legislative process, however, the initial bill can undergo drastic changes.

After being introduced, a bill is referred to the appropriate committee for review. There are 17 Senate committees, with 70 subcommittees, and 23 House committees, with 104 subcommittees. The committees are not set in stone, but change in number and form with each new Congress as required for the efficient consideration of legislation. Each committee oversees a specific policy area, and the subcommittees take on more specialized policy areas. For example, the House Committee on Ways and Means includes subcommittees on Social Security and Trade.

A bill is first considered in a subcommittee, where it may be accepted, amended, or rejected entirely. If the members of the subcommittee agree to move a bill forward, it is reported to the full committee, where the process is repeated again. Throughout this stage of the process, the committees and subcommittees call hearings to investigate the merits and flaws of the bill. They invite experts, advocates, and opponents to appear before the committee and provide testimony, and can compel people to appear using subpoena power if necessary.

If the full committee votes to approve the bill, it is reported to the floor of the House or Senate, and the majority party leadership decides when to place the bill on the calendar for consideration. If a bill is particularly pressing, it may be considered right away. Others may wait for months or never be scheduled at all.

When the bill comes up for consideration, the House has a very structured debate process. Each member who wishes to speak only has a few minutes, and the number and kind of amendments are usually limited. In the Senate, debate on most bills is unlimited — Senators may speak to issues other than the bill under consideration during their speeches, and any amendment can be introduced. Senators can use this to filibuster bills under consideration, a procedure by which a Senator delays a vote on a bill — and by extension its passage — by refusing to stand down. A supermajority of 60 Senators can break a filibuster by invoking cloture, or the cession of debate on the bill, and forcing a vote. Once debate is over, the votes of a simple majority passes the bill.

A bill must pass both houses of Congress before it goes to the President for consideration. Though the Constitution requires that the two bills have the exact same wording, this rarely happens in practice. To bring the bills into alignment, a Conference Committee is convened, consisting of members from both chambers. The members of the committee produce a conference report, intended as the final version of the bill. Each chamber then votes again to approve the conference report. Depending on where the bill originated, the final text is then enrolled by either the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate, and presented to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate for their signatures. The bill is then sent to the President.

When receiving a bill from Congress, the President has several options. If the President agrees substantially with the bill, he or she may sign it into law, and the bill is then printed in the Statutes at Large. If the President believes the law to be bad policy, he may veto it and send it back to Congress. Congress may override the veto with a two-thirds vote of each chamber, at which point the bill becomes law and is printed.

There are two other options that the President may exercise. If Congress is in session and the President takes no action within 10 days, the bill becomes law. If Congress adjourns before 10 days are up and the President takes no action, then the bill dies and Congress may not vote to override. This is called a pocket veto, and if Congress still wants to pass the legislation, they must begin the entire process anew.

Powers of Congress

Congress, as one of the three coequal branches of government, is ascribed significant powers by the Constitution. All legislative power in the government is vested in Congress, meaning that it is the only part of the government that can make new laws or change existing laws. Executive Branch agencies issue regulations with the full force of law, but these are only under the authority of laws enacted by Congress. The President may veto bills Congress passes, but Congress may also override a veto by a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Article I of the Constitution enumerates the powers of Congress and the specific areas in which it may legislate. Congress is also empowered to enact laws deemed "necessary and proper" for the execution of the powers given to any part of the government under the Constitution.

Part of Congress's exercise of legislative authority is the establishment of an annual budget for the government. To this end, Congress levies taxes and tariffs to provide funding for essential government services. If enough money cannot be raised to fund the government, then Congress may also authorize borrowing to make up the difference. Congress can also mandate spending on specific items: legislatively directed spending, commonly known as "earmarks," specifies funds for a particular project, rather than for a government agency.

Both chambers of Congress have extensive investigative powers, and may compel the production of evidence or testimony toward whatever end they deem necessary. Members of Congress spend much of their time holding hearings and investigations in committee. Refusal to cooperate with a Congressional subpoena can result in charges of contempt of Congress, which could result in a prison term.

