POLS 395: American Electoral Democracy

Spring 2009

T and R 11:00-12:15

DU 252


Dr. Matt Streb

Office: Zulauf 407

EMAIL: mstreb@niu.edu

Office Hours: T and R, 2:00-4:00


Course Description: Americans generally are united in their belief that democracy is a good thing, that people should have a voice in government, and any attempt to limit democracy is bad.  However, democracy is a complex concept, and, while we know we want to live in a democracy, there is great debate over what that democracy should look like.  For example, in a representative democracy we must elect some people to serve our interests, but specifically who?  Should American democracy be completely representative in nature or should citizens be allowed direct input on some policies?  What should the rules of our elections be regarding issues such as money and ballot access?  These are just a few of dozens of questions one must ask when deciding what a model electoral democracy should look like, and they are some of the questions with which we will grapple in this class. 

            The goal of this course is to get students to think about what constitutes a model electoral democracy.  We will limit our discussion to electoral democracy.  We will not consider such issues as whether the Senate is democratic or whether judicial review is undemocratic.  While certainly important questions in their own right, the focus here will be on creating an effective electoral system in the United States. 


Grading: You will receive four grades over the course of the semester. 


Exams:  You will take 3 exams (two midterms and a final), each worth 25% of your final grade.  The dates of the exams are listed on the course schedule.  The exams will be comprised of some combination of multiple choice, short answer, short essay, and identification terms.  The final will not be cumulative and will cover only the material discussed after the second midterm.  You must bring a bluebook with you to take your exam. 


Paper:  You must also write a 10-12 page paper, worth 25% of your final grade and due at the beginning of class on Tuesday, April 21st.  For the paper, you must put forth one electoral reform that the federal or state governments should enact.  I will not accept any papers on the electoral college.  Broaden your horizons!  In the paper, you will want to articulate what the reform is and what problem it will solve.  You will also want to anticipate possible criticisms of your reform and respond accordingly. 

You must turn in a one-paragraph, typewritten paper topic by the beginning of class on February 26th.   I will accept paper topics turned in before the 26th.  Your topic must be approved by me before you can begin writing your paper.  I will not accept any paper in which I did not approve the topic.  You are strongly encouraged to speak to me about your topic before handing it in.  If you do not turn in a paper topic by February 26th, I will treat it as though you did not complete the assignment and you will get a 0 for the paper. 


Some things to keep in mind when writing your paper:

  • Unless you are downloading a journal article or accessing a newspaper or news magazine article electronically, the Internet is not to be used for research.  You should err on the side of using books and journal articles.  Do not use Wikipedia!!  If you have any questions, please see me.
  • Students often ask me how many sources should be used in the paper.  I do not have a set number that you must meet, but a well-researched paper will probably cite roughly 10 sources.  You must include a “Works Cited” page with your paper.  If a work is listed on the “Works Cited” page, then it must actually be cited in your text. 
  • PROOFREAD YOUR PAPERS!!!  You will be graded based on the persuasiveness of your argument, but also on how well the paper is written.  Students whose papers are replete with typos, grammatical mistakes, and awkward sentences will receive a substantial grade reduction.  You should read your paper several times before handing it in.   
  • The paper cannot be written in a night.  The paper will take a significant amount of research.  You do not want to put it off to the last minute.  Start thinking about your papers now!! 
  • I will not accept late papers or paper topics.  The paper is due at the beginning of class.  Any student not handing in a paper at the beginning of class on the date that it is due will receive a 0 for the paper.  The same goes for paper topics.    
  • In addition to handing in a hard copy of their paper, students must submit their papers through SafeAssign via Blackboard.  Any student who fails to do so by the time the paper is due will receive a 0 for the paper.      
  • I will not accept any paper that is not stapled or does not have page numbers starting on the first page of the text.  Additionally, papers should be written using 12 pt Times Roman font and margins should be set at the default. 



