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Understanding How the U.S. Government Works

Updated: Sep 9



Episode 1: Understanding How the U.S. Government Works

Last Updated: July 8, 2020


Studio ATAO’s Community Skillshare is a virtual learning series that tackles specific, actionable and pertinent topics with subject matter experts. Each season (1-4 episodes) is centered on one main topic and is paired with a thorough resources document (such as this one) with additional information and relevant links. Community Skillshares take place on Studio ATAO’s IG Live and we will announce upcoming episodes via our Instagram.

This particular resources document was compiled by Studio ATAO’s core team for our Skillshare with activist Ashtin Berry. Ashtin is a sommelier, educator, and social justice advocate with a focus on the hospitality and beverage industry. She’s the founder of Unite America’s Table and Radical XChange.

We hope Ashtin’s Skillshare Session and this resource document can provide useful information for you to become more civically engaged in your community. Please feel free to share this resource widely with anyone who you think may need it.

This is a living, evolving document and is not exhaustive of all resources. If you have suggestions on how we can better improve this document, we would love to hear from you at hello@studioatao.org.

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Table of Contents

  • Video of Community Skillshare Episode 1

  • Civics 101: What Is Civics (and Civic Duty, Civic Rights, Civic Engagement)?

  • An Overview of How the U.S. Government Works

  • Understanding How Laws Are Passed in the U.S.

Season 4 Episode 1 - IG Live with Ashtin Berry

Civics 101

What Is Civics (and Civic Duty, Civic Rights, Civic Engagement)?

Civics is derived from the Latin word civis, or citizen. Civics, as it relates to the United States, is the body of work relating to participating in our society as a citizen.

A legally-defined citizen of the U.S. is one who was born in the United States (or its territories) or has completed naturalization, the process of becoming a citizen. A citizen will specifically hold a U.S. passport alongside a certificate of U.S. citizenship, versus other types of paperwork for legally-defined permanent residents (e.g. a greencard).

Visa holders are split into two major groups: non-immigrant (usually travel) visas and immigrant visas. There are several types of immigrant visas, including ones for family members of citizens and permanent residents and work-related employment visas. (Refugees and asylees are a separate category not under visas.)

Undocumented residents are those who do not hold any official paperwork of residency status in the U.S. However, they make up an incredibly important part of our society and can very much still be civically engaged.

Civic duty (or civic responsibility) are the responsibilities that come with being a citizen of this country. This includes actions such as paying your taxes and attending jury duty when summoned. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the official civic duties for citizens are:

  • Support and defend the Constitution.

  • Stay informed of the issues affecting your community.

  • Participate in the democratic process.

  • Respect and obey federal, state, and local laws.

  • Respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others.

  • Participate in your local community.

  • Pay income and other taxes honestly, and on time, to federal, state, and local authorities.

  • Serve on a jury when called upon.

  • Defend the country if the need should arise.

Note: Many non-citizen residents, such as undocumented workers, still follow some, if not all, civic duties for citizens, such as paying income taxes.

Civic rights are the rights you have as a citizen of this country to exercise. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the official civic rights for citizens are:

  • Freedom to express yourself.

  • Freedom to worship as you wish.

  • Right to a prompt, fair trial by jury.

  • Right to vote in elections for public officials.

  • Right to apply for federal employment requiring U.S. citizenship.

  • Right to run for elected office.

  • Freedom to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

It is worth noting that voting is not a civic duty, but a civic right, for citizens.

Civic engagement, or civic participation, is the partaking in the field of civics, through individual, group, community, political action. From the National Council for Social Studies:

In a constitutional democracy, productive civic engagement requires knowledge of the history, principles, and foundations of our American democracy, and the ability to participate in civic and democratic processes. People demonstrate civic engagement when they address public problems individually and collaboratively and when they maintain, strengthen, and improve communities and societies. Thus, civics is, in part, the study of how people participate in governing society.

From Youth.gov:

Civic engagement involves “working to make a difference in the civic life of one’s community and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.” Civic engagement includes both paid and unpaid forms of political activism, environmentalism, and community and national service. Volunteering, national service, and service-learning are all forms of civic engagement.

A political process involves actions that are meant to change how things are governed, such as political policy or political norms. An example of a political process would be the civil rights movement. Forms of political engagement (which is also civic engagement) include voting, attending town halls, certain types of community organizing, and campaigning at a local, state or federal level.

Non-political processes are actions that involve larger social issues within the community, but may not directly relate to governmental affairs. Forms of non-political civic engagement including volunteering at local nonprofits or charities, educating those in your community about certain issues, and leading community organizations that benefit the public. An example of a non-political act of civic engagement is volunteering at a soup kitchen or with a community garden.

While civics is often referred to as something that pertains specifically to citizens, non-citizen residents can be (and are already) civically engaged. For example, Jose Antonio Vargo is a well-known journalist who writes about his experience as an undocumented immigrant for outlets such as the NY Times to educate the public about the difficulties of the naturalization process.

Civics Education

Civics education is no longer widely taught in public schools. Until the 1960’s, most high school students were taught three courses on civics and U.S. government, versus a single course now taught to roughly 85% of students nationwide (Flunking Democracy). Many educators also point to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 -- which forced schools to focus curriculums around subjects such as English, language arts and math and increased federal involvement in schools through standardized testing -- as having been a major obstacle to student proficiency in subjects such as civics. Here is a breakdown of civic education requirements by state.

More concerning still is that lackluster civics education has been linked to low voter turnout for young adults and the resulting impact of declining civics education has been extremely disproportionate, further exacerbating the issue of civic engagement across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines:

The [decline in the provision of civics education] has been most significant for low-income students in low-resourced schools. As a 2017 report from the Education Commission of the States puts it, “Urban schools with low-income, diverse students provide fewer and lower-quality civic opportunities and affluent white students are twice as likely as those of average socioeconomic status to study the legislative process or participate in service activities and 150 percent more likely to do in-class debates.” -- Washington Post

There are different perspectives on how best to address the issue of poor civics education. One particular policy change being championed by the Joe Foss Institute is the Civics Education Initiative, which would require high school students to take and pass the U.S. Naturalization Test in order to graduate.


Citizens over 18 have a right to vote in local, state and federal elections. You can register to vote here and check your voter registration status here. You can also receive election reminders by signing up here.

It is important to note that some citizens cannot vote, such as those who reside in Puerto Rico or those with a felony conviction (varying by state), which have had a (calculated) disproportionate impact on communities of color. Felony disenfranchisement is disenfranchisement (deprived of the right to vote) of citizens who have been convicted of a felony, sometimes even after they have served their sentence in full, and has been practiced and enforced in various ways by states for decades. Watch here for an overview of felony disenfranchisement in our society today, including a clip of the legal difficulties in the felony re-entry process.