The Senate maintains several powers to itself: It ratifies treaties by a two-thirds supermajority vote and confirms the appointments of the President by a majority vote. The consent of the House of Representatives is also necessary for the ratification of trade agreements and the confirmation of the Vice President.

Congress also holds the sole power to declare war.

Government Oversight

Oversight of the executive branch is an important Congressional check on the President's power and a balance against his discretion in implementing laws and making regulations.

A major way that Congress conducts oversight is through hearings. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs are both devoted to overseeing and reforming government operations, and each committee conducts oversight in its policy area.

Congress also maintains an investigative organization, the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Founded in 1921 as the General Accounting Office, its original mission was to audit the budgets and financial statements sent to Congress by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Today, the GAO audits and generates reports on every aspect of the government, ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent with the effectiveness and efficiency that the American people deserve.

The executive branch also polices itself: Sixty-four Inspectors General, each responsible for a different agency, regularly audit and report on the agencies to which they are attached.

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The power of the Executive Branch is vested in the President of the United States, who also acts as head of state and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. The President is responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws written by Congress and, to that end, appoints the heads of the federal agencies, including the Cabinet. The Vice President is also part of the Executive Branch, ready to assume the Presidency should the need arise.

The Cabinet and independent federal agencies are responsible for the day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws. These departments and agencies have missions and responsibilities as widely divergent as those of the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Social Security Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Including members of the armed forces, the Executive Branch employs more than 4 million Americans.

The President | The Vice President
Executive Office of the President | The Cabinet

The President

The President is both the head of state and head of government of the United States of America, and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

Under Article II of the Constitution, the President is responsible for the execution and enforcement of the laws created by Congress. Fifteen executive departments — each led by an appointed member of the President's Cabinet — carry out the day-to-day administration of the federal government. They are joined in this by other executive agencies such as the CIA and Environmental Protection Agency, the heads of which are not part of the Cabinet, but who are under the full authority of the President. The President also appoints the heads of more than 50 independent federal commissions, such as the Federal Reserve Board or the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as federal judges, ambassadors, and other federal offices. The Executive Office of the President (EOP) consists of the immediate staff to the President, along with entities such as the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

The President has the power either to sign legislation into law or to veto bills enacted by Congress, although Congress may override a veto with a two-thirds vote of both houses. The Executive Branch conducts diplomacy with other nations, and the President has the power to negotiate and sign treaties, which also must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. The President can issue executive orders, which direct executive officers or clarify and further existing laws. The President also has unlimited power to extend pardons and clemencies for federal crimes, except in cases of impeachment.

With these powers come several responsibilities, among them a constitutional requirement to "from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." Although the President may fulfill this requirement in any way he or she chooses, Presidents have traditionally given a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress each January (except in inaugural years) outlining their agenda for the coming year.

The Constitution lists only three qualifications for the Presidency — the President must be 35 years of age, be a natural born citizen, and must have lived in the United States for at least 14 years. And though millions of Americans vote in a presidential election every four years, the President is not, in fact, directly elected by the people. Instead, on the first Tuesday in November of every fourth year, the people elect the members of the Electoral College. Apportioned by population to the 50 states — one for each member of their congressional delegation (with the District of Columbia receiving 3 votes) — these Electors then cast the votes for President. There are currently 538 electors in the Electoral College.

President Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States. He is, however, only the 43rd person ever to serve as President; President Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms, and thus is recognized as both the 22nd and the 24th President. Today, the President is limited to two four-year terms, but until the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1951, a President could serve an unlimited number of terms. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President four times, serving from 1932 until his death in 1945; he is the only President ever to have served more than two terms.

By tradition, the President and the First Family live in the White House in Washington, D.C., also the location of the President's Oval Office and the offices of the his senior staff. When the President travels by plane, his aircraft is designated Air Force One; he may also use a Marine Corps helicopter, known as Marine One while the President is on board. For ground travel, the President uses an armored Presidential limousine.