Grading Scale:

93%-100%      A         90%-92.9%     A-        87.5%-89.9%  B+      

83%-87.4%     B         80%-82.9%     B-        77.5%-79.9%  C+      

73%-77.4%     C         70%-72.9%     C-        67.5%-69.9%  D+      

63%-67.4%     D         60%-62.9%     D-        Less than 60%   F


In rare instances, I will raise a final grade slightly if the student regularly attends class, participates, and shows progress. 


Required Course Materials:

Three books are required for this course:


  • Brunell, Thomas L.  Redistricting and Representation:  Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America.  New York: Routledge (2008).
  • Fund, John.  Stealing Elections:  How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy.  San Francisco: Encounter Books (2008).
  • Streb, Matthew J.  Rethinking American Electoral Democracy.  New York: Routledge (2008). 


These books are available at the NIU Bookstore.  Students are strongly encouraged to visit sites such as www.campusi.com to find cheaper, used versions of these books (although students will need the Streb book immediately).


Additionally, you will be required to read some articles that are posted on Blackboard (under “Course Information”) or that can be obtained from the library’s website.    


Finally, I will often post articles that are not currently assigned on Blackboard under “Announcements.”  These articles will deal primarily with current events relating to the issues we discuss in class.  We will not talk about all of them in class, but all are fair game for exams. 


Course Policies:


1.  Attendance:  Simply put, you are expected to be here.  If you want to have any hope of passing the class or doing well, you will need to be in class.  I have yet to meet a person who has regularly missed my class and passed the course. 


2.  Be on time:  Class begins promptly at 11:00 a.m.  Please be in your seats and ready to go at 11:00 a.m.  If you must be late, please enter the class quietly and quickly and sit in the back. 


3.  Cell phones must be on vibrate!:  Because of February 14th, I will allow students to keep their cell phones on vibrate.  Unless the student has an extenuating circumstance (e.g., pregnant spouse, day care, etc.), under no circumstance should he/she answer the phone.  If you have an extenuating circumstance, please let me know.  Any student who is text messaging during class will be told to leave. 


4.  Makeup exams:  I will only give a makeup examination under extraordinary circumstances.  If such circumstances arise, please contact me as soon as possible and before the scheduled exam.  If you fail to contact me before the scheduled exam, you will receive a 0 for the exam.  Students may be asked to support requests for makeup exams with documentation.


5.  Late papers:  I do not accept late papers.  Any student who does not hand in a paper at the beginning of class on the day that the paper is due will receive a 0 for the paper. 


6.  Contacting me:  The best way to get in touch with me is to come to my office hours.  If you cannot make my office hours, then please send me an email with several dates and times that you are available to meet and I will be happy to set something up.  If you send me an email, I will respond as quickly as possible.  However, I will only respond to emails that use capitalization and punctuation and are not replete with grammatical errors.  i will not rspnd 2 u if i recve a messge that look like this lol  


7.  Academic dishonesty:  In preparing for your work and meeting the requirements of this course, you are expected to adhere to all the rules, regulations, and standards set forth by the Department of Political Science, Northern Illinois University, and the scholarly community.  This statement encompasses intentional and unintentional plagiarism; cheating on examinations; using, purchasing, or stealing others’ work; misusing library materials; and so forth.  The NIU Undergraduate Catalog states:

Good academic work must be based on honesty. The attempt of any student to present as his or her own work that which he or she has not produced is regarded by the faculty and administration as a serious offense. Students are considered to have cheated if they copy the work of another during an examination or turn in a paper or an assignment written, in whole or in part, by someone else. Students are guilty of plagiarism, intentional or not, if they copy material from books, magazines, or other sources without identifying and acknowledging those sources or if they paraphrase ideas from such sources without acknowledging them. Students guilty of, or assisting others in, either cheating or plagiarism on an assignment, quiz, or examination may receive a grade of F for the course involved and may be suspended or dismissed from the university. (Undergraduate Catalog)

Don’t plagiarize or cheat.  I will catch you!  If you are not sure what constitutes plagiarism, ask.  Ignorance will not be tolerated as an excuse. 