"In the post-Reconstruction period, several Southern states tailored their disenfranchisement laws in order to bar black male voters, targeting those offenses believed to be committed most frequently by the black population. Such policies would endure for over a century. While it is debatable whether felony disenfranchisement laws today are intended to reduce the political clout of communities of color, this is their undeniable effect." (The Sentencing Project)

Every state offers different ways to vote, and voting schedules also vary. Most states will require you to vote in person at a polling place (see locator here), unless you have requested an absentee ballot that allows you to vote by mail (request one here), although 5 states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah) are currently universally vote-by-mail. There are many benefits to voting by mail: for individuals, it is far more convenient than standing in line to vote; overall, it has been shown to increase voter turnout.

There is currently a lot of contention about who would benefit from widening the scope of allowed absentee ballots as a result of COVID-19. Here is a short breakdown by Reuters on the topic. Most recently, the Texas Supreme Court blocked an expansion of vote-by-mail.

Most voter registrations will ask you to declare a political party affiliation if desired, in order to send you voter materials that align with your party affiliation. Deciding on what political party you stand with (or to stay non-partisan, or not affiliated with any political party) is an individual decision, and it is well worth your time to learn about our two major parties: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party (also known as the “Grand Old Party” or GOP). Please refer to the “Political Party Structures & Ideologies” section for more information about both parties, as well as other political parties.

You can also use non-partisan “quiz” sites such as The Political Compass, iSideWith, and HowStuffWorks to help you narrow down your party affiliation.

Regardless of party affiliation, you can vote for any candidate of any party in any general election (or write in a candidate of your choice, although some states do not count these if the write-in candidate is not pre-registered). While the Presidential Election often receives the highest voter turnout, there are many elections that you can (and should) vote in before then. You can find local and state elections (including special elections) for your area here. To better understand the different types of elections you can vote in, please refer to “Types of Elections” section.

The U.S. has a well-documented history of voter suppression, or the use of various strategies to reduce or prevent a citizen’s ability to vote, especially when it comes to Black Americans, with a particularly overt case happening in Georgia in 2017. Voter suppression includes everything from physical intimidation at polling locations (illegal), to placing restrictions on voting times and places to make it less convenient (legal), to changing ID requirements (legal), to felony disenfranchisement (legal) -- all with the intent to dissuade certain segments of the population (usually Black, Latinx, students and elderly) to vote. Read more about the different tactics of voter suppression here on ACLU and click here for an overview of your voter rights and how to report any incidences of intimidation.

To find voter guides about the positions of each candidate on your election ballot, you can use national sites such as Vote 411 and BallotReady or via your specific state’s government website.

An Overview of How the U.S. Government Works

Democracy vs. Republic

Most people refer to the U.S. colloquially as a democracy. However, this does not account for the entire picture. The definition of a democracy is: “a form of government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodic free elections.”

In a direct democracy, the citizens themselves are part of the legislative process, each weighing in and deciding on new policies. This is now extremely uncommon, given population sizes. A representative democracy is one where citizens elect officials to deliberate on legislation on their behalf. Most Western styles of government are based on this style of democracy, including the U.S. and U.K. As described by Alexander Hamilton in a 1777 letter:

“But a representative democracy, where the right of election is well secured and regulated & the exercise of the legislative, executive and judiciary authorities, is vested in select persons, chosen really and not nominally by the people, will in my opinion be most likely to be happy, regular and durable.”

A republic is defined as: “a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.” In a republic, “an official charter lists and protects certain inalienable rights, thus protecting the minority from the arbitrary political whims of the majority.” (Thought Co)

A democracy and a republic are not mutually exclusive, and the U.S. could be referred to in a variety of ways (e.g. representative democracy, constitutional republic) that would all be accurate. Officially, the U.S. is listed as a constitutional federal republic by the CIA.

The Branches of the U.S. Government

The United States federal government is divided into three branches to ensure that any one group does not have too much power. This system of checks and balances hypothetically allows each branch to use its power to check the other two, allowing the government to balance power throughout all three branches. The Official Guide to Government Information and Services explains the three branches as follows:

1. Legislative makes laws through Congress (made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate)

2. Executive carries out laws (includes the President and Cabinet members, which refers to the Vice President and the heads of the 15 executive departments)

  • Department of State

  • Department of the Treasury

  • Department of Defense

  • Department of Justice

  • Department of the Interior

  • Department of Agriculture

  • Department of Labor

  • Department of Health and Human Services

  • Department of Housing and Urban Development

  • Department of Transportation

  • Department of Energy

  • Department of Education

  • Department of Veterans Affairs

  • Department of Homeland Security

  • Department of Commerce

3. Judicial interprets laws (consists of the Supreme Court and other federal courts)

The Senate vs. The House of Representatives

The Senate (also known as the “Upper House”) has 100 senators, with 2 Senators elected from each state. A senator represents their entire state. Each Senate term is six years with no limits on how many terms a Senator may serve. Senators must be at least 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least nine years, and a resident of the state that they represent. The Vice President acts as the President of the Senate, and in the case of a tie, is able to cast the decisive vote.

The House of Representatives (also known as the “Lower House”) has 435 elected Representatives, and unlike the Senate, the number of Representatives per state is determined in proportion to the state’s total population, with each state having a minimum of one Representative running a two-year term. The House of Representatives is sometimes colloquially referred to as “Congress” although technically Congress comprises both the House and the Senate.

A member of the House represents an individual district in a state. There are six non-voting members which represent the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In order to be elected to the House, one must be at least 25 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least 7 years, and a resident of the state that they represent. The Speaker of the House leads the House of Representatives and is elected by members of the House.

There are notable differences in how these two bodies are structured, as listed above, that affect the ways in which they conduct business. The House has more than four times the amount of members than the Senate and is known to follow procedures closely with limited debate. The Democratic Party currently controls the House of Representatives at 233 seats.

The Senate has fewer members who have longer term limits which results in Senators feeling “less pressure to move quickly on issues” (U.S. Capitol Visitor Center). In a Senate hearing, debate is mostly unlimited and a Senator may even discuss issues that do not pertain to the bill at hand or introduce a new amendment. It is under this context that a filibuster can take place, which is an action (for example, prolonged speech) that delays a vote on a bill, and thus its passage. To break a filibuster, a supermajority of 60 Senators can invoke cloture (meaning to stop the debate on a bill) and force a vote to be determined by a majority. However, a supermajority is difficult to acquire because of partisanship (aligning to party lines) -- right now, the Republican Party controls the Senate at 53 seats.