The Vice President

The primary responsibility of the Vice President of the United States is to be ready at a moment's notice to assume the Presidency if the President is unable to perform his duties. This can be because of the President's death, resignation, or temporary incapacitation, or if the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet judge that the President is no longer able to discharge the duties of the presidency.

The Vice President is elected along with the President by the Electoral College — each elector casts one vote for President and another for Vice President. Before the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804, electors only voted for President, and the person who received the second greatest number of votes became Vice President.

The Vice President also serves as the President of the United States Senate, where he or she casts the deciding vote in the case of a tie. Except in the case of tiebreaking votes, the Vice President rarely actually presides over the Senate. Instead, the Senate selects one of their own members, usually junior members of the majority party, to preside over the Senate each day.

Joseph R. Biden is the 47th Vice President of the United States. Of the 45 previous Vice Presidents, nine have succeeded to the Presidency, and four have been elected to the Presidency in their own right. The duties of the Vice President, outside of those enumerated in the Constitution, are at the discretion of the current President. Each Vice President approaches the role differently — some take on a specific policy portfolio, others serve simply as a top adviser to the President.

The Vice President has an office in the West Wing of the White House, as well as in the nearby Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Like the President, he also maintains an official residence, at the United States Naval Observatory in Northwest Washington, D.C. This peaceful mansion, has been the official home of the Vice President since 1974 — previously, Vice Presidents had lived in their own private residences. The Vice President also has his own limousine, operated by the United States Secret Service, and flies on the same aircraft the President uses — but when the Vice President is aboard, the craft are referred to as Air Force Two and Marine Two.

Executive Office of the President

Every day, the President of the United States is faced with scores of decisions, each with important consequences for America's future. To provide the President with the support the he or she needs to govern effectively, the Executive Office of the President (EOP) was created in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The EOP has responsibility for tasks ranging from communicating the President's message to the American people to promoting our trade interests abroad.

The EOP, overseen by the White House Chief of Staff, has traditionally been home to many of the President's closest advisers. While Senate confirmation is required for some advisers, such as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, most are appointed with full Presidential discretion. The individual offices that these advisors oversee have grown in size and number since the EOP was created. Some were formed by Congress, others as the President has needed them — they are constantly shifting as each President identifies his needs and priorities, with the current EOP employing over 1,800 people.

Perhaps the most visible parts of the EOP are the White House Communications Office and Press Secretary's Office. The Press Secretary provides daily briefings for the media on the President's activities and agenda. Less visible to most Americans is the National Security Council, which advises the President on foreign policy, intelligence, and national security.

There are also a number of offices responsible for the practicalities of maintaining the White House and providing logistical support for the President. These include the White House Military Office, which is responsible for services ranging from Air Force One to the dining facilities, and the Office of Presidential Advance, which prepares sites remote from the White House for the President's arrival.

Many senior advisors in the EOP work near the President in the West Wing of the White House. However, the majority of the staff is housed in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just a few steps away and part of the White House compound.

The Cabinet

The Cabinet is an advisory body made up of the heads of the 15 executive departments. Appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, the members of the Cabinet are often the President's closest confidants. In addition to running major federal agencies, they play an important role in the Presidential line of succession — after the Vice President, Speaker of the House, and Senate President pro tempore, the line of succession continues with the Cabinet offices in the order in which the departments were created. All the members of the Cabinet take the title Secretary, excepting the head of the Justice Department, who is styled Attorney General.

Department of Agriculture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops and executes policy on farming, agriculture, and food. Its aims include meeting the needs of farmers and ranchers, promoting agricultural trade and production, assuring food safety, protecting natural resources, fostering rural communities, and ending hunger in America and abroad.

The USDA employs more than 100,000 employees and has an annual budget of approximately $95 billion. It consists of 17 agencies, including the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Food and Nutrition Service, and the Forest Service. The bulk of the department's budget goes towards mandatory programs that provide services required by law, such as programs designed to provide nutrition assistance, promote agricultural exports, and conserve our environment. The USDA also plays an important role in overseas aid programs by providing surplus foods to developing countries.

