An election is a decision making process where a population chooses an individual to hold official offices. This is the usual mechanism by which modern democracy fills offices in the legislature, sometimes in the executive and judiciary, and for regional and local government. This is also typically the case in a wide range of other private and business organizations, from clubs to voluntary associations and corporations. However, as Montesquieu points out in Book II, Chapter 2 of “The Spirit of Laws,” in the case of elections in either a republic or a democracy, voters alternate between being the rulers of the country as well as being the subjects of the government, with the act of voting being the sovereign (or ruling) capacity, in which the people act as “masters” selecting their government “servants.” Rather, the unique characteristics of democracies and republics is the recognition that the only legitimate source of power for government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is the consent of the governed—the people themselves.
The universal acceptance of elections as a tool for selecting representatives in modern democracies is in contrast with the practice in the democratic archetype, ancient Athens, where elections were considered an oligarchic institution and where most political offices were filled using sortition, also known as allotment, where officeholders are chosen by lot.
Electoral reform describes the process of introducing fair electoral systems where they are not in place, or improving the fairness or effectiveness of existing systems. Psephology is the study of results and other statistics relating to elections (especially with a view to predicting future results).
A ballot box
Part of the Politics series
Subseries of Elections:
Elections by country
Results by country
Definitions of the democratic elections
In normative political philosophy, the authority of the government in democracies derives solely from the consent of the governed. The principal mechanism for translating that consent into governmental authority is the holding of elections. It is agreed that elections should be free and fair.
There is a broad consensus as to what kind of elections can be considered free and fair. Jeane Kirkpatrick, scholar and former United States ambassador to the United Nations, has offered this definition: “Democratic elections are not merely symbolic… They are competitive, periodic, inclusive, definitive elections in which the chief decision-makers in a government are selected by citizens who enjoy broad freedom to criticize government, to publish their criticism and to present alternatives.”
The Democracy Watch (International) website, further defines fair democratic elections as, “Elections in which great care is taken to prevent any explicit or hidden structural bias towards any one candidate, aside from those beneficial biases that naturally result from an electorate that is equally well informed about the various assets and liabilities of each candidate”. This was more formally stated in 2000 by Chief Justice Murray Gleeson of the High Court of Australia as “The democratic and lawful means of securing change, if change be necessary, is an expression of the will of an informed electorate.”
A poster for the European Parliament election 2004 in Italy, showing party listsWhile the requirement of free and fair election is easily observable, the requirement of an informed electorate is difficult to achieve. Only a small part of the electorate will be able to know the candidates on a personal level and thus the information of the electorate will be incomplete. The electorate has to rely on third party information and official programs of the respective candidates. The latter is especially unreliable, since there is only a moral but no legislative obligations to keep them in modern democracies. The party with the most immediate interest in having structural biases is the government conducting the election. One possible result is the ‘show’ elections described below.
Some other scholars argue that elections are at most secondary to a functioning democracy. They argue that the rule of law is more important. An example would be pre-unification Hong Kong, which was ruled by an unelected British governor but was generally considered to be a free and open society due to its strong legal institutions.
Characteristics of elections
Who can vote
Further information: Suffrage
The question of who may vote is a central issue in elections. The electorate does not generally include the entire population; for example, many countries prohibit those judged mentally incompetent from voting, and all jurisdictions require a minimum age for voting.
Historically, many other groups of people have also been excluded from voting. For instance, the democracy of ancient Athens did not allow women, foreigners, or slaves to vote, and the original United States Constitution left the topic of suffrage to the states; usually only white male property owners were able to vote. Much of the history of elections involves the effort to promote suffrage for excluded groups. The women’s suffrage movement gave women in many countries the right to vote, and securing the right to vote freely was a major goal of the American civil rights movement. Extending the right to vote to other groups which remain excluded in some places (such as convicted felons, members of certain minorities, and the economically disadvantaged) continues to be a significant goal of voting rights advocates.
