An election is a process in which a vote is held to elect candidates to an office. It is the mechanism by which a democracy fills elective offices in the legislature, and sometimes the executive and judiciary, and in which electorates choose local government officials. Elections are held in many settings from student councils to corporate officers. The study of elections is called psephology.
The most common election methods or electoral 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 (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.
Electoral systems concern the obtention of a winner, or several winners, according to the tallying of the votes. Even before this point, a variety of vote counting systems and ballot types are used, depending on the locale and election. Various systems have different strengths and weaknesses, and their applicability depends on the specifics of the election.
Definitions of democratic elections
In theory in democracies the authority of the government derives solely from the consent of the governed. The principal mechanism for translating that consent into governmental authority is the holding of free and fair elections.
Jeane Kirkpatrick, scholar and former U.S. 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".
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 a British administrator but was a free and open society due to the strong legal institutions.
While all modern democracies hold regular elections, not all elections are held by true democracies. Some governments that employ other 'behind-the-scenes' means of candidate selection will occasionally invent various electoral systems in which only the appearance of a genuine electoral contest takes place, in order to present the facade of popular support, when in fact the holding of a truly fair election might force those currently holding power to be required to hand over their positions of power against their wishes.
Dictatorships, and Marxist regimes (see AskFactMaster.Com article regarding the former USSR), 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 voters then vote 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 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 choices support the status quo.
Bias and limited options
Similar to the false diversity elections are those in which candidates are limited by undemocratic forces and biases. The Iranian form of government is an example of this. In the 2004 Iranian parliamentary elections almost all of the reformist candidates were ruled unfit by the Guardian Council of religious leaders. According the Iranian constitution this was fully within the Council's constitutional rights, so designed to prevent enemies of the Islamic Revolution from coming to power.
Iran is only an example of the most blatant of systemic of a structural political bias. Another example of structural bias is 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, while absolutely barring attempts to run campaign ads by his opponents.
In the west thinkers like Noam Chomsky argue that in the West, and especially the United States, the powerful corporate media acts as a filter that only lets preordained views be heard by the public excluding third parties and alternative viewpoints.
Simply permitting the opposition access to the ballot is not enough. Elections in which opposition candidates are not given access to radio, newspaper and television coverage will be biases. Many states thus give free air time to election ads from all parties and have systems that help pay for election advertising.
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, will 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 unfair elections international election observers are often called in to guarantee fairness.
Corruption of democracies
The very openness of a democracy means that in many states it is possible for voters to vote to get rid of democracy itself.
Democracies have failed many times in history from ancient Greece to in 18th and 19th century France and perhaps most famously 20th century Germany by the Nazis. Throughout most of the developed world today democracies remain unstable often collapsing to military coup or other forms of dictatorship. Thinkers such as Aristotle and many others long believed democracy to be inherently unstable and to always quickly collapse.
To limit this danger many states place limits on how easily new parties can form. The voting system first past the post makes it very hard for new parties to quickly gain power. In states using proportional representation there is often a set amount of the popular vote that must be won before a party can be admitted to parliament. Most democracies also have some form of separation of powers so that even if a tyrant is elected the constitution would still have to be obeyed.
Today in the wealthy societies of the west, and in some other nations like India, democracy seems to now have a stable grasp, and any alternative seems unimaginable in most of those states.
Who can vote
A crucial issue in elections is the question of who is allowed to vote. The democracy of ancient Athens banned women, children, foreigners and slaves, the vast majority of the population from voting. Over the last few centuries since elections began to be held there has been a long struggle to expand the franchise to excluded groups.
Originally in the United States, for example, only white male property holders enjoyed the right to elect and be elected when the Constitution was signed in 1787. The property qualification disappeared by the early 19th century, and women won the right to vote in 1920. Black Americans, however, did not enjoy full voting rights in the southern United States until the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And finally, in 1971, younger citizens were given the right to vote when the United States lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. In Canada First Nations were long denied the vote.
There are still many restrictions in place. In certain countries convicted felons are disallowed from voting. Children cannot vote in any country.
Who is voted for
In some states far more positions are elected than others. In the United States some judges are elected. In ancient Athens military generals were elected.
In all democracies many powerful figures are not elected. Those institutions that were designed to not be to closely swayed by public opinion are those that are not elected. For instance judges are usually appointed for life, or until a specific age, to insulate them against popular pressure and help ensure their impartiality.
Also frequent is the erecting of barriers between the people and the elected figure. Thus the President of the United States is not elected directly by the people but by the electoral college, U.S. Senators were originally chosen by the state legislatures. In the Westminster System the Prime Minister, who holds the most power, is formally chosen by the head of state and in reality by the legislature or by their party.
It is important for a true democracy for elections to actually determine who holds power. The elected officials must actually hold the reins of power, both in name, and in actuality, and not merely as symbolic figureheads.
Democratic elections are periodic in most states elections are held between every three and six years. 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.
Some states have set elections dates. This has the advantage of fairness and predictability. It tends to greatly lengthen campaigns, however and makes dissolving the legislature difficult. Other states have only a set maximum time in office and the government decides when to actually go to the polls.
Closely related to elections are referendums in which citizens can vote on specific laws and policies. Referendums are often added to an election ballot. Some areas have methods by which individuals can add measures to a ballot by petitions, but in most districts they are called by governments.
Democratic Ethics and the Loyal Opposition
While democracies thrive on openness and accountability one important exception is often made: the act of voting itself. The secret ballot is a relatively modern development, but it is now considered crucial to most fair elections. This limits the effectiveness of intimidation.
At the same time, however, the protection of the ballot box and tallying of vote totals is conducted as openly as possible, so that citizens are confident that the results are accurate and that the government does, indeed, rest upon their "consent."
One of the most difficult concepts for some to accept, especially in nations where the transition of power has historically taken place at the point of a gun, is that of the "loyal opposition." This idea is a vital one, however. It means, in essence, that all sides in a democracy share a common commitment to its basic values. Political competitors don't necessarily have to like each other, but they must tolerate one another and acknowledge that each has a legitimate and important role to play. Moreover, the ground rules of the society must encourage tolerance and civility in public debate.
When the election is over, the losers accept the judgment of the voters. If the incumbent party loses, it turns over power peacefully. No matter who wins, both sides agree to cooperate in solving the common problems of the society. The losers, now in the political opposition, know that they will not lose their lives or go to jail. On the contrary, the opposition, whether it consists of one party or many, can continue to participate in public life with the knowledge that its role is essential in any democracy worthy of the name. They are loyal not to the specific policies of the government, but to the fundamental legitimacy of the state and to the democratic process itself.
As the next election comes around, opposition parties will again have the opportunity to compete for power. In addition, a pluralistic society, one in which the reach of government is limited, tends to offer election losers alternatives for public service outside government. Those defeated at the polls may choose to continue as a formal opposition party, but they may also decide to participate in the wider political process and debate through writing, teaching, or joining one of many private organizations concerned with public policy issues. Democratic elections, after all, are not a fight for survival but a competition to serve.
Elections around the world
List of election advertising techniques
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