The United States Secretary of Agriculture administers the USDA.

Department of Commerce

The Department of Commerce is the government agency tasked with improving living standards for all Americans by promoting economic development and technological innovation.

The department supports U.S. business and industry through a number of services, including gathering economic and demographic data, issuing patents and trademarks, improving understanding of the environment and oceanic life, and ensuring the effective use of scientific and technical resources. The agency also formulates telecommunications and technology policy, and promotes U.S. exports by assisting and enforcing international trade agreements.

The Secretary of Commerce oversees a $6.5 billion budget and approximately 38,000 employees.

Department of Defense

The mission of the Department of Defense (DOD) is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country. The department's headquarters is at the Pentagon.

The DOD consists of the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, as well as many agencies, offices, and commands, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Defense Intelligence Agency. The DOD occupies the vast majority of the Pentagon building in Arlington, VA.

The Department of Defense is the largest government agency, with more than 1.3 million men and women on active duty, nearly 700,000 civilian personnel, and 1.1 million citizens who serve in the National Guard and Reserve forces. Together, the military and civilian arms of DOD protect national interests through war-fighting, providing humanitarian aid, and performing peacekeeping and disaster relief services.

Department of Education
The mission of the Department of Education is to promote student achievement and preparation for competition in a global economy by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access to educational opportunity.

The Department administers federal financial aid for education, collects data on America's schools to guide improvements in education quality, and works to complement the efforts of state and local governments, parents, and students.

The U.S. Secretary of Education oversees the Department's 4,200 employees and $68.6 billion budget.

Department of Energy

The mission of the Department of Energy (DOE) is to advance the national, economic, and energy security of the United States.

The DOE promotes America's energy security by encouraging the development of reliable, clean, and affordable energy. It administers federal funding for scientific research to further the goal of discovery and innovation — ensuring American economic competitiveness and improving the quality of life for Americans.

The DOE is also tasked with ensuring America's nuclear security, and with protecting the environment by providing a responsible resolution to the legacy of nuclear weapons production.

The United States Secretary of Energy oversees a budget of approximately $23 billion and more than 100,000 federal and contract employees.

Department of Health and Human Services

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the United States government's principal agency for protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves. Agencies of HHS conduct health and social science research, work to prevent disease outbreaks, assure food and drug safety, and provide health insurance.

In addition to administering Medicare and Medicaid, which together provide health insurance to one in four Americans, HHS also oversees the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control.

The Secretary of Health and Human Services oversees a budget of approximately $700 billion and approximately 65,000 employees. The Department's programs are administered by 11 operating divisions, including 8 agencies in the U.S. Public Health Service and 3 human services agencies.

Department of Homeland Security

The missions of the Department of Homeland Security are to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks; protect the American people, our critical infrastructure, and key resources; and respond to and recover from incidents that do occur. The third largest Cabinet department, DHS was established by the Homeland Security Act of 2002, largely in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The new department consolidated 22 executive branch agencies, including the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

DHS employs 216,000 people in its mission to patrol borders, protect travelers and our transportation infrastructure, enforce immigration laws, and respond to disasters and emergencies. The agency also promotes preparedness and emergency prevention among citizens. Policy is coordinated by the Homeland Security Council at the White House, in cooperation with other defense and intelligence agencies, and led by the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security.

Department of Housing and Urban Development

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the federal agency responsible for national policies and programs that address America's housing needs, that improve and develop the nation's communities, and that enforce fair housing laws. The Department plays a major role in supporting homeownership for lower- and moderate-income families through its mortgage insurance and rent subsidy programs.

Offices within HUD include the Federal Housing Administration, which provides mortgage and loan insurance; the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, which ensures all Americans equal access to the housing of their choice; and the Community Development Block Grant Program, which helps communities with economic development, job opportunities, and housing rehabilitation. HUD also administers public housing and homeless assistance.

