Civic Definitions- What is the Senate - History

Civic Definitions- What is the Senate - History

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Senate - one of the two houses of the Congress, created in Article I, Section 1 of the US Constitution. The Senate has 100 members, called Senators, who serve for 6-year terms. Every state has two Senators. Senators were originally elected by state legislatures, but the Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution, adopted in 1913, changed the system so that Senators would be elected by the people.

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Congress is the federal legislative body of the United States, which is responsible for passing federal, or nationwide, laws.

In the United States, Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government. Only it can create and pass federal laws.

Congress is divided into two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate is commonly referred to as the “upper house” and consists of 100 members (called senators), two from each of the 50 states. The House of Representatives (often shortened to “the House”) has 435 voting members, known as representatives. The size of a state’s population determines how many representatives that state gets. All members of Congress are elected by the citizens of the state they represent.

Congress has many powers, such as to introduce new taxes, to admit new states to the United States, and to declare war. Most of Congress’s work is creating and passing federal laws.

Because all US federal laws are created by it, Congress plays a huge role in Americans’ lives, even if most Americans don’t pay close attention to Congress’s daily activities.


In general, republicanism refers to the ideology embraced by members of a republic, which is a form of representational government in which leaders are elected for a specific period by the preponderance of the citizenry, and laws are passed by these leaders for the benefit of the entire republic, rather than select members of a ruling class, or aristocracy.

In an ideal republic, leaders are elected from among the working citizenry, serve the republic for a defined period, then return to their work, never to serve again.

Unlike a direct or "pure" democracy, in which the majority vote rules, a republic guarantees a certain set of basic civil rights to every citizen, codified in a charter or constitution, which cannot be overridden by majority rule.

Agents of Socialization

While political socialization can take place almost anywhere at any time, from early childhood on, people’s political perceptions and behaviors are directly or indirectly shaped by various socializing agents, such as family, school and peers, and the media. Not only do these agents of socialization teach young people about the political system, they can also influence people’s political preferences and level of desire to take part in the political process.


Many scholars consider the family to be the earliest and most-impactful agent of political socialization. Especially in families that are highly politically active, the influence of parents in the future political orientation of their children is most pronounced in the areas of party affiliation, political ideology, and level of participation. For example, children of highly politically active parents tend to develop an interest in civics making them more likely to become politically active as adolescents and adults. Similarly, since politics is often discussed in “dinner table” family settings, children often first imitate and may grow up to embrace the political party preferences and ideologies of their parents.

Research has also shown that the future political involvement of children is often influenced by the socioeconomic status of their parents. Children of affluent parents are more likely to attain college-level educations, which tend to develop higher levels of political knowledge and interest. Parental socioeconomic status also tends to plays a role in the development of class-oriented and special-interest political affiliations and levels of civic involvement.

Children, however, do not always continue to embrace the political orientation and practices of their parents. While they are more likely to adopt their parents’ views as teenagers, children of politically involved parents are also more likely to change their party affiliation during early adulthood as they become exposed to new political points-of-view.

School and Peer Groups

In conjunction with the parental transfer of political attitudes and behaviors to their children, the influence of school on political socialization has been the subject of much research and debate. It has been established that level of education is closely related to interest in politics, voter turnout, and overall political participation.

Starting in grade school, children are taught the basics of elections, voting, and the ideology of democracy by choosing class officers. In high school, more sophisticated elections teach the fundamentals of campaigning and the influence of popular opinion. College-level courses in American history, civics, and political science encourage students to examine government institutions and processes.

However, it has often been suggested that higher education can divide the population into higher and lower classes, thus giving the better-educated upper classes an unequal level of influence over the political system. In this and other ways, the actual effect of education remains unclear. In the words of David Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, “Specifically, we have a limited understanding of how schools do, or do not, foster political engagement among their adolescent students.”

School is also one of the first settings in which young people develop intellectual relationships with peers—people other than their parents or siblings. Research indicates that children often have their first opinion-sharing discussions about politics with their peers. Peer groups, often acting as social networks, also teach valuable democratic and economic principles such as information sharing and the equitable exchange of goods and services.

