Election is a 1999 American black comedy-drama film directed and written by Alexander Payne and adapted by him and Jim Taylor from Tom Perrotta's 1998 novel of the same title. The plot revolves around a high school election and satirizes both suburban high school life and politics. The film stars Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister, a popular high school social studies teacher in suburban Omaha, Nebraska, and Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, around the time of the school's student body election. When Tracy qualifies to run for class president, McAllister believes she does not deserve the title and tries his best to stop her from winning.
Although a box office bomb, Election received critical acclaim, primarily for its writing and direction. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Golden Globe nomination for Witherspoon in the Best Actress category, and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film in 1999.
Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is a much-admired high school history teacher living in the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, who is actively involved in many after-school activities, one of which is overseeing the student government election process. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is an overachieving junior with an insufferable air of self-importance. Earlier in the year, another teacher, Jim's best friend Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik) was fired from his job and divorced by his wife, Linda (Delaney Driscoll) after it came out that he and Tracy were having a sexual affair, while Tracy's reputation was unscathed. Dave moves back to live with his parents in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and is reduced to taking a job stocking shelves at a local supermarket.
Against this backdrop, Tracy announces that she is running for student council president. Initially she is unopposed, as she is widely seen as the natural candidate for the job. When Tracy presents Mr. McAllister with her list of nominating signatures to qualify for the election ballot, she makes a remark about "working closely" together that he interprets as an indication she may try to seduce him. Perhaps annoyed by Tracy's presumptuousness, and/or concerned that he might give in to this seduction and share the same fate as his friend Dave, Mr. McAllister decides to persuade junior Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), a slow-witted, but affable and popular football player to enter the race. Paul is unable to play football as he is recovering from a ski injury that resulted in his left leg being broken, and Mr. McAllister suggests a new way to explore his talents through student council. Although Paul is ambivalent at first, he agrees to run, much to Tracy's consternation.
Meanwhile, Paul's adopted younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) is rejected by her romantic interest Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia), who dismisses their time together as "experimenting." Lisa then engages in a passionate relationship with Paul. In retaliation, Tammy decides to run for school president as well. During a school assembly to hear the candidate's speeches, after Tracy only draws polite applause and Paul is barely able to read his speech, Tammy announces that the office of school president is useless and promises nothing, except to try and dissolve student government. The speech rallies the students to a standing ovation, but her subversive diatribe results in her getting a suspension from school.
While working on an after-school project, Tracy accidentally tears down one of her own campaign posters and becomes so enraged she destroys all of Paul's campaign posters too. She then drives to a local power plant to dispose of the shredded posters in a nearby dumpster. Unbeknownst to Tracy, her attempted cover-up is witnessed by Tammy, who is meditating on a hill overlooking the power plant. The next day, when Mr. McAllister confronts Tracy about the missing posters and lectures her that "all of our actions can carry serious consequences," Tracy adamantly denies responsibility, even after Mr. McAllister pokes holes in her claim of innocence. At that moment, Tammy knocks on the door and tells Mr. MacAllister she knows who tore down the posters. Tracy is asked to wait outside the room while Tammy speaks to Mr. McAllister. Tracy experiences a moment of sheer panic when she peers in the window and sees Tammy revealing the shredded posters. What Tracy can't hear is that Tammy is falsely confessing to a skeptical Mr. McAllister that it is she, not Tracy, who perpetrated the poster sabotage. As a result, Tammy is disqualified from the election and expelled from school. Tracy is now off the hook. But this clearly does not sit well with Jim, who still suspects Tracy is the guilty party.
The day before the election, Linda Novotny asks Jim to come over to help unclog her bathtub drain. After Jim completes the job, Linda unexpectedly initiates a sexual liaison with him and then suggests that he book a motel room for them to continue their dalliance later that day, a proposition Jim himself had half-jokingly made to Linda shortly after her breakup with Dave. However, Linda apparently has a change of heart and is nowhere to be found when Jim arrives at her house to pick her up for their tryst. Not knowing where Linda could be, Jim walks into her backyard where he has the misfortune of being stung by a bee on his right eyelid, causing a terribly painful and unsightly allergic reaction. He then drives back to the motel and desperately tries to reach Linda by phone, but to no avail. Jim eventually returns to his own house later that evening only to find Linda and his wife (Molly Hagan) huddled together crying in the living room. Realizing that Linda has disclosed the infidelity to his wife and that he is no longer welcome at home, Jim spends a miserable night sleeping in his car outside Linda's house.
The next morning — election day — Jim arrives at school to preside over the election but his right eyelid is now grotesquely swollen and almost completely shut from the bee sting. The publicity-minded Tracy arranges for her picture to be taken by a student photographer while placing her ballot into the ballot box. Ever the gentleman, Paul wishes Tracy good luck but his chivalrous nature gets the better of him. Upon entering the voting booth, he feels that it would be improper to vote for himself and instead casts his ballot for Tracy. But this turns out to be a costly decision. The ballots are meticulously counted by a duo of student auditors, who determine that Tracy has prevailed by a single vote. It is then up to Jim to perform a final count to certify the outcome. When Jim happens to spot Tracy dancing excitedly in the hall, he deduces that she may have been tipped off about the vote count. Angered by Tracy's unseemly display of glee and her dirty-tricks campaign tactics, Jim impulsively takes matters into his own hands by surreptitiously disposing of two of Tracy's ballots and declaring Paul the official victor. This turnabout elicits incredulity and shock from the two student auditors, who are adamant that their original vote count was accurate. Tracy is shocked and despondent upon hearing the unexpected news of her defeat. Jim returns to the same motel where he planned to meet Linda Novotny, only this time to actually use it for lodging. When he awakens, he returns home in an unsuccessful attempt to patch things up with his wife before heading to school to begin his workday. Unbeknownst to Jim, the school janitor (whom Jim had inadvertently offended earlier in the film) had discovered the two discarded ballots in the trash and presented them to the principal. Upon his arrival at school, Jim is confronted with the evidence of his fraudulent intervention and is forced to resign. The rigged election becomes a nationwide email trope.
Spurned by his wife, publicly humiliated, and ostracized by everyone in town, Jim leaves Nebraska to start a new life and fulfill his longtime dream of living in New York City, where he becomes a tour guide at the American Museum of Natural History and begins dating a co-worker. After serving her senior year as student body president, Tracy graduates at the top of her class and wins a scholarship to her first choice college, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where she plans to study politics in preparation for a career in government. But she's disappointed with college life, finding her fellow students to be spoiled and less-than-serious in their approach to academics. Despite losing the student body president election, Paul enjoys a mostly happy-go-lucky senior year highlighted by being elected homecoming king and prom king, though he ends up getting dumped by his girlfriend, Lisa. Meanwhile, Paul's sister Tammy finds true love with a classmate at the all-girls Catholic school where her parents made her enroll.
As the film draws to a close, Jim is shown attending a conference in Washington D.C. where he spots Tracy from a distance as she enters a limousine with a congressman (revealed to be Mike Geiger, a Republican representative from Nebraska) whom she's working for. Enraged at the thought of Tracy, yet again, manipulating her way into political success, Jim hurls a large cup of Pepsi at the limousine, then makes a quick getaway. The film ends with Jim safely back in New York City at his museum tour guide job, posing questions to a group of young school children, deliberately ignoring the raised hand of an overeager blonde-haired girl who reminds him of the insufferable Tracy Flick.