The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development oversees approximately 9,000 employees on a budget of approximately $40 billion.

Department of the Interior

The Department of the Interior (DOI) is the nation's principal conservation agency. Its mission is to protect America's natural resources, offer recreation opportunities, conduct scientific research, conserve and protect fish and wildlife, and honor our trust responsibilities to American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and our responsibilities to island communities.

DOI manages 500 million acres of surface land, or about one-fifth of the land in the United States, and manages hundreds of dams and reservoirs. Agencies within the DOI include the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Minerals Management Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey. The DOI manages the national parks and is tasked with protecting endangered species.

The Secretary of the Interior oversees about 70,000 employees and 200,000 volunteers on a budget of approximately $16 billion. Every year it raises billions in revenue from energy, mineral, grazing, and timber leases, as well as recreational permits and land sales.

Department of Justice

The mission of the Department of Justice (DOJ) is to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.

The DOJ is comprised of 40 component organizations, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marshals, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Attorney General is the head of the DOJ and chief law enforcement officer of the federal government. The Attorney General represents the United States in legal matters, advises the President and the heads of the executive departments of the government, and occasionally appears in person before the Supreme Court.

With a budget of approximately $25 billion, the DOJ is the world's largest law office and the central agency for the enforcement of federal laws.

Department of Labor

The Department of Labor oversees federal programs for ensuring a strong American workforce. These programs address job training, safe working conditions, minimum hourly wage and overtime pay, employment discrimination, and unemployment insurance.

The Department of Labor's mission is to foster and promote the welfare of the job seekers, wage earners, and retirees of the United States by improving their working conditions, advancing their opportunities for profitable employment, protecting their retirement and health care benefits, helping employers find workers, strengthening free collective bargaining, and tracking changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements.

Offices within the Department of Labor include the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal government's principal statistics agency for labor economics, and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, which promotes the safety and health of America's working men and women.

The Secretary of Labor oversees 15,000 employees on a budget of approximately $50 billion.

Department of State

The Department of State plays the lead role in developing and implementing the President's foreign policy. Major responsibilities include United States representation abroad, foreign assistance, foreign military training programs, countering international crime, and a wide assortment of services to U.S. citizens and foreign nationals seeking entrance to the U.S.

The U.S. maintains diplomatic relations with approximately 180 countries — each posted by civilian U.S. Foreign Service employees — as well as with international organizations. At home, more than 5,000 civil employees carry out the mission of the Department.

The Secretary of State serves as the President's top foreign policy adviser, and oversees 30,000 employees and a budget of approximately $35 billion.

Department of Transportation

The mission of the Department of Transportation (DOT) is to ensure a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people.

Organizations within the DOT include the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Maritime Administration.

The U.S. Secretary of Transportation oversees approximately 55,000 employees and a budget of approximately $70 billion.

Department of the Treasury

The Department of the Treasury is responsible for promoting economic prosperity and ensuring the soundness and security of the U.S. and international financial systems.

The Department operates and maintains systems that are critical to the nation's financial infrastructure, such as the production of coin and currency, the disbursement of payments to the American public, the collection of taxes, and the borrowing of funds necessary to run the federal government. The Department works with other federal agencies, foreign governments, and international financial institutions to encourage global economic growth, raise standards of living, and, to the extent possible, predict and prevent economic and financial crises. The Treasury Department also performs a critical and far-reaching role in enhancing national security by improving the safeguards of our financial systems, implementing economic sanctions against foreign threats to the U.S., and identifying and targeting the financial support networks of national security threats.

The Secretary of the Treasury oversees a budget of approximately $13 billion and a staff of more than 100,000 employees.

Department of Veterans Affairs

The Department of Veterans Affairs is responsible for administering benefit programs for veterans, their families, and their survivors. These benefits include pension, education, disability compensation, home loans, life insurance, vocational rehabilitation, survivor support, medical care, and burial benefits. Veterans Affairs became a cabinet-level department in 1989.

