Free, Fair, & Regular Elections: Essential Principles
"Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen
representatives. . . . The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be
expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be
held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures."
Article 21, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
If consent of the governed is the most fundamental concept of democracy, its most essential right is that of citizens to choose their leaders in free, fair, and regular elections. Other rights are necessary to democracy; elections by themselves are insufficient. Yet the right to freely elect one's representatives and to influence the political direction of one's government is democracy's indispensable political foundation.
Suffragettes marching down Fifth Avenue, New York, 1917.
Without free elections, there is neither the possibility for citizens to express their will nor the opportunity for citizens to change their leaders, approve policies for the country, address wrongs, or protest the limitation of their rights. Elections establish the citizenry's and the individual's political rights. They are the ongoing representation of the consent of the governed (see previous section).
Around the world, including in the United States, millions of people have braved violence, intimidation, and other obstacles to demand the right to express their will through the ballot box. Often, students and youth have played leading roles in this worldwide epic, such as the Otpor movement in Serbia, which helped to overthrow the dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, or the Iranian Green Revolution, which protested the stealing of elections in 2009. In the United States, young people played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, including thousands of students who challenged segregation throughout the South or volunteered to register black citizens to vote.
Representative and Electoral Systems
The majority of democracies have chosen to establish parliamentary systems, in which elections for the legislature also determine the party in control of the executive branch. This means that the party (or coalition) with a majority of seats in parliament forms the government. (Although there are occasions of minority coalitions forming governments, they typically have majority support in parliament.) In a presidential system, such as in the United States, or in a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, such as in France and Poland, there are separate elections for the head of the executive branch and the legislature. Although parliamentary systems may reflect more directly the citizens' will, presidential or mixed systems may provide greater checks and balances on the exercise of power (see also Constitutional Limits).
There are two main types of electoral systems: proportional and direct. In proportional systems, seats in parliament are apportioned according to the percentage of the vote a party receives nationally or in regions; direct elections are determined by a majority or plurality vote in specific districts, usually divided proportionally to the population. But there are many variations on these systems, and many countries use a combination of proportional and direct systems for their elections. Each system raises complex questions. For example, should a turnout of less than 50 percent be considered a valid expression of the people's will? Should a plurality of the vote be sufficient to determine the majority in parliament or the national office of president? Should there be a threshold vote for a party to enter parliament or should any party receiving votes be able to have a seat? There are no simple answers. Often, these decisions depend on a country's political history and culture (see Resources). Often, however, these questions are determined based on the desire to manipulate an election’s outcome.
Free, Fair, and Regular
As with the definitions for electoral and representative systems, there are no precise definitions for "regular, free, and fair elections." International human rights conventions have established a basic consensus. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21 states that "the will of the people . . . shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures."
Around the world, including in the United States, millions of people have braved violence, intimidation, and other obstacles to demand the right to express their will through the ballot box.
Regular or periodic means holding elections on a set schedule known to the electorate, either on a specified day or range of dates or within a particular time frame. Federal law in the U.S., for example, requires elections to be held on the first Tuesday of November of every even year (except if it falls on the 1st) for electing representatives and senators and every four years for electing a president. Parliamentary systems usually require elections to be held within four or five years from the previous election, but they may be called earlier as determined by the party or coalition of parties in the majority. This gives the ruling party some advantage in setting the date. Still, citizens are guaranteed the opportunity to change their leaders and to support new policies if they choose within a reasonable timeframe. No government stays in power indeterminately.
Genuine means that elections are free and fair. Electoral laws must offer equal conditions and opportunities for citizens to have access to polling stations and to vote. They also must offer equal conditions and opportunities for all parties and candidates taking part in them. Such equality requires the ability of political parties and candidates to register for elections without unreasonable requirements (such as paying special fees or having a minimum income); that they have balanced access to the media; that laws governing the financing of campaigns are the same for all candidates and do not give one candidate or party an unequal advantage; and that the electoral process is fair and not skewed toward a party or candidate. Overall, political freedoms of expression, conscience, association, and assembly must be protected so that candidates and parties can campaigns without hindrance and have the opportunity to convey their political messages and platforms to the voters.
Universal suffrage means that every citizen has the right to vote regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, physical disability, sexual orientation, property considerations, or level of education. Universal suffrage also means that there can be no burdensome impediments against any citizen’s registering to vote or casting a ballot (such as a poll tax or fee). Only legitimate requirements such as age, residence, and citizenship may restrict the right to vote. The ideal is to have maximum participation in elections of all adult citizens eligible to vote. To achieve this, some countries, such as Australia and Uruguay, make voting a legal obligation and enforce penalties (usually fines) for not showing up at the polls.
It should be noted that the principle of universal suffrage is distinct from the principle of one person, one vote. The latter applies more to political systems with direct representation. But both principles mean that everyone who is qualified has a right to vote and no person's vote can be counted twice. A secret ballot means that no one — except for the voter — knows how each person has voted. If a voter's choice is observable by others, voters may be subject to intimidation and reprisals by the party in power or by a party seeking power. Elections would then have no integrity. Thus, protecting the right to a secret ballot is essential to a free election.
There is one more essential requirement. For democracy to work, everyone must agree to accept the legitimate results of freely held elections. The people and parties who lose power or who have failed to gain it must be willing to accept defeat. If the loser refuses to accept the winner, the election's legitimacy is diminished and the political system is likely to be marked by conflict and instability. A key test for a democracy is the successful and peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. Indeed, this is a continuous test for any democracy, even established ones.
