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Democracy - Themester

This is a Library Guide to coincide with Indiana University's 2020 Themester. The Theme this fall is Democracy.

American Political History

Participating in Democracy: Information from GIMMS

United States Federal Resources

The President of the United States is the head of the executive branch of government. The President serves a four-year term and has the duty to carry out the laws the Congress pass and the ability to veto those laws before they pass. The United States Congress is the legislative branch and is responsible for creating the laws and the budget. It consists of two houses, an upper and a lower. The upper house, the Senate, is made up of two senators per state each of whom represents the whole state and serve for six years. The lower house, the House of Representatives, is made of a number of representatives based on the population of a state with each representative representing a specific district. Representatives serve two-year terms.

Federal elections are held every two years. Elections held in years where the President's office is not on the ballot are called "midterm" elections. Senators' terms are staggered such that only one-third of the Senate is on the ballot per election.

Indiana State Resources

Indiana has a Governor and a Lieutenant-Governor who are elected every four years on the same ticket. The state congress is known as the General Assembly. Like the federal congress, the General Assembly consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives. All fifty Senators and one hundred Representatives serve specific districts. Senators serve four-year terms and Representatives two-year terms.

Unlike the federal government, states are also permitted to include their residents in legislation directly through referendum. In Indiana, these are on the ballot as "Public Questions."

Local Resources

Local elections are often the least noticed of all elections, but local officials have the most impact on an individual's life. Local officials are in charge of streets, schools, parks, libraries, public transportation, zoning and building permits, property and vital records, among other everyday needs. Every local area is different, but wherever you end up living, take some time to familiarize yourself with local politics.

A resident of Monroe County may find themself under the governance of as many as three bodies, depending on where they live: county, township, and city. In Indiana, the structure of all three kinds of government are dictated by state law.

There are a lot more candidates on a local ballot than you might anticipate. Some are running for offices you might not have expected to be elected positions. Because of the way the terms of the offices are staggered, an election happens nearly every year even if the entire area doesn't always get to participate.

City of Bloomington

The executive officer of the City of Bloomington is the Mayor, who is elected by all city residents and serves four years. The legislative body is the Common Council (also known as the City Council). There are nine council members: six members who represent specific districts and three at-large members. Bloomington's City Clerk is also an elected position with a four year term.

Monroe County

The executive body of Monroe County is the three-member County Board of Commissioners. Each commissioner represents one district in the county. The County Council is the fiscal body. It approves budgets, controls county taxes, and may borrow funds. Four of the members represent specific districts and three are at-large members who are elected by all the county's residents. Commissioners and Councilors all serve four year terms.

Other elected positions in county government include: Assessor, Auditor, Coroner, Recorder, Sheriff, Surveyor, and Treasurer. They all serve four year terms.

Each county also elects Circuit Court Judges (six year term), a Prosecuting Attorney (four years) and a Clerk of the Circuit Court (four years).

School board members are also elected positions, but Monroe County has two school boards. Most of the county is served by the Monroe County Community School Corporation (seven members from seven districts), but the northwest corner that includes the city of Ellettsville is served by the Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corporation (five members, two from Richland township, two from Bean-Blossom township, and one at-large).


Monroe county is divided into eleven civil townships. Indiana townships are legislated by the state government. Not all townships in the state serve the same function, however. In Monroe county, townships are mainly responsible for fire protection and for emergency help for low-income residents. Each township elects one Trustee who is the executive. Additionally, the residents elect three members to serve on the Township Board. All four individuals serve four year terms.

Election Maps

When thinking about election maps, especially showing results from US Presidential elections, we most commonly think of a map showing states colored either red or blue... something like this: 

map of us showing 2016 presidential election results. states colored either red or blue

The problem with choropleth, or shaded area maps like these is that while technically accurate, they do not show the full picture of population, and therefore votes. In this map, visual weight is based on the size of each state, rather than on the number of votes. This means that large, sparsely populated states like Montana with its 3 electoral votes appear to be more prominent on the map than geographically smaller, but more densely populated states such as Massachusetts, which casts 11 electoral votes.  So if we wanted to know who won the 2016 presidential election, this map isn't very helpful. However, it does reveal geographic voting patterns that can help us see clusters of Democratic-leaning states in New England and on the West Coast. There are some things we could do to improve this map, like adding text about the number of electoral college votes each state casts, but that still requires significant effort on the part of the map reader to parse. A bar chart would be more appropriate for showing the number of electoral votes cast for each candidate. 

A popular alternative to a choropleth map, is a cartogram, like this one created by Mark Newman, from the University of Michigan:

cartogram of 2016 presidential election results


This cartogram weights the size of each state by the number of electoral votes cast. Now we can see that the sparsely populated western states shrink, while the more populated northeast becomes larger. The visual weight of red vs blue is more accurate, but this type of map can be difficult to read if the shape and location of areas is too distorted. However, we maintain the benefit of being able to see geographic voting patterns. 


It might not be surprising that these various types of maps appeal to different audiences. President Trump famously hung a choropleth map of 2016 election results in the West Wing, while Democrats may tend to prefer a cartogram or dot density map. While they look completely different, these two maps use the same data, and are technically both "correct"! 


Choropleth map in the West Wing vs. Dot Density map made by Ken Field.


Of course, you should also be on the lookout for blatantly fake maps. One of the easiest ways to spot these is if they don't cite their data source. 

See the next tab for articles about different ways to map elections, and the benefits and drawbacks of each.