Of the 25 million veterans currently alive, nearly three of every four served during a war or an official period of hostility. About a quarter of the nation's population — approximately 70 million people — are potentially eligible for V.A. benefits and services because they are veterans, family members, or survivors of veterans.

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs oversees a budget of approximately $90 billion and a staff of approximately 235,000 employees.

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Where the Executive and Legislative branches are elected by the people, members of the Judicial Branch are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

Article III of the Constitution, which establishes the Judicial Branch, leaves Congress significant discretion to determine the shape and structure of the federal judiciary. Even the number of Supreme Court Justices is left to Congress — at times there have been as few as six, while the current number (nine, with one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices) has only been in place since 1869. The Constitution also grants Congress the power to establish courts inferior to the Supreme Court, and to that end Congress has established the United States district courts, which try most federal cases, and 13 United States courts of appeals, which review appealed district court cases.

Federal judges can only be removed through impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate. Judges and justices serve no fixed term — they serve until their death, retirement, or conviction by the Senate. By design, this insulates them from the temporary passions of the public, and allows them to apply the law with only justice in mind, and not electoral or political concerns.

Generally, Congress determines the jurisdiction of the federal courts. In some cases, however — such as in the example of a dispute between two or more U.S. states — the Constitution grants the Supreme Court original jurisdiction, an authority that cannot be stripped by Congress.

The courts only try actual cases and controversies — a party must show that it has been harmed in order to bring suit in court. This means that the courts do not issue advisory opinions on the constitutionality of laws or the legality of actions if the ruling would have no practical effect. Cases brought before the judiciary typically proceed from district court to appellate court and may even end at the Supreme Court, although the Supreme Court hears comparatively few cases each year.

Federal courts enjoy the sole power to interpret the law, determine the constitutionality of the law, and apply it to individual cases. The courts, like Congress, can compel the production of evidence and testimony through the use of a subpoena. The inferior courts are constrained by the decisions of the Supreme Court — once the Supreme Court interprets a law, inferior courts must apply the Supreme Court's interpretation to the facts of a particular case.

The Supreme Court of the United States | The Judicial Process

The Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the land and the only part of the federal judiciary specifically required by the Constitution.

The Constitution does not stipulate the number of Supreme Court Justices; the number is set instead by Congress. There have been as few as six, but since 1869 there have been nine Justices, including one Chief Justice. All Justices are nominated by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and hold their offices under life tenure. Since Justices do not have to run or campaign for re-election, they are thought to be insulated from political pressure when deciding cases. Justices may remain in office until they resign, pass away, or are impeached and convicted by Congress.

The Court's caseload is almost entirely appellate in nature, and the Court's decisions cannot be appealed to any authority, as it is the final judicial arbiter in the United States on matters of federal law. However, the Court may consider appeals from the highest state courts or from federal appellate courts. The Court also has original jurisdiction in cases involving ambassadors and other diplomats, and in cases between states.

Although the Supreme Court may hear an appeal on any question of law provided it has jurisdiction, it usually does not hold trials. Instead, the Court's task is to interpret the meaning of a law, to decide whether a law is relevant to a particular set of facts, or to rule on how a law should be applied. Lower courts are obligated to follow the precedent set by the Supreme Court when rendering decisions.

In almost all instances, the Supreme Court does not hear appeals as a matter of right; instead, parties must petition the Court for a writ of certiorari. It is the Court's custom and practice to "grant cert" if four of the nine Justices decide that they should hear the case. Of the approximately 7,500 requests for certiorari filed each year, the Court usually grants cert to fewer than 150. These are typically cases that the Court considers sufficiently important to require their review; a common example is the occasion when two or more of the federal courts of appeals have ruled differently on the same question of federal law.

If the Court grants certiorari, Justices accept legal briefs from the parties to the case, as well as from amicus curiae, or "friends of the court." These can include industry trade groups, academics, or even the U.S. government itself. Before issuing a ruling, the Supreme Court usually hears oral arguments, where the various parties to the suit present their arguments and the Justices ask them questions. If the case involves the federal government, the Solicitor General of the United States presents arguments on behalf of the United States. The Justices then hold private conferences, make their decision, and (often after a period of several months) issue the Court's opinion, along with any dissenting arguments that may have been written.

