If you’re an American citizen and over 18 years of age, it is your right—and some would say your civic duty—to cast your ballot for the country’s leaders and legislation. But there are some long-held beliefs about voting and elections that are patently false. Learn the truth behind these 11 common myths about elections.
MYTH 1: POLITICIANS NEVER KEEP THEIR CAMPAIGN PROMISES.
It often seems like presidential candidates will say just about anything to secure your vote—only to do the opposite once in office. But really, it only feels that way. One lengthy study published in the 1980s found that presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter kept about 75 percent of their campaign promises. Another published around the same time showed that most broken promises weren’t from lack of trying, but were instead the result of Congressional opposition. This success rate holds true for more recent presidents as well: A current tally shows that our sitting president has only failed to achieve 22 percent of his pre-election pledges.
MYTH 2: VITRIOLIC RHETORIC IS A MODERN CAMPAIGN STRATEGY.
Pre-election debates and attack ads not only get heated, they can be downright mean. And with the advent of social media, the barbs and mud-slinging has proliferated—but that doesn’t mean the practice of throwing your opponent in front of the proverbial bus is a new one. In fact, negative campaigning was born during the 1800 race between John Adams and his vice president, Thomas Jefferson. Emotions ran high between the two former allies, with the Jefferson camp calling Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams’s supporters fired back that Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow.”
MYTH 3: FEWER YOUNG PEOPLE ARE VOTING THAN EVER BEFORE.
These past few election cycles, campaigns to get young people to the polls may have convinced you that youthful apathy is at an all-time high. Not true! According to census data, voters aged 18 to 24 were the only age group in 2008 to show an increase in voter turnout over the prior election, with 49 percent casting ballots in 2008 compared to 47 percent in 2004. It’s worth noting that 18 to 24-year-olds do have the lowest voting rate of any age group (voters 45-64 and 65-plus had turnout rates of 69 and 70 percent, respectively), but the steady increase in voter participation is encouraging.
MYTH 4: THERE’S A LONG LIST OF PRESIDENTIAL QUALIFICATIONS.
While it may seem like every president and presidential candidate has an Ivy League education and law degree, you actually need only fulfill three simple criteria to be elected president. According to the U.S. Constitution, in order to be named president or vice president, you must be a natural born U.S. citizen, 35 years of age or older, and have resided in the U.S. for at least 14 years.
MYTH 5: THE CANDIDATE WITH THE MOST VOTES WINS.
Those old enough to remember (or have voted in!) the contentious 2000 presidential election know that the Electoral College—not the people—has the final say in choosing our commander in chief. But 2000 wasn’t the only time the winner of the popular vote lost the election: The Electoral College also overruled popular opinion in 1824, 1876, and 1888.
MYTH 6: WHEN IT COMES TO ELECTORAL VOTES, WINNER TAKES ALL.
Usually, the members of the Electoral College cast their votes for the candidate that won the popular vote in their state. But this isn’t always the case! Nebraska and Maine both divvy up their Electoral College votes in proportion to the popular vote. While all 48 other states and the District of Columbia use a winner-takes-all format, electors are under no obligation to vote accordingly. In 1988, for example, a West Virginia elector cast his vote for his personal favorite, rather than his state’s pick.
MYTH 7: IF I CAN’T MAKE IT TO THE POLLS ON ELECTION DAY, I CAN’T VOTE.
Taking time off from work or school on a Tuesday isn’t always possible (and because of this, there’s a push to move Election Day to the weekend), but there are alternatives in place to help those in need. While the criteria varies from state to state, voters who are away or ill during Election Day (or, in some states, just want to avoid the crowds at the polls) can send in an absentee ballot. Some states also allow early voting, in which voters can swing by an election office, designated polling place, or ballot drop site before Election Day to cast their votes.
MYTH 8: REPUBLICANS ARE RED; DEMOCRATS ARE BLUE.
Today, “red” states are ones with a Republican majority, while “blue” states are ones that favor Democrats. But it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, the parties’ colors have flip-flopped for many years; in the 1980 election, for example, states won by the Republican candidate (Ronald Reagan) were colored blue, while red was used to designate victories for Democrat Jimmy Carter. The current color-coding system has been consistent since the 2000 election.
MYTH 9: EX-CONS CAN’T VOTE.
Thirteen states and Washington D.C. allow convicted felons to vote as soon as they are released from prison, and many more allow ex-offenders to vote once they have completed their full sentence, including probation and parole. Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow felons to vote while still behind bars.
MYTH 10: THE DEMOCRATIC AND REPUBLICAN PARTIES HAVE ALWAYS DOMINATED.
While candidates can choose to run as a member of a number of political parties (Libertarian, Green, and Reform to name a few) or as an independent, it’s clear that the two heavy hitters are the Republican and Democratic parties. However, like many elements of American politics, this hasn’t always been the case. When our country was first founded, the two dominant parties were the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. Then, in the early 1800s, the Whig Party rose to prominence to face off against the Democratic Party. When Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, his party firmly established itself as the successor to the Whigs. However, the Democratic and Republican parties of Lincoln’s era were very different from the ones we know today.
MYTH 11: IN 2016, WE’LL ELECT OUR 45TH PRESIDENT.
While the current president is billed as being the United States’ 44th, this isn’t technically true. Grover Cleveland, who won our country’s highest office in 1884 and 1892 is counted twice: Elected in nonconsecutive terms, he served as our 22nd and 24th president. So whoever is elected in 2016, while called the 45th president, will in fact be the 44th person to hold the office.
If you like your politicians honest, you’re going to love Adam Conover. Tune in to Adam Ruins Everything on truTV Tuesdays at 10/9C.