Each chamber of Congress also has exclusive powers that the other does not.

  • From the White House website: the House has the power to “initiate revenue bills, impeach federal officials, and elect the President in the case of an electoral college tie.

  • From the White House website: the Senate has exclusive power to confirm the President’s appointments, to ratify treaties and to hold impeachment cases for federal officials that are referred by the House. The House “must also approve appointments to the Vice Presidency and any treaty that involves foreign trade.”

There are also some commonalities between these two legislative bodies. For example, Senators and Representatives are both elected directly by citizens. The House and the Senate must both approve of passing legislation by passing a bill with majority vote (meaning more than ½ of the total), which can prove challenging when there is a split Congress, or a Congress with its two chambers being controlled by different political parties (read more on this in the “Understanding How Laws Are Passed in the U.S.” section).

The annual session of Congress begins when the House and Senate convene in January and ends in December with an adjournment sine die. There are various types of sessions beyond the standard daily session (a routine day), including a special session, lame duck session and joint session -- read full definitions here.

When the members of the House and/or Senate officially meet on the floors of Congress, those are defined as legislative days. On average, both chambers average less than ½ of the year in legislative days, and the two define a “day” slightly differently (the House allows a “day” to extend beyond 24 hours while the Senate recesses, but does not adjourn, after a full calendar day).

A recess is a pause in the annual session where House and Senate representatives leave Congress to return to their districts and talk to the citizens they are representing. There are several formal recesses every year, including the August recess and the Memorial Day recess. An adjournment is an official end to a session in progress, and neither chamber can adjourn for more than 3 days without the consent of the other chamber. Please note that the words “recess” and “adjourn” are also used to indicate a pause in legislative days (e.g. a recess in the middle of a legislative day, or an adjournment at the end of a legislative day).

Daily coverage of what is happening in the Senate and House is available via the C-SPAN network: C-SPAN focuses on the U.S. House of Representatives, C-SPAN2 focuses on the U.S. Senate, and C-SPAN3 shows other government-related hearings. You can watch C-SPAN via your regular cable network or via online streaming services.

State vs. Federal Law

The U.S. uses a system of governing called federalism, which means it is governed by two levels of authority: state and federal. (Except for U.S. territories, which are governed completely by the federal government.) The Constitution established this method of “dual sovereignty” by which states surrender various powers to the federal government while still retaining some sovereignty. Powers shared by both federal and state governments are called concurrent powers; examples of this include the power to tax, build roads, and create lower courts (Legal Information Institute).

Federal law, or laws set by the federal government, applies throughout the United States. Examples of federal laws include immigration law, federal anti-discrimination laws, laws against tax fraud, and more. Under the Supremacy Clause, federal law takes precedence over state law; however, there are instances where enforcement of a law (through police power) undermines this clause because police powers are left to the state.

For example, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug under federal law but various states have either decriminalized (removed penalties for possession) it or allowed it medically or recreationally. As such, growers and sellers of marijuana in those states who follow the state-sanctioned marijuana laws are not persecuted by the state and, although their activity is technically illegal by federal law, are realistically very unlikely to be persecuted by the federal government because there is simply not enough federal resources to do so.

Individual states have their own systems of law and legal proceedings over matters that the federal law doesn’t define for them. For example, state courts typically handle issues such as criminal matters, divorce and family proceedings, wills, inheritances, and estates, and more (Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York). Within individual states there may be local laws handled by counties, cities, municipalities, etc. that provide specifics about how that area is governed. Examples of matters that involve local law include rent laws, zoning and local safety.

Federal Court System

The federal court system in the U.S. is divided into a hierarchy of three tiers, listed here from lowest to highest court of law:

  • 94 District Courts (Trial Courts)

  • 13 Circuit Courts (Federal Court of Appeals)

  • 1 Supreme Court

This system divides the U.S. geographically into districts and then circuits, using geographic territories. The 94 district courts are distributed across 13 circuit courts, with each circuit having a Court of Appeals. For example, the first judicial circuit refers to Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island. (To see a map of this distribution, click here.)

These federal courts deal with disputes concerning statutes, or laws passed by Congress and outlined by the Constitution. Cases begin in the District Court, or trial court, in which one judge presides over a court proceeding in which there may be witnesses and a jury. A jury is a group of citizens who must reach a unanimous (everyone is in agreement) decision about whether a person is guilty or not guilty for the crime with which they are being charged.

The second tier in the federal court is called the Court of Appeals, also called Appellate Courts. The party who lost in trial court may ask the Court of Appeals to review the case to determine if the judge correctly applied the law. These Appellate Courts have no jury, no witnesses, but rather five groups of three judges (Indiana Judicial Branch website). This is because they do not re-examine the facts of the case itself, only if the application of law by way of the trial court judge was correct or not.

Lastly, the Supreme Court in Washington, DC is the highest and final court of law in the U.S. The Supreme Court has 9 Justices who are nominated by the President, then confirmed by the Senate through a simple majority (or a plurality, where the number of votes to confirm is higher than the number of votes in dissent, even if those votes do not surpass 1/2 of total votes). Because of this two-step process, the Senate can maneuver to block Justices from being appointed to court -- such as in the case of Judge Merrick Garland, who President Obama nominated in his last year. The Senate refused to hear the nomination, citing it wanted to wait until the next President, despite the fact there was no legal precedent (see more about precedents below) to do so.

Once appointed, Justices hold office “during good behavior”, as stated in Article III of the Constitution, which really means they may serve as long as they wish and can only be removed through impeachment, which makes appointing a Supreme Court Judge one of the most lasting and powerful actions a President can do.

To be heard by the Supreme Court, one must submit a Writ of Certiorari, which is a request for the Supreme Court to review a case from the lower courts (Court of Appeals, District Courts). The Supreme Court may decline this if they wish. In fact, it is rare for a case to be accepted by the Supreme Court: out of the more than 7,000 cases received to review each year, the Supreme Court generally only accepts 100-150 of them.

The Court usually only decides to hear cases that “could have national significance, might harmonize conflicting decisions in the federal Circuit courts, and/or could have precedential value” (United States Courts). Precedential value refers to the idea of precedence, also called Stare Decisis (translated as “to stand by things decided”), or establishing a principle, rule or interpretation of a law that would set the foundation of any potential related rulings in the future.

However, critics of the Supreme Court’s current extreme partisanship point out that the Court may refuse to hear cases due to political reasons, such as with Obama’s immigration policy in 2016 and, even worse, repeatedly establish precedence in close rulings with one “swing vote” Justice. (Currently, that is considered to be Justice Roberts.)