The Media

Most people look to the media—newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and the internet—for political information. Despite growing dependence on the internet, television remains the dominant information source, especially with the proliferation of 24-hour all-news cable channels. Not only does the media influence public opinion by providing news, analysis, and a diversity of opinion, it exposes people to modern sociopolitical issues, such as drug abuse, abortion, and racial discrimination.

Quickly eclipsing conventional media in importance, the internet now serves as a source of political information. Most major television and print news outlets now have websites and bloggers also offer a wide range of political information, analysis, and opinion. Increasingly, peer groups, politicians, and government agencies utilize social media websites such as Twitter to share and disseminate political information and commentary.

As people spend more of their time online, however, many scholars question whether these internet forums encourage a healthy sharing of different sociopolitical views or simply serve as “echo chambers” in which the same perspectives and opinions are shared only among like-minded people. This has resulted in some of these online sources being accused of spreading extremist ideologies, often supported by disinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories.

Matters of Debate

By Michael J. Gerhardt

Burton Craige Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence at University of North Carolina School of Law

The Senate is widely viewed with more disdain and less respect today than it has at any other time in American history. It is common to look back upon the nineteenth century as a golden era in which the Senate was widely viewed as the home of great orators and great statesmen&mdash such as Henry Clay of Kentucky&mdashand monumental debates&mdashsuch as the great debates over protectionist tariffs in 1830 and the Compromise of 1850, which featured memorable speeches by Clay, Senator Daniel Webster of New Hampshire, and Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina. Today, few if any people think of any sitting Senators as great orators or great statesmen. Today, almost no one expects more from the Senate than the House, which even the Framers had viewed with disdain.

The Senate&rsquos demise in stature is likely attributable to many factors, but the one that is cited the most is the Seventeenth Amendment. Ratified in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment replaced the Constitution&rsquos original scheme of having state legislatures choose Senators with the establishment of popular election of Senators. Many scholars have argued that this Amendment effectively broke the Senate&rsquos connection to States&rsquo interests and that Senators have ever since increasingly taken State sovereignty or federal overreaching less seriously than they presumably did before the Amendment&rsquos ratification.

The Supreme Court has not embraced that view, at least fully. It has cited, more than once, the changes wrought by the Seventeenth Amendment&mdashalong with other developments such as the increase in the size (and authority) of congressional staffs, the growing influence of lobbyists and special interests, and the need to be perpetually raising money to stay in office&mdashas necessitating judicial review in order to protect against flaws within the federal legislative process that could lead to congressional overreaching at the expense of State sovereignty. In another line of cases arising under the Eleventh Amendment, the Court has consistently struck down federal laws forcing States to relinquish their immunity from paying damages in federal court. The Court has also overturned federal laws commandeering any part of state government from doing something contrary to its will. Even if the Seventeenth Amendment weakened the connections between the Senate and State interests, the Court still seems to care a great deal about the latter.

Moreover, there have been great debates since the Seventeenth Amendment&rsquos ratification and great moments, such as the enactment of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the Clean Air and Water Acts, albeit all at the expense of State sovereignty. Whatever the changes wrought by the Seventeenth Amendment might be, other factors apparently have contributed more to the diminution of the Senate&rsquos stature.

One theory is the rise of corruption. As David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, explained, &ldquoThere is so much money flowing through Washington that the special interests get what they want and everyone else gets the shaft. Another theory has to do with insularity. The elites spend so much time within the Acela corridor that they don&rsquot have a clue about what is going on.&rdquo Brooks might be right, but these explanations, too, have much in common with our past, as there were many Senators in the nineteenth century who were corrupt and who lived as elites.

Brooks argues another, &ldquodeeper&rdquo problem with the Congress, including the Senate, is the fact that public servants now find themselves &ldquoenmeshed in a system that drains them of their sense of vocation.&rdquo The problem, on his view, is that public servants have too often become professional politicians rather than people who are answering a calling&mdashthe calling of doing something for the common good. His argument extends to all public servants, not just Senators, but there is some reason to believe that today Senators rarely are more than&mdashSenators. Daniel Webster, for example, was one of the greatest lawyers of the nineteenth century&mdashhe argued more than 100 cases in the Supreme Court while serving in the House of Representatives at different times as a representative from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, in the Senate, and as Secretary of State under three different presidents. One is hard pressed to find anyone in the Senate coming close to the standard set by Webster.

