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  Suprises often come in boxes. Birthday presents wrapped in colorful paper, brown paper packages mailed from a friend. No matter what kind of box it is, people like to open it up and see what's inside. In America, and in many other countries, one special kind of box contains the future. It's called a ballot box. What people put into the box on election day can change the course of history.


  Elections are the lifeblood of a democracy. The word democracy literally means "the people rule," an important concept in America's history. In the mid-1700s, England began passing laws that made the American colonies angry. The colonists had to pay more and more taxes and enjoyed less and less freedom. They felt the government of England didn't represent their interests. On July 4, 1776, the colonies declared their independence from England. They wanted to establish a democracy where people could have a voice in government.


  An effective democracy holds regular elections. In America, elections are held every two years for members of Congress. In these elections, all seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate seats are up for grabs. In addition, every four years, voters go to the polls to elect the nation's president and vice-president. Voters also regularly cast their ballots for state and city government leaders and local school board members. Sometimes they also have to vote on a proposed law.


  In the American electoral system, people don't really vote for presidential candidates. Instead, voters cast their ballots for "electors" who support each candidate. Each state has as many electors as the total number of its representatives in Congress. This equals two senators per state plus the number of its representatives in the House (which is based on the state's population). The candidate who has the most votes in a state wins all of the state's electors. To win the presidential election, a candidate must gain at least 270 of the 538 total electoral votes.


  Over the years, the U.S. has made a number of election reforms. Some early reforms outlawed cheating, giving bribes and threatening voters. They also limited the amount of money candidates could receive from donors and spend on their campaigns. In 1870, black people gained the right to vote, and in 1920, that right was extended to women. In recent decades, laws against unfair rules for voting have been passed. No longer do people have to pay a special tax or pass a test in order to vote. In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18. Other reforms made voting easier for the blind, the disabled and people who couldn't read. In some areas, ballots had to be printed in languages besides English.


  In November, Americans will again elect those who will represent them in government. Although some citizens aren't even registered to vote--and some registered voters don't bother to go to the polls--most Americans exercise their right to vote. They realize that their future is wrapped up in a special package--the ballot box. It's a package that must definitely be "handled with care."


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