From Stanford Politics: In the period between 1801 and 1940, less than 2 percent of all the Supreme Court’s decisions were decided by a 5–4 vote. By contrast, the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts (1986 - current) have seen just over 20 percent of their cases be decided by this small margin. This shift provides a clear indication that polarization has indeed spread to the judiciary.

Court decisions not only set precedence for subsequent cases that involve similar facts and/or similar legal issues, but also set precedents for interpretations of the Constitution and federal laws. The court hierarchy comes into play here, as decisions and precedents made in higher courts, like the Supreme Court, must be followed by (federal and state) lower courts.

One particularly heated example is that of Roe v. Wade, which asserted that women have the right to terminate a pregnancy without excessive government interference. This ruling not only overturned many state laws at the time, but also then set a precedent so the Supreme Court would not hear additional cases about abortion in later years. (Right now, the Republican Party is attempting to persuade the Supreme Court to revisit this ruling, which, if that does occur may re-establish precedence when it comes to abortions due to the conservative nature of the current sitting Justices.)

Legal precedence makes for predictability and consistency in courts of law, but in order for law to be capable of change, the Supreme Court has the power to overturn prior laws and make amendments to the Constitution. An example of this is in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in which the Supreme Court overturned its prior ruling that allowed for racially segregated schools (Indiana Judicial Branch).

One particularly significant power of the Supreme Court is its right to judicial review. Judicial review is the ability of the court to declare that a law is inconsistent with the Constitution. All courts, including district courts, appellate courts, and state courts, may partake in judicial review, but their decisions are always subject to review by the Supreme Court. “Therefore, the Court has the final say over when a right is protected by the Constitution or when a Constitutional right is violated” (United States Courts).

Supreme Court cases are now also live-streamed on C-SPAN.

Political Party Structures & Ideologies

The U.S. has two major political parties, the Democratic Party and Republic Party. Here is an overview of how they have evolved over time:

Note: Very confusingly, the terms “Democratic Party” and “Republican Party” as they are used to refer to political ideology today have changed dramatically over time. President Abraham Lincoln, for example, was part of the Republican Party while Southern Democrats opposed civil rights for newly freed African Americans.

A short list of some major political ideology differences between the current Democratic Party and Republican Party is below. Please remember there are varying degrees of viewpoints on these policies in both parties, and you should review the viewpoints of your specific candidate(s) to make sure they align with your own, even if they are part of your affiliated party.

  • Government intervention in economic and business affairs

  • Regulation of labor unions

  • Read more about economic performance under Democratic vs. Republican presidents here

  • Government intervention in private, non-economic affairs of citizens

  • Abortion laws

  • Gun control laws

  • Government-sponsored social welfare programs

  • Private vs. public (or universal) healthcare

  • Government-backed environmental protection programs

  • Environmental conservation laws for businesses

  • Immigration laws

  • Taxation of the wealthy

  • Civil rights for marginalized communities (e.g. LGBTQ+)

  • State rights vs. federal government oversight

  • Strict vs. loose interpretation of the Constitution

Other Political Parties

The Democratic and Republican Parties are by and large the biggest political parties in the U.S. However, there are some other political parties currently active in the U.S. such as:

  • Libertarian Party: emphasizes laissez-faire capitalism and small government

  • Green Party: emphasizes green, or environmentally conscious, principles of government as well as non-violence and social justice

Types of Elections

There are 3 basic types of elections: local, primary and general.

The general election is always held the first Tuesday, after the first Monday, in November every year. General elections choose which political candidates (of those selected in primary elections) will actually hold the public office they are running for. In general elections, you can vote for:

  • President & Vice President (serves 4 year terms)

  • State Senators (serves 6 year terms; staggered so roughly ⅓ are up for reelection every year)

  • State House of Representatives (serves 2 year terms; up for reelection every even year)

  • State governor (serves 4 year terms in all states except New Hampshire and Vermont, which are 2 year terms)

  • Other state positions, such as the lieutenant governor, general assembly, attorney general, auditor general, state treasurer (terms vary by state)

  • County and city officials (terms vary by state)

  • Local and state judges (terms and election process vary by state)

  • Ballot measures for new propositions and laws at the state level

The winner of general elections except for the President and Vice President is determined by popular vote, or number of votes cast by eligible citizens for that candidate. In cases of ties, states have different ways to break the tie depending on the position in question.

If the general election does not contain any federal or state office seats, it is called a municipal election. “Midterm elections” refer to years of general elections that are not Presidential elections.

A primary election is one that selects the political candidates that will be running for the general election for each political party. In addition to nominating candidates to fill public office, primaries can be used to determine positions such as convention delegates and political party leaders.

Primary elections can be open or closed. An open primary is an election that allows voters to choose on Election Day the political party they want to cast a vote for, as voters can generally only vote for the candidates of one party. (In effect: if you chose Democratic Party on election day you would receive the ballot for all the Democratic candidates running various positions). Click to see list of states that conduct open primaries.

However, some states (like California and Louisiana) offer a jungle primary to allow voters to vote for candidates of either political party for any of the positions, not just the voter’s registered party. (In effect: you don’t choose a party affiliation, and you are given a ballot with all the names included so you can pick either Democratic or Republican candidates for any position.) If the top two candidates then move forward regardless of if they are from the same political affiliation, it is called a top two primary.

A closed primary is an election that only allows voters to select candidates of the political party they had already declared affiliation with on Election Day. Click to see list of states that conduct closed primaries.

A semi-closed primary is an election that only allows previously-declared voters to select candidates of their political party on Election Day, but allows undeclared voters to vote for candidates of the party of their choice. Click to see list of states that conduct semi-closed primaries.

The winner of a primary is decided by a plurality of the popular vote, or a simple majority, meaning the winner has the most number of votes cast by eligible citizens for that candidate even if it is not more than 50% of the total votes (versus a majority). In cases of ties, states implement different ways to break the tie.

The date of primary elections vary from state to state. Click here to find the website of your state’s election website. To find voter guides about the positions of each candidate on your election ballot, you can use national sites such as Vote 411 and BallotReady or via your specific state’s election website.

In the case of the presidential election, there are also caucuses in addition to a primary to choose delegates, versus a candidate, to run for the Presidential slot (see more in “The Presidential Election” section).


One important election-related issue to call attention to is that of gerrymandering, or when state legislatures manipulate the boundaries of its districts in order to influence electoral outcomes. The goal of gerrymandering is to maximize the number of congressional districts (which each hold a seat in the House of Representatives) that “each contain just enough governing-party supporters to let the party’s candidates win and hold the seat safely, even during “wave” elections when the opposition does especially well. And it packs the opposition’s supporters into a minimum number of districts that the opposition will win overwhelmingly.” (NYT).