The idea that Senators might have fallen prey, along with House members and other public servants, to a system that drains or dilutes their passion for the common good is likely to resonate with many people, though it is unclear to what extent the Seventeenth Amendment is the cause. The length of service in the Senate has increased over the years, while the Senate&rsquos productivity has hit new lows. This decline has coincided with increases in voting along party lines and, perhaps as a result of all these factors, the proliferation of procedural obstacles to getting things done. With increased demands for action, the Senate has responded with more obstacles. The number of veto gates has increased, so that it has become harder, not easier, for legislative business, including judicial and other nominations, to get to the Senate floor for final debate.

For example, the filibuster grew increasingly effective over the twentieth century as a way for substantial minorities within the Senate to block floor votes on a wide variety of matters, including civil rights legislation. To be sure, the filibuster was a potent weapon throughout Senate history, famously blocking final Senate votes on major civil rights legislation for more than a century. What might have made the filibuster worse than ever before was the so-called two-track system, which then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield implemented in 1975. It allowed the mere threat of a filibuster to sidetrack legislative business, including nominations. The way it worked was that, once nothing more than a threat was made, the matter being threatened was set aside, and other legislative business went forward. That scheme undoubtedly provided incentives to filibuster, and judicial filibusters increased throughout the 1990s and the administration of George W. Bush and the first term of President Obama.

What Is a Republic?

Whew! Now you know a lot about how democracies function and their core ideals. Now it's time to look at a republic vs. a democracy. How are they different? Well, the answer is a little bit complicated.

To do this, republics use elected officials to represent the will of their citizens within the government. In other words, republics rely on a representational form of government, just like the representational democracies we talked about earlier!

Additionally, in order for a country to qualify as a republic, its head of state has to be an elected official. That means that while countries like France and Germany—which have elected presidents as heads of state—are republics. Countries with a monarch as the head of state, like Canada and the United Kingdom, are not.

So to summarize: a republic is a form of government where the power a) rests with the people, b) is exercised through representative government, and c) has an elected head of state.


Leadership at the state legislative level refers to a range of different positions, including senate presidents and presidents pro tempore, house and assembly speakers, and minority and majority leaders. There are also middle- and lower-level leadership positions, such as whips, deputies, and floor leaders. Voters typically have little direct say in who holds these positions. Instead, the legislators themselves usually select their leaders. While the power and authority—and even the names—of leadership positions vary from chamber-to-chamber and state-to-state, leaders in state legislatures generally play influential roles in four, often interconnected, areas: the legislative process, elections, management, and career advancement. Read more about state legislative leadership positions here.

The president of the senate is the primary leader of the senate body. Responsibilities that generally come with the position include presiding over legislative sessions and ensuring that senators abide by procedural rules. In the absence of the Senate president, many of the position's responsibilities are carried out by the president pro tempore.

The lieutenant governor serves as the president of the senate in 25 states. In other states, the president of the senate is a state senator chosen by the members of the chamber. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, some states, such as Ohio and Rhode Island, removed the role of president of the senate from the duties of the lieutenant governor and instituted a process to select the senate president from among the members of the Senate body. ΐ] Α] Β]

Though "president of the senate" is the most common title for the senate leader, not all states adhere to the norm. For example, the Tennessee State Senate refers to its Senate leader as the speaker. In addition, Tennessee and West Virginia bestow the title of lieutenant governor on the senate leader, who is selected by the members of the chamber. Γ] Δ]


The modern role of president of the senate is rooted in the lieutenant governorships of the colonial era. During that period, lieutenant governors often presided over the governors' councils, which existed in each colony and functioned as the upper houses of government in colonies with a bicameral legislature. After states gained their independence, the lieutenant governor often presided over the state senate. For example, New York's 1777 constitution called for a lieutenant governor "who presides in the senate, and is the constitutional substitute for the Governor in casualties similar to those, which would authorise the vice president to exercise the authorities and discharge the duties of the president." Ε] Ζ] Η]