8.  Students with disabilities:  Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, NIU is committed to making reasonable accommodations for persons with documented disabilities.  Those students with disabilities that may have some impact on their coursework and for which they may require accommodations should notify the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CARR) on the fourth floor of the Health Services Building.  CAAR will assist students in making appropriate accommodations with course instructors.  It is important that CARR and instructors be informed of any disability-related needs during the first two weeks of the semester.


Web Pages for Great Sources on Issues Related to Electoral Democracy:

Richard Winger’s Ballot Access News           http://www.ballot-access.org

Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog                    http://electionlawblog.org/

FairVote                                                          http://fairvote.org

Electionline.org                                               http://electionline.org

National Campaign for Fair Elections            http://www.nationalcampaignforfairelections.org/

League of Women Voters Education Fund    http://www.vote411.org/                               


How Can I Do Well in this Course?

            This course is no more difficult than most other 300 level courses you have had, if you keep up with the work!!  It is essential that you are regularly in class, take good notes, do all of the readings, and spend some time reflecting on what you have read.  Because there is a significant amount of reading in the course, make sure you keep up with it.  Doing all of the assigned reading the night before the class will keep you from contributing much to the class.  More importantly, it will keep you from getting the most out of the course.  If you do not do the readings, you will not do well in this class. 

            Each class you will be introduced to “key terms.”  I highly recommend that you make notecards after class that includes the definition and significance of the term.  These are the terms that may appear on your tests.  Making notecards after each class may seem like more work now, but it will actually cut your work time in the end and allow you to write much stronger IDs.  Instead of preparing for the IDs before the exam (they start to add up), you will already have the IDs ready to go and can begin studying earlier.  Writing out the IDs after class will allow you to write higher quality IDs because the information will be fresh in your mind, and if you don’t understand something it will become apparent quickly.

            Also, I will post Powerpoint slides on Blackboard before each class period.  However, the slides are only a guide to where we are going in that day’s class.  Students who only rely on the Powerpoint slides and do not take detailed notes will not do well in the class. 

Finally, I strongly encourage students to visit me during my office hours if you have questions about the course material. 


Department of Political Science Web Site:

Undergraduates are encouraged to consult the Department of Political Science web site on a regular basis. This up-to-date, central source of information will assist students in contacting faculty and staff, reviewing course requirements and syllabi, exploring graduate study, researching career options, tracking department events, and accessing important details related to undergraduate programs and activities. To reach the site, go to http://polisci.niu.edu.  Also, if you would like to receive the department’s e-announcements that feature information on internships, scholarships, lectures, POLS club activities, and other important information via email, please send me an email asking to be added to the list. 


Course Outline:


NOTE:  Readings should be completed by the day in which it is assigned. 

NOTE:  I reserve the right to change the course outline. 

* Reading is available online via the library’s journal webpage

(B) Reading available via Blackboard



1/13     T         Introduction to the course


1/15     R         What are the criteria for a model democracy?                              


Reading:  Streb, Preface; chapter 1


The Costs of Voting


1/20     T         Who should be able to vote?           


            Reading:  Manza, Jeff, and Christopher Uggen.  2004.  “Punishment and Democracy: Disenfranchisement of Nonincarcerated Felons in the United States.”  Perspectives on Politics 2: 491-505.*


1/22     R         Should we lessen barriers to voting?


            Reading:  Streb, chapter 2;

Fund, chapter 2


1/27     T         Does voter turnout matter? 


            Reading: Lijphart, Arend.  1997.  “Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma.”  American Political Science Review 91: 1-14.*   


1/29     R         Is voter fraud a problem?


            Reading:  Fund, All, except chapters 2 and 7;

Ornstein, Norman.  2008.  “There’s Value in Voter ID—If It’s Done Properly.”



2/3       T         For which offices should we vote?