Gerrymandering generally happens in the below ways: (Per ProPublica)

  1. Packing: Concentrating voters of one type into 1 congressional district, in order to lessen its influence in other districts. This allows the political party doing the gerrymandering to win surrounding districts and ultimately hold more positions in the House.

  2. Cracking: Splitting up voters of one type into many different congressional districts, in order to ensure they will be a minority voice in every district. This allows the political party doing the gerrymandering to sweep all of the districts they have drawn.

  3. Hijacking: Drawing 2 districts in a way that the two incumbent candidates (those currently holding office) must then run against each other, which requires one of them to lose.

  4. Kidnapping: Moving the address of the incumbent into a new district, forcing them to run for re-election with a new set of voters.

Gerrymandering is not unique to the U.S., and both political parties are guilty of gerrymandering to their advantage. However, analysis finds the Republican Party has benefitted far more from gerrymandering in recent years. Much of this came as a result of the Redistricting Majority Project launched by the Republican Party in the wake of the 2010 Census.

Census years are redistricting years, and by taking control of the needed state legislature positions to oversee the redrawing of district maps gave the Republican Party a huge advantage in maintaining their power within their states and also within Congress. In 2010, Republicans controlled the process of drawing the boundaries for 210 House districts, compared to just 44 districts for Democrats. (PBS)

Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled on partisan gerrymandering in a 5-4 ruling saying federal courts should not be overseeing the act of gerrymandering: “the question of partisan gerrymandering was a political one that must be resolved by the elected branches of government, and not a legal question that the federal courts should decide.” (NYT) In effect, this gave the handling of gerrymandering back to state legislatures and Congress to decide on. This was widely criticized for giving the legislators overseeing the gerrymandering in the first place to continue to turn a blind eye towards the issue.

The Presidential Election

For the Presidential election specifically, some states still use a system of caucasus. A caucus is a private meeting held by a political party open to all voters registered with that party. The point of the caucus is for voters to elect delegates to vote for their preferred presidential candidate at the national convention. The way caucuses operate vary by the political party and the state, and more confusingly some states will use both primaries and caucuses for different parts of the voting process, or one party will use primaries but the other caucuses. Parties can also change how they use the primary or caucus system each year. The main reason this is so complex is because the primary and caucus process, in and of itself, is a way for the political party to affect the outcome by adjusting timing and pace.

Note: The term “caucus” when used to refer to the system of electing delegates for the presidential election is different from when used to refer to members of Congress form groups to discuss specific issues (such as the Congressional Black Caucus or the Freedom Caucus).

Delegates are representatives of party members in each state that attend the party’s national convention. Delegates chosen by caucus or primary election are pledged delegates and pledge to cast their vote for the candidate that the voters had elected them to support at the convention. Superdelegates (also called automatic, unpledged, or unbound delegates) are delegates who can support any presidential candidate of their choosing; these include leaders within a political party and elected officials of that party. Superdelegates are important because they have outsized influence: superdelegates each have 1 vote to represent 1 person, whereas pledged delegates each have 1 vote to represent thousands of people.

If a state uses the primary election system, a term you’ll likely see is “Super Tuesday” (usually in March). This is the day where many state primaries are held, and marks an early signal as to who may win each political party’s nomination. Read here for a brief history about Super Tuesday, how it came into play and why it’s important.

Each party has different rules as to how many delegates are awarded to each candidate, as well as the number of delegates sent by each state to the national convention. The national convention is held the summer before the presidential election, and delegates will state their vote for who they want to be the presidential nominee. Presidential candidates that win the most votes in caucuses and primaries almost always win the party nomination, though there is probabilistically a chance that does not happen.

Once the official presidential candidates are declared, they will appear on the ballot as candidates for the presidency in the Presidential General Election. In this election, voters still cast their votes individually and there is a popular vote tallied, but the winner is determined by the electoral college.

The Electoral College

The electoral college is the group of citizens designated per state that casts votes for the President and Vice President. The actual electors are generally selected by each political party at the national convention. The voters participating in the general election in effect select these electors that pledge to vote for their candidate of choice.

Each state has a certain number of electoral votes, the same as it has in the members of Congress (seats of the House of Representatives plus Senate), while the District of Columbia specifically has 3 electoral votes. There are 538 total votes, and to win the presidency the candidate must win a majority of the votes (270 votes). Only 2 states (Maine & Nebraska) do not have a “winner-take-all” system, where the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes is given the entirety of the state’s electoral votes. If no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives elects the president using majority vote, where each state casts 1 vote. (If no vice president wins by majority vote, the Senate elects the vice president using majority vote with each Senator casting 1 vote.)

While the winner of the presidential election usually wins both by popular vote and electoral college vote, that is not always the case -- the most recent examples are President Donald Trump and President Geroge W. Bush. (These are called electoral inversions.) Because of this, many lawmakers are trying to do away with the electoral college system, or at least remove the winner-takes-all system, arguing that it is fundamentally racist.

The history of the electoral college makes it clear that continuing slavery was its goal. The system was devised by James Madison in order to artificially bolster representation of Southern states with large populations of enslaved peoples, because enslaved peoples were counted as ⅗ a person but could not vote and the winner of those states almost always were pro-slavery.

As for “winner-takes-all”, its history dates to the 1800 election where Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in electoral college votes. Each political party began using different methods to try and seize as many electoral college votes per state as possible. This led to the current winner-takes-all system, where each state gives all its electoral college votes to the winner of the popular vote instead of a proportionate amount based on the popular vote.

The original pro-slavery legislators who instituted the electoral college obviously did not anticipate abolishment of slavery, and subsequently those enslaved people being able to vote, so in that sense the electoral college did not accomplish their original goal. (To combat this new bloc of Black American voters, in the aftermath of the Compromise of 1877 where the North withdrew their stationed troops from the South saw intense bouts of voter suppression in the South.)

However, the lasting effects of the electoral college system still disproportionately affect Black and minority voter impact in two main ways:

  1. It offers an unbalanced number of votes to less-populated states, because each state receives 2 electoral college votes (for their 2 Senate seats) regardless of their population number in relation to other, denser states. In effect, the impact of a vote in a more densely populated state is less than a vote in a less dense state -- which then minimizes the impact of minority votes, because more densely populated states tend to have bigger populations of immigrants and non-white people.

  2. The Black American population is concentrated in the southern states, and they generally vote for the opposing party of the white Americans in their states. However, Black Americans are still a minority when accounting for the population as whole, so the winner-takes-all system ensures the state will still cast all its electoral college votes for the candidate Black Americans do not support. This dilutes Black political sway and discourages Black Americans from participating in elections.