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, some states, such as Ohio and Rhode Island, removed the role of president of the senate from the duties of the lieutenant governor and instituted a process of selection through which the senate president is elected by the senators from among the members of the senate body. ΐ] ⎖]

State vs. federal

At the federal level, the vice president of the United States serves as the president of the U.S. Senate. In this capacity, the vice president presides over the Senate sessions and casts tie-breaking votes when necessary. Ώ]

At the state level, lieutenant governors or state senators serve as senate presidents. Specific duties and voting powers vary by state.

What is the real purpose of the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act?

In 1973, the United States Supreme Court decided, in Roe v. Wade, to strike down all laws protecting unborn children from abortion throughout the country. That same year, Congress moved to contain the liberalization of abortion, amending the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to prohibit the use of funds for the promotion or provision of abortions overseas.

This law, proposed by Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, has been in effect for nearly half a century, but it has been the subject of recent controversy. Abortion advocates have campaigned for it to be rescinded entirely or, failing that, to be reinterpreted with exceptions that would substantively weaken it.

This issue of Definitions explores the history of the Helms Amendment: why it was adopted, what its impact has been, and how it fits into the present-day battle over abortion both domestically and abroad.

Abortion and U.S. foreign assistance in the early 1970s

Before 1973, at a time when U.S. domestic policy on abortion differed widely among the fifty states, foreign aid delivered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was firmly pro-abortion, as was the Director of its Office of Population, Dr. Reimert T. Ravenholt. The year 1973 saw a reversal on both fronts. Roe overruled all state-level prohibitions on abortion, making abortion at all stages of pregnancy a legal right, a standard unusually permissive even when compared with European countries that had legalized it earlier, albeit with stricter gestational limits. On the other hand, as Harvard sociology lecturer Donald P. Warwick wrote in 1980, USAID “was an ardent supporter of abortion until it was brought to a standstill by the Helms Amendment.”

Under Ravenholt’s leadership, USAID had worked toward developing a method of early abortion that could be used without electricity, for use in developing countries where access to it was unreliable. The reusable plastic manual vacuum aspirator, equipped with a replaceable plastic cannula, or tube, was finalized for large-scale manufacture in spring of 1973, and Ravenholt placed an order for ten thousand of them and scheduled a conference to promote their use under the euphemistic name “menstrual regulation.” In October 1973, Ravenholt ordered a hundred thousand kits “believing [they] might as well get a really adequate supply,” but the order was never completed, as some Catholic members of Ravenholt’s staff were working to block it. “Anyway, they were in communication with Jack Sullivan and other Catholics, resulting in the creation of the Helms Amendment, introduced by Senator Jesse Helms and passed by the Congress and went into effect, in December of ’73,” said Ravenholt in a 2002 oral history he provided for Smith College. “We were not able to provide assistance for pregnancy termination after that.”

At the same time, according to Ravenholt, USAID was spending about $10 million for the development of prostaglandins, which “when self-administered by a woman, on a single occasion would ensure the non-pregnant state at the completion of a monthly cycle,” according to Ravenholt.

In his oral history, Ravenholt wryly points out, “with regard to the adversarial Roman Catholic Church one could do most anything provided it was ineffective.” But the prospect of hundreds of thousands of abortion kits being sent overseas—of which only one in Malaysia, reportedly was used in 6,800 abortions—was enough to generate strong opposition from Catholics as well as other pro-life Christians, including Senator Helms, a Baptist.

Legislative history of the Helms Amendment

In October 1973, Helms introduced his amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 in the Senate:

SEC. 116. PROHIBITING USE OF FUNDS FOR ABORTIONS – None of the funds made available to carry out this part shall be used in any manner, directly or indirectly, to pay for abortions, abortifacient drugs or devices, the promotion of the practice of abortion, or the support of research designed to develop methods of abortion. The provisions of this section shall not apply to any funds obligated prior to the date of its enactment.

