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Key Takeaways

  1. A representative form of government requires citizens to cast ballots to elect candidates to government offices.
  2. Elections do not automatically equate to Democracy; the electoral process must satisfy additional criteria to function freely and fairly.
  3. Democratic elections provide representation and accountability within government and bolster freedom and equality.


Elections take many forms, but at a basic level involve a formal process by which a group of individuals cast votes to elect other individuals to positions of public office. Many representative governmental systems use elections to provide an opportunity for citizens to choose who acts on their behalf in the legislative decision-making process. Often elections occur at fixed intervals, when citizens cast ballots for their local and national representatives. The timeline, processes, and logistical details of the electoral process vary by country, but the core principles stay the same.

What Makes an Election Democratic

The electoral process must take place in a Democracy, but not all elections function democratically. Some countries practice “electoral authoritarianism” by holding elections but establishing controls that impede the ability of the election to operate fairly and democratically. The democratic standard of “free and fair elections” exists only when citizens can choose among opposing candidates for various public offices, voting rights are broadly distributed, and there is a peaceful transfer of power. The voting-eligible population should encompass most adults without unjust exclusion, rules and laws should safeguard against voter intimidation, and a neutral vote-counting process should exist to ensure system fairness. The election results should occur with irreversibility so that winners peacefully assume power and begin to govern. A growing challenge to free and fair elections is the spreading of biased information or misinforming the general public to skew political preferences. Citizens should have access to unbiased and accurate information on which to cast their ballots. Each of these elements reinforces the others to form a fair and democratic election system.

Why Elections Are Necessary to Democracy

Elections serve as a mechanism to represent citizens’ views and ensure governmental accountability. The electoral process helps the government function in a representative way because the citizens directly choose their lawmakers. This process connects the policy preferences of citizens to the decision-makers who create public policy. Consequently, elected government officials act with more accountability to the views of their constituents to maintain their public position. These elected representatives collectively represent the political preferences of their constituents and, ideally as a result, work in their best interest. Elections require and support other civil liberties like freedom of speech, assembly, and media. Frequent elections aim to maintain accountability and citizen engagement. The core principle of peaceful transfer of governmental power increases overall stability and trust in government.