Politics & Society

Politics 101: What Are the Different Types of Elections in America?

Written by the MasterClass staff

May 31, 2019 • 3 min read

Most Americans are well aware of the United States presidential elections that occur every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. But these are far from the only elections that take place in the American political system. Like most democracies, Americans are afforded the opportunity to vote for a wide array of offices at various points throughout the year.

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What Are the Different Types of Elections in America?

There are many types of elections for many different forms of government, but all are designed to produce elected officials and policies that reflect the will of the voters. Here are some of the more common types of elections.

  • Federal Elections. Elections for offices within the federal government. For American citizens, this means elections for president & vice president, for U.S. Senate, and for U.S. House of Representatives. These are the federal offices directly elected by voters.
  • State Elections. Elections for offices or ballot initiatives within state government. These include offices such as governor, lieutenant governor, state senator, state representative, state auditor, insurance commissioner, comptroller, secretary of state, and attorney general. Not all states have the same array of elected state officials. In some states, for instance, judges are elected by popular vote. In other states, judges are appointed by state officials who themselves are elected by voters.
  • Municipal Elections. Elections for sub-state municipalities, such as county government or city government. Mayors, councilmembers, city attorneys, school boards, and sheriffs are some of the people who may be elected by municipal elections.
  • Partisan Primary Elections. Nominating elections that are administered by a government municipality but that serve to select nominees for political parties, like the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, and Green Parties.
  • Nonpartisan Primary Elections. Primary elections that select two finalists, regardless of political party. These top two vote-getters will then face each other in a general election. Such elections are also known as an open primary. Some nonpartisan primaries indicate the political parties of the candidates on the ballot; some do not.
  • Caucuses. A form of primary elections where voters gather in public locations at a prescribed time and openly vote for their preferred candidate. During the course of a caucus, candidates can be eliminated and caucus-goers have the option of realigning with one of the remaining candidates. Caucuses are praised as a manifestation of ranked-choice voting, but they are criticized for the lack of a private ballot and for the restrictive hours during which one may vote.
  • General Elections. Elections that decide the actual officeholders within a government. Some general elections contain a choice of two candidates for each contested office. Others contain multiple candidates per office, each on the ballot as the official nominee of a political party.
  • Annexation Elections. Proposition elections that present the option to enlarge the boundaries of an unincorporated municipality.
  • Incorporation Elections. Proposition elections used by residents of any unincorporated area who wish to present the option to formally incorporate as a municipality.

What Are the Different Ways to Vote in an Election?

In some election systems, eligible voters may only cast ballots in person on Election Day. Increasingly, however, municipalities offer options to vote remotely or on a day prior to Election Day.

  • Absentee ballots are one way to address this. Eligible voters may request one if they are unable to appear at a polling place on Election Day.
  • A majority of U.S. states offer early voting, where citizens may cast in-person ballots in the days and weeks leading up to an election.
  • Some states, most notably Oregon, have shifted to a mail-based system, where in-person voting is not required (or in Oregon’s case, not even an option).

Learn more about politics and campaign strategy in David Axelrod and Karl Rove’s MasterClass.