Researchers have found that because of the electoral college, “a hypothetical Republican who earned 49 percent of the two-party popular vote—that is, the vote total won by Democrats and Republicans, excluding third parties—could expect to win the Electoral College about 27 percent of the time. A Democrat with that share of the vote would have just an 11 percent chance of winning. At 49.5 percent of the popular vote, a Republican would have enjoyed a 46 percent probability of walking away with the presidency, versus a 21 percent chance for a Democrat. In a photo finish where the two parties split the vote about 50-50, a Republican would have had a 65 percent chance of spending the next four years in office.” (Slate)

Understanding How Laws Are Passed in the U.S.

How Federal and State Laws are passed

Federal laws are passed through Congress, the legislative branch of the federal government. A law is also referred to as an Act of Congress or statute. Every law starts out as a bill, which is a proposal for a new law. While citizens can propose and help draft a bill to their local, state, and federal representatives (see more on that in the section “How you can influence what laws are passed” below), a primary sponsor -- in the form of either a Senator or Representative -- must introduce the bill to the Senate or House of Representatives. (USA Gov)

Once a bill is introduced by the sponsor, it will be passed onto the relevant committee that covers the relevant area of public policy where members will then research, discuss, and modify the bill based on public hearings where witnesses present their various viewpoints relating to the bill’s contents. The committee must then first vote to accept or reject the bill and the changes made. If the bill is accepted, it then pases onto the House or Senate floor for debate. A committee may also send the bill to a subcommittee for additional research. See the following links for a full list of committees and subcommittees in the Senate and House of Representative.

On the House or Senate floor, the bill will go through a similar process as it did in the committee, with members debating and proposing amendments before voting. If the majority (218 of 435 House of Representatives or 51 of 100 Senators) votes in favor of the bill, it is then brought to the other house (e.g. a bill introduced and accepted in the House of Representatives will then be brought to the Senate and vice versa) for a similar process of committees, debates, changes, and voting. As mentioned under the “Senate vs. House of Representatives” section, it can be very challenging to pass new bills when the Senate and House are being controlled by different political parties.

If both chambers (the House of Representatives and Senate) accept the bill through a simple majority, a committee made up of House and Senate members then make any final changes to the bill before it returns to both chambers for a final vote. Once both chambers vote on the same version of the final bill, it arrives at the President. Viewers can track legislation as it moves through both chambers by watching C-SPAN.

The President has 10 days to take one of three main actions on the bill:

  • Veto

  • Pocket veto

  • Do nothing

If the President vetoes and rejects the bill, it returns to Congress with reasons for the veto. While veto power does not give the President the power to amend or alter the bill, the President can influence legislation by threatening a veto to persuade legislators to alter the contents of the bill to their liking (Source: Archives Gov).

Congress then has the ability to veto the President’s veto if ⅔ of those present in the House and Senate vote in favor of the bill (not all 435 Representatives or 100 Senators will be present on the floor at any given time), upon which it becomes law. Achieving ⅔ of votes in either chamber is a high standard to meet as it requires broad support, thus providing significant power to the President’s veto. Historically, Congress has overridden fewer than 10% of all presidential vetoes.

The latter two options, pocket vetoing and choosing no action, depend on if Congress is in session (see here for 2020 Senate and House schedule). If Congress is in session and the President chooses to do nothing in the 10 days following the submission of the bill, it will automatically become law. If Congress adjourns in the 10 days after submitting the bill and the President chooses not to sign it, the bill will not become law. A pocket veto, unlike a veto, cannot be overridden by Congress. Congress and the President have conflicted over the use of the pocket veto and the definition of “adjournment”; the last President to use the pocket veto was former President Clinton.

Once the President has signed and approved the bill, these laws are taken into effect in all 50 states and U.S. territories. Information on some of most commonly searched for U.S. laws can be found here (such as alcohol laws by state and American Disabilities Act).

There are also some other types of legislation, such as a joint resolution, concurrent resolution, simple resolution.

State laws are passed in a similar process to federal laws, but through each state’s legislature with the power of signing or vetoing a bill falling on the state governor. More information can be found here regarding each state’s legal processes.

Executive Orders

The President can also sign an executive order, which has the power of federal law, as long as it is not used to overturn another law (Source: National League of Cities). It goes into effect immediately, and remains in force unless it is overturned (e.g. ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court), cancelled or expires. Presidents most commonly use executive orders to manage federal operations (e.g. extending deadlines for payments due to COVID-19) but can also use them to create committees or organizations.

Congress has the power to overturn an executive order by passing a bill to block it. However, the President can veto the bill. Congress would then need to override the veto to pass the bill. The Supreme Court can also rule the executive order unconstitutional to stop an executive order (example: President Trump regarding the targeting of sanctuary cities). Here is a full list of executive orders signed under the most recent presidents.

An important, and related, topic is the ability of the President to enact laws under a declared state of national emergency, of which we are currently under due to COVID-19. These are referred to as his emergency powers, and include provisions to important laws such as the Public Health Service Act, the Stafford Act, the Social Security Act. (One notorious example of this is President Roosevelt ordering for the internment of Japanese individuals during WWII.) Read more about each law under a state of emergency here. Opponents to President Trump are especially concerned he will abuse these emergency powers to secure additional political gain for the Republican Party.

How You Can Influence What Laws Are Passed

Individuals and organizations can be involved in each step of the process as a bill becomes law. This is an incredibly powerful way to be civically engaged! As an individual, you can bring up issues and concerns that are not currently law to your elected officials via phone, email, town hall meetings, or visits to their office. This is the most straightforward way to find a sponsor for your bill. You can also find sponsors by reaching out to legislators who, based on their activity, would be likely to support your cause. (Click here to find your representatives. You can also use Resist Bot to contact your representatives.)

While a member of Congress must introduce the bill, you can assist in developing and drafting it. The more you can do during this stage, the easier it is for legislators to consider introducing this bill. This requires writing up the bill in legal language and presenting it as a draft to your legislator. Figuring out how to write a bill isn’t as complicated as it sounds -- you can find an existing bill here via the search panel (there’s a useful “Top 10 bills” at the top left) and follow the format used. If you have connections with those in the legal industry, you can also ask them for their assistance navigating the more esoteric parts of the language requirements.

Leveraging media will help you spread your story and bring greater awareness to the cause you are championing. Share your support on public forums such as social media, and contact local writers, editors and newsrooms to pitch them on why they should cover the proposed bill. Continuing to build your coalition will also strengthen your support -- whether that means meeting with legislators or groups who support the same cause. Remember your personal story is valuable and will help connect the proposed policy to the impact it can have on the lives of real people. As an example, Amanda Nguyen shared her own story and continued on to write the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights in 2014, which passed through Congress unanimously in 2016. Find more information on additional advocacy strategies here.