Suffrage is typically only for citizens of the country. Further limits may be imposed: for example, in Kuwait, only people who have been citizens since 1920 or their descendants are allowed to vote, a condition that the majority of residents do not fulfill. However, in the European Union, one can vote in municipal elections if one lives in the municipality and is a EU citizen; the nationality of the country of residence is not required.
Campaigners working on posters in Milan, Italy, 2004In some countries, voting is required by law; if an eligible voter does not cast a vote, he or she may be subject to punitive measures such as a small fine.
Who can be eligible to hold an office
Normally there is a citizenship requirement, an age requirement, a residency requirement, and, perhaps, a non-felon requirement. Before the Second World War, in most countries, women were not eligible for public office.
Non-partisan systems tend to differ from partisan systems as concerns nominations. In a direct democracy, one type of non-partisan democracy, any eligible person can be nominated. In some non-partisan representative systems (e.g., administrative elections of the Bahá’í Faith), no nominations (or campaigning, electioneering, etc.) take place at all, with voters free to choose any person at the time of voting—with some possible exceptions such as through a minimum age requirement—in the jurisdiction. In such cases, it is not required (or even possible) that the members of the electorate be familiar with all of the eligible persons, though such systems may involve indirect elections at larger geographic levels to ensure that some first-hand familiarity among potential electees can exist at these levels (i.e., among the elected delegates).
As far as partisan systems, in some countries, only members of a particular political party can be nominated. Or, an eligible person can be nominated through a petition; thus allowing him or her to be listed on a ballot.
Who is elected
A pre-election hustings at the Oxford West and Abingdon constituency, England.The government positions for which elections are held vary depending on the locale. In a representative democracy, such as the United States, some positions are not filled through elections, especially those which are seen as requiring a certain competency or excellence. For example, judges are usually appointed rather than elected to help protect their impartiality. There are exceptions to this practice, however; some judges in the United States are elected, and in ancient Athens military generals were elected.
In some cases, as for example, in soviet democracy—there may exist an intermediate tier of electors between constituents and the elected figure. However, in most representative democracies, this level of indirection usually is nothing more than a formality. For example, the President of the United States is elected by the Electoral College, and in the Westminster System, the Prime Minister is formally chosen by the head of state (and in reality by the legislature or by their party).
Types of elections
In most democratic political systems, there are a range of different types of election, corresponding to different layers of public governance or geographical jurisdiction. Some common types of election are:
A referendum (plural referendums or referenda) is a democratic tool related to elections in which the electorate votes for or against a specific proposal, law or policy, rather than for a general policy or a particular candidate or party. Referendums may be added to an election ballot or held separately and may be either binding or consultative, usually depending on the constitution. Referendums are usually called by governments via the legislature, however many democracies allow citizens to petition for referendums directly, called initiatives.
Referendums are particularly prevalent and important in direct democracies, such as Switzerland. The basic Swiss system, however, still works with representatives. In the most direct form of democracy, anyone can vote about anything. This is closely related to referendums and may take the form of consensus decision-making. Reminiscent of the ancient Greek system, anyone may discuss a particular subject until a consensus is reached. The consensus requirement means that discussions can go on for a very long time. The result will be that only those who are genuinely interested will participate in the discussion and therefore the vote. In this system there need not be an age limit because children will usually become bored. This system is however only feasible when implemented on a very small scale.
Electoral systems refer to the detailed constitutional arrangements and voting systems which convert the vote into a determination of which individuals and political parties are elected to positions of power.
The first step is to tally the votes, for which various different vote counting systems and ballot types are used. Voting systems then determine the result on the basis of the tally. Most systems can be categorized as either proportional or majoritarian. Among the former are party-list proportional representation and additional member system. Among the latter are First Past the Post (FPP) (relative majority) and absolute majority. Many countries have growing electoral reform movements, which advocate systems such as approval voting, single transferable vote, instant runoff voting or a Condorcet method; these methods are also gaining popularity for lesser elections in some countries where more important elections still use more traditional counting methods.
While openness and accountability are usually considered cornerstones of a democratic system, the act of casting a vote and the content of a voter’s ballot are usually an important exception. The secret ballot is a relatively modern development, but it is now considered crucial in most free and fair elections, as it limits the effectiveness of intimidation.
