1 of or relating to elections; "electoral process"
2 relating to or composed of electors; "electoral college"
EtymologyFrom stem of eligere
An election is a decision-making process by which a population chooses an individual to hold formal office. 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 process is also used in many other private and business organizations, from clubs to voluntary associations and corporations. As Montesquieu pointed 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. By the act of voting, the people operate in a sovereign (or ruling) capacity, acting as "masters" to select their government's "servants." The unique characteristic of democracies and republics is the recognition that the only legitimate source of power for a 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. Elections were considered an oligarchic institution and most political offices were filled using sortition, also known as allotment, by which officeholders were 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).
Definitions of the democratic electionIn 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."
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." While 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. In this case, the rest of 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 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, 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 an EU citizen; the nationality of the country of residence is not required. In 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 officeNormally 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.
NominationNon-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 electedThe 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 electionsIn 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 systemsElectoral 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.
SchedulingThe 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.
Election campaignsWhen 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
In many countries with weak rule of law, the most common reason why elections do not meet international standards of being "free and fair" is interference from the incumbent government. Dictators may use the powers of the executive (police, martial law, censorship, physical implementation of the election mechanism, etc.) to remain in power despite popular opinion in favor of removal. Members of a particular faction in a legislature may use the power of the majority or supermajority (passing criminal laws, defining the electoral mechanisms including eligibility and district boundaries) to prevent the balance of power in the body from shifting to a rival faction due to an election.
Non-governmental entities can also interfere with elections, through physical force, verbal intimidation, or fraud which results in improper casting or counting of votes.
Monitoring for and minimizing electoral fraud is also an ongoing task in countries with strong traditions of free and fair elections.
Problems which prevent an election from being "free and fair" can occur at several different stages:
- Lack of open political debate or an informed electorate. The electorate may be poorly informed about issues or candidates due to lack of freedom of the press, lack of objectivity in the press due to state control, or lack of access to news and political media. Freedom of speech may be curtailed by the state, favoring certain viewpoints or state propaganda.
- Unfair rules. Gerrymandering, exclusion of opposition candidates from eligibility for office, and manipulating thresholds for electoral success are among some of the ways that the structure of an election can be changed to favor a specific faction or candidate.
- Interference with campaigns. Arresting or assassinating candidates for office, suppressing campaign actions (speeches, posters, broadcast advertisements), closing campaign headquarters, criminalizing campaigning, harassing or beating campaign workers. Intimidating voters with threats of or actual violence.
- Tampering with the election mechanism. Confusing or misleading voters about how to vote, violation of the secret ballot, ballot stuffing, tampering with voting machines, destruction of legitimately cast ballots, voter suppression, fraudulent tabulation of results, and use of physical force or verbal intimation at polling places.
Elections around the worldfurther Elections by country
- List of politics-related topics
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- List of close elections
- Demarchy — "Democracy without Elections"
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- Abizadeh, Arash. 2005. "Democratic Elections without Campaigns? Normative Foundations of National Baha'i Elections." World Order 37.1: 7-49.
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- Farquharson, Robin. 1969. A Theory of Voting. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Mueller, Dennis C. 1996. Constitutional Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Riker, William. 1980. Liberalism Against Populism: A Confrontation Between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
- Ware, Alan. 1987. Citizens, Parties and the State. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- PARLINE database on national parliaments. Results for all parliamentary elections since 1966
- ElectionGuide.org — Worldwide Coverage of National-level Elections
- parties-and-elections.de: Database for all European elections since 1945
- ACE Electoral Knowledge Network — electoral encyclopedia and related resources from a consortium of electoral agencies and organizations.
- Angus Reid Consultants: Election Tracker
- IDEA's Table of Electoral Systems Worldwide
- European Election Law Association (Eurela)
- A New Nation Votes: American Election Returns 1787-1825
- Women´s suffrage in Germany - January 19, 1919 - first suffrage (active and passive) for women in Germany
- PoliticosLatinos.com Videos of 2008 US Presidential Election Candidates' Positions regarding Immigration
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