As the bill is being introduced to the House or Senate, you can also assist in bringing on co-sponsors, or members of the committee that will be considering the bill. This includes reaching out to Senators or Representatives to ask for their support on the bill via phone, email, in-person visits. The “Dear Colleague” letter is a common approach to finding co-sponsors, in which sponsors can send out an email or letter to fellow members describing the bill and asking for co-sponsors or looking to influence the members’ votes. As the bill moves through the legislative process, the additional co-sponsors brought on serve to strengthen the chances of the bill being passed. Providing data and research during these stages is crucial as policymakers will rely on these facts to judge the impact of the issue at hand and make a stronger case for the policy change.

As the bill moves through the legislative process, you can continue to educate committee members, staff, and other stakeholders on why the bill must be brought forward and why the bill is needed and should be prioritized and passed. You can do so by calling or meeting with elected officials and explaining the need for the bill. These actions will serve to broaden awareness of your bill across relevant officials and garner support for the passing of your bill.

If you are trying to write or advocate for a new law, consider applying to Rise Justice Labs, a civil rights accelerator founded by Amanda Nguyen that provides funding, legislative networks, and access to professional services for individuals to help pass laws that are important to them.

One first step you can take today to become more engaged in the law-making process is to attend your local town hall. Town halls provide an open forum discussion for constituents to voice concerns to their representatives and are a great way to learn more about the issues in your community. They also provide an opportunity to meet with your elected officials in person. Click here to find a town hall in your district. You may also need to contact your legislators to find out when a town hall will be held. Americans of Conscience provides scripts for how to approach conversations with your elected officials, including asking about town hall meetings. Indivisible also provides a handy guide on how to prepare for a town hall.

Additionally, if there are specific issues you care about, you can find relevant bills that are currently being considered in the Senate or House and reach out to the sponsor or co-sponsors to see how you can help out. See here for a list of all bills currently being considered in the Senate and House of Representative.

Petitions & Marches

Signing a petition and marching for a cause are also actions individuals can take to use their voice. Platforms like Change.org have provided an accessible means for individuals to raise awareness about the causes they care about and find funding for different causes through online petitions. (Please note Change.org is not a nonprofit - you can read more about its business model here and decide if you want to use the platform.) The New York Times provides a greater in-depth explanation of the success of online petitions.

Platforms like Action Network provide a toolset for mobilizing and organizing marches such as The Women’s March. There are mixed opinions about the effectiveness of marching and protesting -- experts tend to agree there are important outcomes to be had, such as political activation and focusing lawmaker attention. Washington Post outlines 3 major factors for success for a march or protest: organization, messaging and non-violence.

After you’ve signed a petition or marched for a cause, there are many steps you can take to continue providing support. Even if you are unable to attend events such as marches in person, you can take these actions to show your support.

  • You can call and email elected officials to keep pressure on them to act. (Click here to find your representatives. You can also use Resist Bot to contact your representatives.)

  • Donate to well-organized, transparent fundraisers related to the cause

  • Educate yourself more about the history of the cause and why it’s so important today

  • Share your support on your social media and encourage others to join the cause

  • Discuss the cause with your personal sphere of influence, such as family, friends, colleagues and peers

  • Follow what proposed bills come out of the petition or march and get involved in helping it pass through Congress (see “How You Can Influence What Laws Are Passed” section above)


Campaigning is the term used to describe an organized political effort to influence the decision making process of a particular group of people. For example, presidential campaigns are held in hopes of influencing citizens to vote for a particular candidate. Citizens as well as elected officials can also campaign for Congress to turn a bill into law (see “How You Can Influence What Laws Are Passed” above). “Campaigning” can be synonymous with “advocating”.

Campaigning is a long and expensive process. It requires everything from traveling and hosting town halls to meet citizens and coordinating private meetings with elected officials and advocates, to sending press releases and securing news coverage. In order to finance the costs of a campaign -- as many paid staffers, in addition to volunteers, are working on a campaign at any given time -- the organizers of the campaign source contributions from individuals, organizations, corporations, unions, etc. (Hence why you see so many requests to contribute money during the election season.) The laws around campaign financing are overseen by the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

The FEC prohibits specific candidates to receive direct contributions, or “hard money”, from anyone except individuals and PAC’s (see more about them below). There are federal limits to how much hard money can be contributed per election cycle, as well as strict rules on how that hard money is spent.

Instead, corporations (which include nonprofits, advocacy groups, etc.) and unions will contribute “soft money” or dollars that are sent for the purposes of “party building”. What party building entails is very undefined -- it could be anything from purchasing stickers to running attack ads -- as well as unregulated and unlimited, which is why critics will call soft money “legal money laundering”.

Note: PACs can receive both hard and soft money from individuals, corporations, and unions, and then contribute to a specific candidate.

In the case of presidential campaigns, the Presidential Election Campaign Fund also provides eligible candidates federal government funds in both the primary and general elections. Initially conceived 40 years ago to level the playing field for little known presidential candidates, the Presidential Election Campaign Fund today has been overshadowed by direct funding from wealthy individuals and corporations.

Former President Obama was the first president to forgo public funding in the general election in 2008, privately raising more than $700 million in comparison to the $84 million he would have received from public funding. Since then, candidates have been eschewing public funding, choosing instead to raise their own given the strict spending limits imposed by accepting public money. As a result, calls for campaign financing reform have become louder due to accusations of the outsized influence of special interest groups, corruption, and financing abuse on presidential candidates. See here for more details on the impact of public funding.

If you are interested in joining a campaign, here is a quick guide to working on political campaigns.


A PAC, or political action committee, is an organization specifically created for the purpose of fundraising and spending money to support certain candidates and influence the outcome of a federal election. There are a few main types of PACs, each with their own rules around fundraising and spending:

  • Political action committees (PACs)

  • Super PACs

  • Leadership PACs

  • Hybrid PACs

  • Partnership PACs

PAC: A PAC is a political action committee that typically represents an ideological, business, or labor interest in a federal election. Within PACs there are those referred to as separate segregated funds (SSF) and those that are referred to as non-connected committees. SSFs are established by associations, unions, and corporations and only individuals affiliated with the sponsor organization can contribute funds (e.g. stakeholders, employees, etc.). They are referred to as SSFs as the money contributed to a PAC is held in a separate bank account from the corporation. Corporate PACs fall under this distinction. In contrast, a non-connected committee does not have an organization sponsor that establishes, manages, or raises money for it and any individual can donate. Find more information here on the distinctions between SSFs and non-connected committees.