The nature of democracy is that elected officials are accountable to the people, and they must return to the voters at prescribed intervals to seek their mandate to continue in office. For that reason most democratic constitutions provide that elections are held at fixed regular intervals. In the United States, elections are held between every three and six years in most states, with exceptions such as the U.S. House of Representatives, which stands for election every two years. There is a variety of schedules, for example presidents: the President of Ireland is elected every seven years, the President of Finland every six years, the President of France every five years, the President of Russia and President of United States every four years.
Pre-determined or fixed election dates have the advantage of fairness and predictability. However, they tend to greatly lengthen campaigns, and make dissolving the legislature (parliamentary system) more problematic if the date should happen to fall at time when dissolution is inconvenient (e.g. when war breaks out). Other states (e.g., the United Kingdom) only set maximum time in office, and the executive decides exactly when within that limit it will actually go to the polls. In practice, this means the government will remain in power for close to its full term, and choose an election date which it calculates to be in its best interests (unless something special happens, such as a motion of no-confidence). This calculation depends on a number of variables, such as its performance in opinion polls and the size of its majority.
Elections are usually held on one day. There are also advance polls and absentee voting, which have a more flexible schedule. In Europe, a substantial proportion of votes are cast in advance voting.
When elections are called, politicians and their supporters attempt to influence policy by competing directly for the votes of constituents in what are called campaigns. Supporters for a campaign can be either formally organized or loosely affiliated, and frequently utilize campaign advertising.
Difficulties with elections
While all modern democracies hold regular elections, the converse is not true—not all elections are held by true democracies. Some governments employ other ‘behind-the-scenes’ means of candidate selection but organise a sham process that appears to be a genuine electoral contest, in order to present the façade of popular consent and support.
Dictatorships, such as Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power, have been known to hold such show elections. In the ‘single candidate’ type of show-election, there may only be one candidate for any one given position, with no alternative choices for voters beyond voting yes or no to this candidate. In the ‘fixed vote’ type of show-election such elections may offer several candidates for each office. In both cases, the government uses intimidation or vote-rigging to ensure a high yes vote or that only the government-approved candidates are chosen.
Another model is the ‘false diversity’ type of show-election in which there may be several choices, all of which support the status quo. In theory, ‘false diversity’ elections would be recognized by a truly informed electorate but as noted above this may be impossible, for example where a government conducting elections also controls the media by which most voters are informed.
Further information: Criticisms of electoralism
Similar to the false diversity elections are those in which candidates are limited by undemocratic forces and biases. The Iranian form of government is one example of elections among limited options. In the 2004 Iranian parliamentary elections almost all of the reformist candidates were ruled unfit by the Guardian Council of religious leaders. According to the Iranian constitution this was fully within the Council’s constitutional rights, and designed to prevent enemies of the Islamic Revolution from coming to power.
Simply permitting the opposition access to the ballot is not enough. In order for democratic elections to be fair and competitive, opposition parties and candidates must enjoy the rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and movement as necessary to voice their criticisms of the government openly and to bring alternative policies and candidates to the voters. In states where these freedoms are not granted or where opposition party politicians are harassed and their events disrupted, elections may not reflect the legitimate views of the populace. A current example of such a state is Zimbabwe. In states with fragile democracies where there has been a history of political violence or blatantly unfair elections, international election observers are often called in by external bodies like the United Nations, and protected by foreign forces, to guarantee fairness and the absence of electoral fraud.
In addition, elections in which opposition candidates are not given access to radio, newspaper and television coverage are also likely to be biased. An example of this kind of structural bias was the 2004 re-election of Russian president Vladimir Putin, in which the state controlled media consistently supported his election run, consistently condemned his opponents, provided virtually unlimited free advertising to Putin’s campaign, and barred attempts by his opponents to run campaign advertisements. For this reason, many countries ensure equal air time to election ads from all sizable parties and have systems that help pay for election advertising or, conversely, limit the possibilities to advertise, to prevent rich parties or candidates from outstripping their opponents.
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