Because the U.S. Constitution establishes a federal system, the state governments enjoy extensive authority. The Constitution outlines specific powers granted to national government. In some areas, the authority of the federal and state governments overlap; for example, the state and federal governments both have the power to tax, establish courts, and make and enforce laws. In other areas, such as the regulation of commerce within a state, the establishment of local governments, and action on public health, safety, and morals, the state governments have considerable discretion. The Constitution also denies to the states certain powers; for example, the Constitution forbids states to enter into treaties, to tax imports or exports, or to coin money. States also may not adopt laws that contradict the U.S. Constitution.
The governments of the 50 states have structures closely paralleling those of the federal government. Each state has a governor, a legislature, and a judiciary. Each state also has its own constitution.
State governors are directly elected and serve varying terms (generally ranging from two to four years); in some states, the number of terms a governor may serve is limited. The powers of governors also vary, with some state constitutions ceding substantial authority to the chief executive (such as appointment
and budgetary powers and the authority to veto legislation). In a few states, however, governors have highly circumscribed authority, with the constitution denying them the power to veto legislation bills.
State governments have a wide array of functions, including conservation, highway and motor vehicle supervision, public safety, regulation of agriculture and of intrastate business and industry, and certain aspects of education, public health, and welfare. The administrative departments that oversee these
activities are headed by the governor.
Each state may establish local governments to assist it in carrying out its constitutional powers. Local governments exercise only those powers that are granted to them by the states, and a state may redefine the role and authority of local government. The country has a long tradition of local democracy and even some of the smallest areas have their own governments. There are some 85,000 local government units in the United States. The largest local government unit is the county. Counties range in population from as few as 100 people to millions. They often provide local services in rural areas. Smaller units include townships, villages, school districts, and special districts (e.g., housing authorities and water authorities).
Municipal, or city, governments are responsible for delivering most services, particularly in urban areas.
Election is the process by which people vote for the candidate or proposal of their choice. The basis of democratic government is that citizens have the right to choose the officials who will govern them. Elections thus rank as one of the most important political activities. Elections also serve as a means of peacefully transferring power from one person or group to another.
Most countries hold elections to select governmental officials. But in countries without democratic government, the people have little real choice. The only candidates allowed on the ballot are those approved by the leaders or by a single political party. In such countries, elections are held for propaganda reasons and to demonstrate popular support for the government.
In addition to public elections, nongovernmental elections are also held to select the officials of many organizations. Labor unions, social clubs, and the student bodies of schools hold elections to select their officers.
Elections in a democracy. Election procedures differ from country to country. However, certain principles characterize elections in democratic nations. In the United States, Canada, and other democratic countries, nearly all adults can vote. Those not permitted to vote include certain criminals and people with severe
mental illness or mental retardation. Citizens vote by secret ballot so that they can vote without fear of how others will react. The mass media – which include radio, television, magazines, and newspapers – freely discuss the candidates and issues.
In most democratic countries, political parties select candidates for public office and propose public policies. However, in some countries and in parts of the United States, local elections are nonpartisan – that is, candidates appear on the ballot without being identified by political party.
Voters elect officials by either direct or indirect elections. In direct elections, the people themselves vote for public officials. In the United States, for example, citizens vote for members of Congress and for state and local officials in this way. In indirect elections, people elect representatives called electors to choose
public officials. The U.S. President and Vice President are chosen in an indirect election. The voters of each state select electors, who make up the Electoral College. The electors in turn choose the President and Vice President based on the popular vote in the states they represent.
Under a parliamentary system of government, also called a cabinet system, citizens elect members of the legislature. The head of state--the king or queen of a monarchy or the president of a republic--then selects a prime minister from the members of the legislature. Australia, Canada, and certain other Commonwealth
nations regard the British ruler as head of state. In such nations, the governor general makes the appointment, acting as the representative of the monarch. In most countries, the head of state can appoint only the leader of the majority party in the legislature or the head of a coalition of parties.