The Judicial Process

Article III of the Constitution of the United States guarantees that every person accused of wrongdoing has the right to a fair trial before a competent judge and a jury of one's peers.

The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution provide additional protections for those accused of a crime. These include:

  • A guarantee that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without the due process of law
  • Protection against being tried for the same crime twice ("double jeopardy")
  • The right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury
  • The right to cross-examine witnesses, and to call witnesses to support their case
  • The right to legal representation
  • The right to avoid self-incrimination
  • Protection from excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments

Criminal proceedings can be conducted under either state or federal law, depending on the nature and extent of the crime. A criminal legal procedure typically begins with an arrest by a law enforcement officer. If a grand jury chooses to deliver an indictment, the accused will appear before a judge and be formally charged with a crime, at which time he or she may enter a plea.

The defendant is given time to review all the evidence in the case and to build a legal argument. Then, the case is brought to trial and decided by a jury. If the defendant is determined to be not guilty of the crime, the charges are dismissed. Otherwise, the judge determines the sentence, which can include prison time, a fine, or even execution.

Civil cases are similar to criminal ones, but instead of arbitrating between the state and a person or organization, they deal with disputes between individuals or organizations. If a party believes that it has been wronged, it can file suit in civil court to attempt to have that wrong remedied through an order to cease and desist, alter behavior, or award monetary damages. After the suit is filed and evidence is gathered and presented by both sides, a trial proceeds as in a criminal case. If the parties involved waive their right to a jury trial, the case can be decided by a judge; otherwise, the case is decided and damages awarded by a jury.

After a criminal or civil case is tried, it may be appealed to a higher court — a federal court of appeals or state appellate court. A litigant who files an appeal, known as an "appellant," must show that the trial court or administrative agency made a legal error that affected the outcome of the case. An appellate court makes its decision based on the record of the case established by the trial court or agency — it does not receive additional evidence or hear witnesses. It may also review the factual findings of the trial court or agency, but typically may only overturn a trial outcome on factual grounds if the findings were "clearly erroneous." If a defendant is found not guilty in a criminal proceeding, he or she cannot be retried on the same set of facts.

Federal appeals are decided by panels of three judges. The appellant presents legal arguments to the panel, in a written document called a "brief." In the brief, the appellant tries to persuade the judges that the trial court made an error, and that the lower decision should be reversed. On the other hand, the party defending against the appeal, known as the "appellee" or "respondent," tries in its brief to show why the trial court decision was correct, or why any errors made by the trial court are not significant enough to affect the outcome of the case.

The court of appeals usually has the final word in the case, unless it sends the case back to the trial court for additional proceedings. In some cases the decision may be reviewed en banc — that is, by a larger group of judges of the court of appeals for the circuit.

A litigant who loses in a federal court of appeals, or in the highest court of a state, may file a petition for a "writ of certiorari," which is a document asking the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court, however, is not obligated to grant review. The Court typically will agree to hear a case only when it involves a new and important legal principle, or when two or more federal appellate courts have interpreted a law differently. (There are also special circumstances in which the Supreme Court is required by law to hear an appeal.) When the Supreme Court hears a case, the parties are required to file written briefs and the Court may hear oral argument.

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One of the most important rights of American citizens is the franchise — the right to vote. Originally under the Constitution, only white male citizens over the age of 21 were eligible to vote. This shameful injustice has been corrected and voting rights have been extended several times over the course of our history. Today, citizens over the age of 18 cannot be denied the right to vote, regardless of race, religion, sex, disability, or sexual orientation. However, in every state except North Dakota, citizens must register to vote, and laws regarding the registration process vary by state.