All PACs are required to register with the FEC and can give up to $5,000 to a candidate committee per general, special, or primary election. Additionally, PACs can give up to $5,000 annually to another PAC and up to $15,000 annually to a national party committee. PACs can accept up to $5,000 from any individual, party committee, or PAC per year. PACs are classified by a hierarchical coding system with 13 sectors, 100 industries, and more than 400 categories. The full list of PACs by sector, industry, and category can be found here. More information on PACs can be found here.

Super PAC: Created in 2010 as a result of the rulings in Citizens United v. FEC and SpeechNow v. FEC, this type of PAC is also known as an independent expenditure-only committee. There is no limit to how much Super PACs can raise from individuals, associations, unions, and corporations. However, unlike a traditional PAC, a Super PAC is prohibited from directly donating to and coordinating with political candidates. Instead, a Super PAC can donate an unlimited sum to advocate for or against political candidates by running ads, sending mail, or through other communication to advocate for the election or defeat of a specific candidate.

In the 2020 election cycle, there are currently 1,805 Super PACs with total independent expenditures of $147 million. The largest Super PAC -- Unite the Country -- has spent $15 million to date to support Joe Biden. See here for a full list of Super PACs in the 2020 election cycle.

Leadership PAC: A Leadership PAC is a political committee that is established by a politician to support other politicians. Members of Congress will often establish these to support candidates running for non-federal or federal offices for a variety of reasons. By donating to fellow members of their party, politicians can use their Leadership PACs to elevate their bid for a leadership position within a committee or chamber. Additionally, Leadership PACs can be used to hire additional staff and lay the ground for their own campaigns. Like the traditional PAC, a Leadership PAC can donate up to $5,000 per election to a federal candidate, but the rules around money spent are not particularly strict. See here for a full list of Leadership PACs in the 2020 election cycle.

Hybrid PAC: First introduced in 2011, a Hybrid PAC is one that maintains two bank accounts, the first for making contributions related to federal elections, and the second for independent expenditures such as ads or any form of communication used to advocate for or defeat a specific candidate. The first contribution related account is subject to certain contribution limitations while the non-contribution account can accept unlimited contributions. Read more about Hybrid PACs here.

Partnership PAC: A PAC created out of a partnership, defined as such for tax purposes. A partnership consists of a group of individuals who share the management and profits of an entity. Each partner can contribute up to the individual amount of $5,000 per year while the partnership itself can contribute up to $5,000 per year. Within this partnership contribution, each of the partners can contribute as much as they’d like as long as the total does not exceed $5,000. Read more Partnership PACs here.

While dark money groups are not considered PACs, they have taken a greater role in the past few federal elections. These politically active nonprofits are called dark money groups as they do not need to disclose the sources of their funding. These organizations can raise unlimited sums from any contributor and largely have free reign over their political activity. See here for more information on spending by these groups.

PACs may also hire lobbyists to interface with legislators on their behalf (read more on this in the section “Lobbying” below). One distinction to note is that Super PACs are not able to lobby given their limitations but rather spend significant amounts of money on ads.

More recently, Democratic candidates have denounced accepting campaign donations from corporate PACs. This is largely seen as symbolic as the majority of nonincuments do not receive funding from corporate PACs and may still receive donations from individual corporate employees or executives. However, it signifies a shift in the Progressive movement away from corporate special interests and towards the interests of individuals. The Democratic candidates who have promised not to accept money from corporate PACs specifically cite the need for a change in campaign financing.


According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lobbying is defined as:

An attempt to influence government actions through either written or oral communication.

Lobbying is guaranteed in the First Amendment as all Americans have the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. While anyone can lobby Congress, most organizations or corporations will hire professionals to lobby on their behalf. For example, hotel brands will join hands to form a lobbying coalition, such as the American Hotel & Lodging Association, in order to advocate for changes in legislation:

“One proposed change in the letter to congressional leaders from the American Hotel and Lodging Association, would allow hotel owners to use more of the stimulus money [from the CARES Act] on fixed costs such as franchise fees, which they pay monthly to the chains, even as workers remain home.” (Washington Post)

Once an individual qualifies as a “lobbyist”, typically based on their track record for lobbying on behalf of another for compensation, they are required to follow a set of laws around registration, disclosures, and prohibitions. These definitions and laws differ for each state and can be found here.

Lobbyists can take a number of actions to further a cause including meeting and persuading legislators -- which includes actions such as buying dinners for their guests, even sending personal gifts -- as well as providing information, partnering with other organizations, donating to and/or starting their own campaigns, and training advocates (additional actions lobbyists can take can be found here).

In recent years, lobbyists have used a more powerful tool to gain the support of candidates by offering lucrative jobs. This phenomenon is known as “the revolving door”, marking a move from the public to private sector, where former federal employees become the lobbyists, consultants, or strategists themselves. Roughly 50% of Senators and 30% of Representatives become lobbyists after leaving Congress. See here for a list of former White House employers who joined lobbyist firms.

Lobbying has only become slightly more regulated since America’s founding. Early examples of fraudulent lobbying include the Yazoo Land Frauds and Hall of the Bleeding Heart. By 1915, professional lobbyists appeared, and were responsible for huge actions such as Prohibition and the building of the Trans-Continental Railroad through the Credit Mobilier scandal.

Today, corporate lobbying has become an increasing influence on the legislative and political process over the past few years with corporations spending $34 for every $1 that nonprofits and unions spend on lobbying. In 2018, the pharmaceutical industry spent more than any other industry on lobbying at $280 million, followed by the insurance industry at $160 million. There are significant financial incentives for corporations to spend on lobbying: on average, every dollar corporations spend lobbying returns them $760 in federal support and tax savings.

In 2018, $3.4 billion was spent on lobbying Congress, the largest since peaking in 2010 according to the Center for Responsive Politics. To put this in perspective, Congress provided about $2 billion in total federal funding to the Senate and House for 2018.

While corporate lobbying can be a legitimate practice, the outsized influence it continues to have is extremely dangerous, as it means the legislation pushed forward in Congress will disproportionately favor the interests of large corporations and wealthy individuals than those of average Americans. These Stanford Business and Huffington Post articles dive more into the concerns around the current state of lobbying.

What Next?

Take the first steps in learning who your representatives are, familiarizing yourself with some of the most viewed bills in Congress right now, and preparing to attend your first town hall with this handy guide.

Stay tuned for our next Skillshare and corresponding resources document all about navigating local politics and how you can become more civically engaged in your local and state government.

If you are enjoying the Community Skillshare series and want to help our team at Studio ATAO, you can become a monthly patron of ours at Patreon or send us a one-time gift via GiveLively. We thank you for your support!

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