Controversy in Democracies
Within any of these broad definitions, there is a lot of room for debate and controversy. What can be done to ensure the independence of the election process? Should candidates and parties have spending limits? Or limits on campaign speech? Should there be rules for media access? And so on.
In most countries, it is possible to discover a rich history of electoral abuse, including gerrymandering, ballot stuffing, fraud and voter intimidation. . . . The United States itself has a checkered history.
In European countries, for example, there are strict limits on spending. In the United States, the Supreme Court's Buckley v. Valeo (1976) decision determined that individual candidates may spend an unlimited amount of their own money on their own elections. More recently, in the famous Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010, the Supreme Court overturned sections of the 2003 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that had passed Congress in 2003. While the Supreme Court affirmed some provisions of the Act (including limiting spending by campaigns themselves and banning foreign contributions), it struck down the law’s restrictions on corporations, unions, and individuals to use their own funds to support parties and candidates independently of political campaigns. The court majority stated this was an unconstitutional limitation on free speech. The decision has resulted in the creation of “Super-PACs” (Political Action Committees) that receive funds, generally from the wealthy, in order to advocate for or against candidates, programs, or public referenda. Alone, the wealthy Koch brothers, who support conservative causes and candidates, pledged to contribute nearly $1 billion in election-related activity (on behalf of candidates and referendums or in other voter-influencing activities) in the 2016 election. The controversial Citizens United decision is an example of the ongoing debate over what constitutes appropriate limitations on the conduct of elections. Many politicians and civic groups from different political parties in the US have called for a reversal of the Citizens United decision on the basis that money should not be considered speech and the type of unlimited spending by wealthy people like the Koch brothers greatly distorts elections as well as policies and prevents any level playing field.
In most countries, it is possible to discover a rich history of electoral abuse, including gerrymandering, ballot stuffing, fraud, and voter intimidation. Such abuses show that the integrity of democracy is not an inevitable outcome of elections; that integrity must be vigorously and continuously protected by each country's citizens. The United States itself has a checkered history, but following the passage of the Voting Rights Act empowering minorities, especially African Americans, to vote, it became more of a model of an open, free and fair system (see History). That is no longer the case in more recent elections: its 2016 presidential election was marred by both foreign and domestic intervention, while its national elections for president and Congress took place amid stark increases in voting restrictions, voter suppression, and extreme gerrymandering following the repeal by the Supreme Court of basic provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
Dictatorships and Elections
It is a measure of the success of democracy that even dictatorships hold elections. But elections in dictatorships are not free, fair or genuine, as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but rather shams or political spectacles designed to ensure their regimes’ continuation in power under a veneer of legitimacy. In such countries, political parties are restricted by the ruling government or prevented from even appearing on the ballot. When opposition parties are allowed, dictators ensure their victory in elections by setting unfair rules or simply fabricating the electoral results. Sometimes, however, dictators wrongly assess their own popularity and allow a relatively free vote to be held in the belief that they cannot lose. Through voter mobilization and vigilant oversight, citizens have used such opportunities to make democratic breakthroughs (as recently in Burma, Poland, the country study in this section, in 1989, and Chile in 1988). Other dictators respond to public dissatisfaction by strengthening their control over political parties and the election process (as recently in Egypt, Iran or, in this section, Azerbaijan). In many totalitarian countries, ruling political parties, operating according to a specified ideology, simply provide themselves with the institutionalized right to rule through their constitutions, as in the former Soviet Bloc countries, which called themselves "people's democracies" or “people’s republics.” (For current examples, see country studies of China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam where citizens are forced to vote in staged elections for candidates only of ruling communist parties or satellite parties.)
The Insufficiency and Abuse of Election
Dictatorships make evident the notion that the holding of an election, in and of itself, is insufficient to establish or sustain democracy. Elections are the sine qua non of democracy, but without democracy's other essential elements — such as constitutional limits, the protection of basic human rights and minority rights, accountability and transparency, a multiple party system, economic freedom, and the rule of law — elections are not a guarantee of freedom. Indeed, the holding of elections absent other democratic rights means that those elections cannot be considered genuine and are simply a means of political manipulation by those who seek absolute power (country studies of “not free” countries in this and other sections linked above).
Can elections ever legitimate the overturning of established democratic governance . . .? The terrible consequences of the Nazi regime alone make clear the answer must be a resounding 'No.'
Even when elections are conducted freely, they are not a guarantee of a democratic outcome. When democratic institutions are or become weak, elections may easily be used by violent or authoritarian political groups to manipulate the will of the people and seize control of the government. During the 1930s in Germany, Adolf Hitler rose to power by participating in elections, but then gained complete political control through intimidation and thuggery (see Country Study of Germany). Another example is the Gaza Strip, a part of the Palestinian Authority, where the Islamist group Hamas used elections to seize power, institute a brutal internal dictatorship, and carry out an ongoing terrorist campaign aimed at the destruction of Israel.
Can elections ever legitimate the overturning of established democratic governance, the imposition of a dictatorship, or revolutionary violence? The terrible consequences of the Nazi regime alone make clear that the answer must be a resounding "No." As a rule, dictatorships that claim to hold genuine elections manipulate and distort them, making clear their intent to prevent real competition and the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power. Democracy is based on political freedom. Its main foundation, the holding of free elections, cannot legitimately be used to introduce political conditions of organized violence or state repression that prevent genuine and free elections from being held again. In such instances, elections are not signs of democracy, but rather a mask to anti-democratic political structures.