The purpose of the amendment was simple, as Helms said on the Senate floor: “It is intended to prevent the use of [US]AID funds – that is to say, funds collected from the taxpayers of the United States – in the practice and promotion of abortion.” Additionally, Helms said his amendment would “stop the use of U.S. Government funds to promote and develop ways of killing unborn children,” such as the prostaglandin research mentioned by Ravenholt. Helms insisted his amendment would not affect other USAID programs, including population programs promoting family planning. “It requires only that U.S. Government funds made available for legitimate purposes not be commingled with funds from other sources that might be used for abortion.”

Helms acknowledged the rapid onset of the abortion issue in U.S. political discourse: “I doubt that any Senator who first voted for the Foreign Assistance Act in 1961 ever dreamed that AID’s population programs in foreign countries would allow abortion, much less become potentially structured around abortion in 1973. I believe that is the reason that the 1961 act failed to contain a specific prohibition or even to mention abortion.”

“Unless Congress [reverses USAID’s policy] now, we will soon see the day when abortifacient drugs and techniques dominate AID’s program, and the United States becomes the world’s largest exporter of death,” warned Helms.

The amendment was adopted in the Senate, by a vote of 54 to 42. By late November, the House of Representatives had proposed an altered text of the amendment in their version of the bill:

SEC. 114. LIMITING USE OF FUNDS FOR ABORTIONS. – None of the funds made available to carry out this part shall be used to pay for the performance of abortions as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.

In the words of Representative Lawrence Hogan of Maryland, “while this amendment is considerably less specific than that introduced by Senator Helms, it is clearly another step in demonstrating Congress’ opposition to the policy of abortion, which is so repugnant to the American people.” In early December, the revised version of the amendment was adopted by the Senate, and the bill was subsequently signed into law by President Nixon.

Interpretation and impact of the Helms Amendment

When the final version of the amendment was adopted, Helms took the floor and offered a few observations about the text, firstly, on the word “performance.” “Performance is a word which has a very wide latitude of interpretation,” he said, “and includes everything associated with ‘performance,’ including not only physicians’ and hospital fees, salaries, or expenses, but also associated equipment and necessities, such as drugs, medical instruments, and other devices specifically designed to effect or to assist in effecting abortions.”

Helms pointed out that “the language specifically talks not just about abortions, but abortions as a method of family planning. I would think that this would include counseling abortions as a method of family planning, as well.”

Since its initial adoption, Helms Amendment language has also been brought into other legislation, such as foreign operations appropriations measures, although not continuously as in the foreign assistance act.

The Helms Amendment restricts the use of U.S. funds to support abortion internationally, by prohibiting the commingling of funds. In other words, organizations that perform abortions are still eligible for U.S. funding, but the funding streams they use for abortion must be kept separate from their other work that receives U.S. government support. (This is distinct from the Mexico City Policy first enacted in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan and by Republican presidents thereafter, which prohibits all U.S. funding to foreign organizations that promote or provide abortions at all.)

With regard to the implementation of the amendment, the administrator of USAID issued a policy document in June of 1974 with some more specific requirements. Among these was a requirement that no USAID funding would be used to “procure or distribute equipment provided for the purpose of inducing abortions as a method of family planning.”

This procurement requirement led to Ravenholt outsourcing the distribution of manual vacuum aspirators to a new organization: “International Pregnancy Advisory Service” or IPAS, with funding from the Mellon Foundation.

The impact of the Helms Amendment at USAID was significant. According to Warwick, it led to at least a fivefold increase in monitoring in related fields, and multiple layers of approval required for anything seen as politically sensitive. “Needless to say, this process dampens the enthusiasm of those most committed to providing abortion services,” Warwick noted, citing the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the Pathfinder Fund as examples.

Another example of an organization eager to provide abortion by Warwick in 1980 was the Population Crisis Committee (PCC), now known as Population Action International (PAI). Unlike other organizations whose enthusiasm was “dampened” by Helms, PCC saw it as a “blessing in disguise” according to Warwick, as it “forced abortion advocates to rely less on large donors and the public sector and make productive explorations into abortion as a business venture.” IPAS was similarly optimistic about the marketability of abortion, which was its sole focus, unlike PCC, which also promoted contraceptives.

