When it comes to the actual elections, voters have some choice in how they cast their ballots. They may strongly support a political party and vote for that party's candidates. Voters may turn to a candidate based on his or her personality, or they may vote for or against candidates solely on their stand on a particular issue.
Voting the party line
A strong supporter of a party usually votes a straight party ticket. A Democrat votes for Democratic candidates for all elected offices, and Republicans do the same. About a quarter of the electorate votes in this way. Those with a lower sense of party identification vote more independently. They vote for a split ticket, choosing a Democrat for one office and a Republican for another. The major influence on party affiliation is family background. If your parents were Democrats, chances are that you will be one, too. Such commitments are often lifelong, but not rigidly so. An individual who becomes a successful businessperson may become a Republican in the belief that the party better represents his or her interests.
The personality element
Some candidates have such strong personalities that voters will cross party lines to support them. Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan exemplified high levels of personal appeal, just as Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter did not. In looking at personality, voters may also consider such factors as character and the way candidates lead their personal life.
Many voters claim they vote solely on the issues, meaning that they choose a candidate by where he or she stands on questions of great importance to them. In recent years, several issues have surfaced as litmus tests for candidates running for office. These include such controversial subjects as abortion, immigration reform, and affirmative action. Some people simply will not vote for a candidate who takes a position on these issues contrary to their own. When two candidates share the same view on litmus-test issues, issue voters may have a difficult time deciding which person best represents their concerns.
Alternatives to voting
There are other ways to express oneself politically. Many states have adopted the initiative as a way of passing laws that the legislature refused or was afraid to consider. A minimum number of registered voter signatures on a petition qualifies an initiative proposal for the ballot. Originally designed as a reform measure during the Progressive Era (1900–1920) to bypass reluctant state legislatures, initiatives (also called propositions) have become controversial in recent years. In California, voters approved a major property tax reform through the initiative process. The California Civil Rights Initiative, passed in 1996, effectively eliminated affirmative action programs in the state. Another vehicle for voting is the referendum, in which a state legislature may refer a law it has approved to the electorate if the law involves the expenditure of large amounts of money or the sale of state bonds. The recall is provided by many states for removing incumbents from office.
In the South in the 1950s and early 1960s, most rural African Americans could not vote. They turned to political protest to express their concerns. The August 1963 march on Washington brought hundreds of thousands of people to the capital to demonstrate for civil rights. The numbers impressed President Kennedy and prompted him to take stronger action against racial bigotry. Civil disobedience, nonviolent action against laws that are considered unjust, was part of both the civil rights movement and the protest against the Vietnam War. People held sit-ins at restaurants that refused to serve African Americans, and young men burned their draft cards or refused induction into the armed services. Political violence has been a part of recent American history. Left-wing extremists such as the Weathermen robbed banks in the 1960s to support their protests. In the 1990s, right-wing extremists attacked abortion clinics and murdered physicians who performed abortions and blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City.