            Reading:  Streb, chapter 3


2/5       R         Should judges be elected?


            Reading:  Bonneau, Chris W., and Melinda Gann Hall.  2009.  In Defense of Judicial Elections.  New York: Routledge.  “Chapter 1: The History of Judicial Elections.”  (B)

                        Geyh, Charles Gardner.  2003.  “Why Judicial Elections Stink.”  Ohio State Law Journal, 64: 43-63.  (B)


2/10     T         Is direct democracy really democratic?


            Reading:  Streb, chapter 4; 

Donovan, Todd, and Shaun Bowler.  1998.  “Responsive or Responsible

Government?”  In Citizens as Legislators, eds., Shaun Bowler, Todd Donovan, and Caroline J. Tolbert.  Columbus: Ohio State University Press.


2/12     R         Is direct democracy really democratic?, cont.


2/17     T          Exam #1


The Mechanics of Voting


2/19     R         Who and what should be on the ballot?


            Reading:  Streb, chapter 5;

                        Krosnick, Jon A., Joanne M. Miller, and Michael P. Tichy.  2004.  “An Unrecognized Need for Ballot Reform:  The Effects of Candidate Name Order on Election Outcomes.”  In Rethinking the Vote: The Politics and Prospects of American Election Reform, eds., Ann N. Crigler, Marion R. Just, and Edward J. McCaffery.  New York: Oxford University Press. (B)


2/24     T         No Class.  ILS Conference.


2/26     R         Do nonpartisan elections promote or hinder democracy?

            Paper topics are due!!


3/3       T         Does the voting machine matter?


            Reading:  Streb, chapter 6


3/5       R         Guest speaker:  Sharon Holmes, DeKalb County Clerk


3/10     T         No Class.  Have a nice spring break!


3/12     R         No Class.  Have a nice spring break!


3/17     T         Movie: Recount


            Reading:  Fund, chapter 7; New York Times article on the movie (B)


3/19     R         Movie: Recount, cont


National Elections


3/24     T         How should states draw districts?


            Reading:  Streb, chapter 7; Brunell, chapters 1-4


3/26     R         Does redistricting hinder electoral competition?  If so, should we care?


            Reading:  Brunell, chapters 5-7


3/31     T         Are there alternatives to single-member district, first-past-the-post elections?  


            Reading:  Cobb, David, Patrick Barrett, and Caleb Kleppner.  2006.  “Preserving and Expanding the Right to Vote: Ranked-choice Voting.”  The Journal of the ACS Issue Groups: 109-118.  (B)

                        Hill, Steven.  2008.  “Report Card for Ranked-Choice Voting.”  San Francisco Chronicle, 9 December.  (B)  


4/2       R         Are there alternatives to single-member district, first-past-the-post elections?, cont.    


4/7       T          Exam #2


4/9       R         What is wrong with the presidential primary process? 


            Reading: Streb, chapter 8


4/14     T         What can be done to fix it?


            Reading:  Pearson, Kathryn.  2008.  “Caucuses Are Voices of the Few.”  Minneapolis Star Tribune, 10 February. (B)


4/16     R         Is the Electoral College democratic?


            Reading:  Streb, chapter 9

                        Glenn, Gary.  2003.  “The Electoral College and the Development of American Democracy.”  Perspectives on Political Science 32: 4-8.*


4/21     T         Is the Electoral College democratic?, cont.

            Papers are due!!


4/23     R         What are the rules of campaign finance? 


            Reading:  LaRaja, Raymond J.  2008.  Small Change: Money, Political Parties, and Campaign Finance Reform.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.  “Chapter 3: A History of Campaign Finance Reform.” (B)


4/28     T         How can campaign finance law be reformed?


            Reading:  Streb, chapters 10-11

                        Brennan Center for Justice.  2007.  Breaking Free with Fair Elections: A New Declaration for Congress. (B)


4/30     R         How can campaign finance law be reformed?, cont.



5/5       T          Final Exam (10:00-11:50)