Federalism and the separation of powers mean that there are numerous elections at different levels of government and for different offices as well as primaries and direct democracy. Americans vote ‘for the president to the local dog catcher’ in 80,000 units of government, leading to ‘permanent’ campaigns and ‘bed-sheet ballots’, leading to a sense of ‘democratic overload’ due to more than 100,000 elections taking place annually which may lead to voter fatigue, higher alienation levels and abstention through too many participation opportunity’s. In the USA, candidates for office are not chosen by the parties, but by voters in primaries and caucuses. This is the nomination process which take place every 4 years for the presidential election and every 2 years for the mid term congressional elections.
The huge number of elections for a wide range of posts from the president down to local civic officials and the resulting sense of permanent campaigning causes voters to switch off leading to high abstention due to voter apathy and boredom. Although more people do participate in the nominating process than 40 years ago, the turnout in the presidential primaries vary from one election cycle to another. In a year when an incumbent president is running for re-election and therefore only one party has a genuine nomination contest, turnout in the primaries is only around 17%.
It was 17.5% in 1996 when president Clinton was running for re-election, and 17.2% in 2004, when George w. bush was running for re-election. Even when no incumbent president was running in 2000, turnout was still only 19%. However, in 2008, with no incumbent president and a highlight competitive race in the Democratic Party between a women and an African American, turnout soared to just over 30%.
Democratic overload leads to voter fatigue, high alienation levels and abstention, as the process is far too long. In 1960, senator John Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency just 66 days before the first primary. In readiness for the 2004 campaign, senator John Kerry announced his candidacy 423 days before the first primary. Barack Obama in 2008 also announced his candidacy 332 days before the first primary.
Democratic overload is one reason for the law turnouts of us elections. Apart from the federal and state elections, there are also the primary and caucus elections and increasingly voters are invited to vote on initiatives, propositions at local level and possibly in recall elections. For example, The 2003 California gubernatorial recall election was a special election permitted under California state law. It resulted in voters replacing incumbent Democratic Governor Gray Davis with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. This could be contrasted with other democracies, such as the UK, where the opportunities to vote are far more restricted.