The recent debate on Helms interpretation

While abortion advocates have called continuously for the repeal of the Helms Amendment, during the Obama administration, a campaign was launched asking for it to be reinterpreted at the policy level, such as in a Presidential Memorandum, as sufficient support to overturn it in Congress was lacking. The argument raised by these groups was that the phrase “as a method of family planning” did not include abortions for women pregnant by rape or incest, or whose life was potentially threatened by the pregnancy. Others specifically called for the law to be interpreted with an exception for women raped in conflict. A similar recommendation was raised by a handful of European countries during the U.S.’s participation in the Universal Periodic Review, a Geneva-based human rights mechanism within the Human Rights Council. The Obama-led State Department rebuffed the recommendations as incompatible with existing U.S. law.

Ultimately, the Obama administration did not issue any executive guidance reinterpreting the Helms Amendment, to the frustration of many abortion advocates. During the 2016 presidential election, the site Wikileaks released a collection of leaked emails from candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta. In an exchange with fellow Clinton advisor Jennifer Klein, it was revealed that Obama had been prepared to reinterpret Helms, but with some conscience protections and a provision that applicants for U.S. grants should not be discriminated against due to their objection to providing abortions.

Klein wrote, “I have also heard that after listening to the strong concerns of the advocates, this may not be going forward […]Both of these [limitations] pose problems, and in my view, leaving Helms intact is a better alternative at the moment. The conscience clause is at best odd and at worst harmful.”

Prior to the Democratic primary, both Clinton and challenger Bernie Sanders pledged to reinterpret Helms Klein’s emails indicated that Clinton intended to do so without conscience protections or nondiscrimination provisions for grant applicants. While the election of President Donald Trump effectively ruled out reinterpretation of Helms—and ushered in the expanded Mexico City Policy, now known as Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance, the Helms Amendment remains a target of the pro-abortion movement.

As the 2020 campaign heats up, at least ten Democratic candidates have expressed opposition to the Helms Amendment, both in terms of issuing a reinterpretation and working with Congress to repeal it permanently.

While the reinterpretation of the Helms Amendment by a future Democrat U.S. president would likely be a matter of politics rather than legal argumentation, it might nevertheless end up in the courts if challenged. One interesting aspect of the debate over the amendment as originally proposed in Congress is that the topic of rape was not discussed at all, nor any of the other “hard case” exceptions that have become inescapable in discussions of the legality of abortion ever since. It is clear from Helms’ own words that he saw the “as a method of family planning” language as expanding, not limiting, the law’s application, covering not only medical services but also the counseling related to them.

It is also clear that the amendment was proposed to stop the export of what many taxpayers—whose funding pays for international aid—as well as many members of Congress viewed then, as today, as a grave moral evil. The interpretation the following year by USAID included as its first item the prohibition of procuring abortion-causing equipment. If an exception to the law were to be made even for the most extreme cases, such as rape in conflict, as a practical matter, this would mean reintroducing supply chains, training, and plans for providing abortion. Once in place, the restriction of such things to the rare exceptions allowed would be unrealistic—as Ravenholt’s boast about thousands of abortions performed with a single manual vacuum aspirator can attest.

History and Government

The United States is a representative democracy and its people play an important role in the governing process. Our government is based on several fundamental values including freedom, individual rights, equality, and opportunity. A basic understanding of U.S. history and government is important for everyone in the United States.

The links below provide resources to help you learn more about U.S. history and government.

Read the 100 Most Important Documents in U.S. History provides 100 of the most important documents in U.S. history. You can view the original document, read a transcript, and learn about the history of each.

Learn About the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights
Charters of Freedom is an online exhibit presented by the National Archives. In this exhibit, you can read and learn about the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

The U.S. House of Representatives provides information on the House of Representatives and each representative.

The U.S. Senate provides information on the Senate and each senator.