The path to full voting rights for all American citizens was long and often challenging. The franchise was first extended to African Americans under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, passed during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. These guaranteed that all male citizens, regardless of their race, would receive equal treatment under the law and not be deprived of their rights without due process. The Fifteenth Amendment is specifically dedicated to protecting the right of all citizens to vote, regardless of their race.

For practical purposes, this was not the end of the voting rights struggle for African Americans. Because of widespread discrimination in some states, including the use of poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests, African Americans were not assured full voting rights until President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. Prior to that, women had only been able to vote in select states.

Federal elections occur every two years, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Every member of the House of Representatives and about one-third of the Senate is up for reelection in any given election year. A presidential election is held every fourth year.

Federal elections are administered by state and local governments, although the specifics of how elections are conducted differ between the states. The Constitution and laws of the United States grant the states wide latitude in how they administer elections.

Most Americans have more daily contact with their state and local governments than with the federal government. Police departments, libraries, and schools — not to mention driver's licenses and parking tickets — usually fall under the oversight of state and local governments. Each state has its own written constitution, and these documents are often far more elaborate than their federal counterpart. The Alabama Constitution, for example, contains 310,296 words — more than 40 times as many as the U.S. Constitution.

State Government

Under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, all powers not granted to the federal government are reserved for the states and the people. All state governments are modeled after the federal government and consist of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The U.S. Constitution mandates that all states uphold a "republican form" of government, although the three-branch structure is not required.

Executive Branch

In every state, the executive branch is headed by a governor who is directly elected by the people. In most states, the other leaders in the executive branch are also directly elected, including the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state, and auditors and commissioners. States reserve the right to organize in any way, so they often vary greatly with regard to executive structure. No two state executive organizations are identical.

Legislative Branch

All 50 states have legislatures made up of elected representatives, who consider matters brought forth by the governor or introduced by its members to create legislation that becomes law. The legislature also approves a state's budget and initiates tax legislation and articles of impeachment. The latter is part of a system of checks and balances among the three branches of government that mirrors the federal system and prevents any branch from abusing its power.

Except for one state, Nebraska, all states have a bicameral legislature made up of two chambers: a smaller upper house and a larger lower house. Together the two chambers make state laws and fulfill other governing responsibilities. (Nebraska is the lone state that has just one chamber in its legislature.) The smaller upper chamber is always called the Senate, and its members generally serve longer terms, usually four years. The larger lower chamber is most often called the House of Representatives, but some states call it the Assembly or the House of Delegates. Its members usually serve shorter terms, often two years.

Judicial Branch

State judicial branches are usually led by the state supreme court, which hears appeals from lower-level state courts. Court structures and judicial appointments/elections are determined either by legislation or the state constitution. The Supreme Court focuses on correcting errors made in lower courts and therefore holds no trials. Rulings made in state supreme courts are normally binding; however, when questions are raised regarding consistency with the U.S. Constitution, matters may be appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court.

Local Government

Local governments generally include two tiers: counties, also known as boroughs in Alaska and parishes in Louisiana, and municipalities, or cities/towns. In some states, counties are divided into townships. Municipalities can be structured in many ways, as defined by state constitutions, and are called, variously, townships, villages, boroughs, cities, or towns. Various kinds of districts also provide functions in local government outside county or municipal boundaries, such as school districts or fire protection districts.

Municipal governments — those defined as cities, towns, boroughs (except in Alaska), villages, and townships — are generally organized around a population center and in most cases correspond to the geographical designations used by the United States Census Bureau for reporting of housing and population statistics. Municipalities vary greatly in size, from the millions of residents of New York City and Los Angeles to the 287 people who live in Jenkins, Minnesota.

Municipalities generally take responsibility for parks and recreation services, police and fire departments, housing services, emergency medical services, municipal courts, transportation services (including public transportation), and public works (streets, sewers, snow removal, signage, and so forth).

Whereas the federal government and state governments share power in countless ways, a local government must be granted power by the state. In general, mayors, city councils, and other governing bodies are directly elected by the people.

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Political Analysis with Shields and Brooks