The President of the United States is the official website for the president.

The Supreme Court of the United States provides information about the court, the justices, and recent decisions.

Learn About U.S. History and Government
Ben's Guide to U.S. Government provides basic information about U.S. history and government for K-12 students, and educational tools for both parents and teachers.

Short Lessons About U.S. History and Government (PDF, 2.28 MB)
Learn About the United States: Quick Civics Lessons for the Naturalization Test is a study booklet that contains short lessons that will help you study for the naturalization test. This information will help you learn more about important concepts in U.S. history and government.

Learn About U.S. History, Social Studies, Literature, and Language Arts
EDSITEment! provides information and interactive activities on literature and language arts, foreign languages, art and culture, and history and social studies.

Purchase Government Documents on U.S. History and Government
The Government Publishing Office offers government publications about the U.S. Constitution, the flag, and U.S. history and government.

Learn About American History from Primary Sources
The Library of Congress developed the America's Library website to provide information about American history, government, and culture.

The Library of Congress
The national library of the United States is the largest library in the world. Its website has a comprehensive online exhibition of historic photographs, documents, and events.

What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College website now has an easy-to-remember address. Make sure to update your bookmarks!

The Electoral College is a process, not a place. The Founding Fathers established it in the Constitution, in part, as a compromise between the election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens.

What is the process?

The Electoral College process consists of the selection of the electors, the meeting of the electors where they vote for President and Vice President, and the counting of the electoral votes by Congress.

How many electors are there? How are they distributed among the States?

The Electoral College consists of 538 electors. A majority of 270 electoral votes is required to elect the President. Your State has the same number of electors as it does Members in its Congressional delegation: one for each Member in the House of Representatives plus two Senators. Read more about the allocation of electoral votes.

The District of Columbia is allocated 3 electors and treated like a State for purposes of the Electoral College under the 23rd Amendment of the Constitution. For this reason, in the following discussion, the word “State” also refers to the District of Columbia and “Governor” to the Mayor of the District of Columbia.

How are my electors chosen? What are their qualifications? How do they decide who to vote for?

Each candidate running for President in your State has his or her own group of electors (known as a slate). The slates are generally chosen by the candidate’s political party in your State, but State laws vary on how the electors are selected and what their responsibilities are. Read more about the qualifications of the electors and restrictions on who the electors may vote for.

What happens in the general election? Why should I vote?

The general election is held every four years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. When you vote for a Presidential candidate you are actually voting for your candidate's preferred electors. Learn more about voting for the electors.

Most States have a “winner-take-all” system that awards all electors to the Presidential candidate who wins the State's popular vote. However, Maine and Nebraska each have a variation of “proportional representation.” Read more about the allocation of electors among the States.

What happens after the general election?

After the general election, your Governor prepares a Certificate of Ascertainment listing the names of all the individuals on the slates for each candidate. The Certificate of Ascertainment also lists the number of votes each individual received and shows which individuals were appointed as your State's electors. Your State’s Certificate of Ascertainment is sent to NARA as part of the official records of the Presidential election.

The meeting of the electors takes place on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December after the general election. The electors meet in their respective States, where they cast their votes for President and Vice President on separate ballots. Your State’s electors’ votes are recorded on a Certificate of Vote, which is prepared at the meeting by the electors. Your State’s Certificate of Vote is sent to Congress, where the votes are counted, and NARA, as part of the official records of the Presidential election.

Each State’s electoral votes are counted in a joint session of Congress on the 6th of January in the year following the meeting of the electors. Members of the House and Senate meet in the House Chamber to conduct the official count of electoral votes. The Vice President, as President of the Senate, presides over the count and announces the results of the vote. The President of the Senate then declares which persons, if any, have been elected President and Vice President of the United States.

The President-elect takes the oath of office and is sworn in as President of the United States on January 20th in the year following the general election.

. a Process, not a Place

The Office of the Federal Register (OFR) is a part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and, on behalf of the Archivist of the United States, coordinates certain functions of the Electoral College between the States and Congress. It has no role in appointing electors and has no contact with them.


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