Free, Fair, & Regular Elections: History


Athenian Democracy and Republican Rome

Elections date back to ancient times, most notably to the Greek city-states and republican Rome. Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC is often considered to be the first direct democracy, a system in which citizens vote on public policies and laws directly. Athenian citizens (all free-born men) had the right to participate in the citizen Assembly, the state's sovereign body, and vote both on public matters (such as taxation and war) as well as to elect citizens’ representatives for a variety of offices, including those leading the city-state in wartime.

Elections in republican Rome, from the sixth to the first centuries BC, were also carried out in assemblies, but were segregated in political units by tribes (comita tributa) or by class (comita centuriata), the latter having the power to elect higher magistrates and defined by property ownership and wealth (the basic idea being that those with more wealth and property had the greatest interest in the affairs of the republic). Patricians (the wealthy and large estate owners) were the only ones who could serve in the most powerful magistrate positions, the highest being consul, and thus be appointed senators. By tradition, the Senate had the greatest power to direct policy, allocate funds, and conduct foreign policy, including declare war. There were also tribunes elected by plebeians, the common citizens, who acted as representatives and interceders on behalf of the plebeian class. They could veto actions of the Senate or magistrates that harmed the plebeian class. Ancient Rome was more populist than ancient Athens in many respects, but not as democratic: the upper classes retained dominance through the comita centuriata and the Senate. Both ancient Athens and Rome, it must be pointed out, excluded a majority of their populations from the franchise: women, foreign-born residents, and slaves. Both economies relied heavily on slavery (a fact that plantation owners in the American South pointed to as demonstrating democracy's compatibility with slavery in the US). Still, when compared to other (mostly authoritarian) political systems of their times, both Athens and Rome offer significantly more democratic models.

England: The First Parliament

The 1215 signing of the Magna Carta (Great Charter) by King John in England established the basis for the world's oldest and most enduring elected representative parliament. The Magna Carta established the principle that the monarch was subject to the rule of law and before imposing taxes or waging war had to consult his or her subjects in the form of an assembly that included representatives of both the upper and lower classes. During the reign of King Edward III in the 14th century, the assembly (Parliament) was divided into an upper House of Lords (those with hereditary rank and the high clergy) and a lower House of Commons, with representatives from the counties and boroughs. Notably, the counties and boroughs set their own rules for electing representatives. Some even adopted general suffrage for adult males. For county representation, the Parliament established a voting requirement in 1430 that adult male citizens must have taxable property generating a minimum income of 40 shillings (equivalent to 2 pounds), a substantial amount at the time. Since Parliament never changed the standard, however, by the mid-1600s this class of voters grew by inflation to include most adult male property owners.

By 1642, the House of Commons represented a constituency capable of raising an army to fight a recalcitrant king (Charles I), who took to arms to defend his prerogatives over religion, taxes and war. In defeat, Charles I was tried, sentenced for High Treason, and beheaded. The Commonwealth established by the House of Commons was brief and the monarchy was soon restored. But thereafter the House of Commons increased its powers over political affairs. In 1688, the more peaceful Glorious Revolution established Parliament’s ultimate power to determine succession and expanded protections of citizens’ rights. Over the next two centuries, the House of Commons evolved to exert fuller power over the country’s political affairs — and the people’s right to determine them through elections. But further expansions of the franchise did not take place until the mid–19th century. General male suffrage, along with suffrage for single women over the age of 30, was adopted only in 1918 in recognition of the sacrifices of both men and women in World War I. Full suffrage for women was achieved only in 1928.

The US Model

As the modern world's most established representative democracy, the United States has a long history of holding general elections for both the executive and legislative branches of government. In the country's earliest years, however, the franchise was surprisingly limited. The US Constitution itself did not establish a national standard for voting, leaving electoral qualifications to be set by the states. The states, by tradition, generally adopted similar property requirements as the British House of Commons in the belief that only those with a rightful interest in the state (ownership of property) could possess sufficient education, reason, and interest to decide upon its affairs. Over time, states adopted general suffrage, which became common by the mid-19th century, but its practice was usually limited to adult white men. Women’s suffrage took until 1920, after a century of agitation, for the passage of the 19th Amendment to guarantee voting rights for women (although it was adopted earlier in some states, the first being Wyoming in 1869, when it was still a territory). Equal suffrage, however, was another matter.

An Enduring Struggle for Suffrage — and Freedom

In the United States, the most enduring struggle for suffrage and freedom has been that of African Americans. The US Constitution left slavery in place and the infamous "three-fifths compromise" (counting slaves as “three-fifths of a person” for purposes of apportioning representation) strengthened the political influence of Southern states in Congress to protect and expand slavery to new territories. Even as slavery was abolished in northern states, free black citizens were routinely denied the right to vote even after adoption of general suffrage.

1963 March on Washington.

In 1870, following the Union's victory in the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, Congress and the states adopted the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution. It guaranteed that “the right of citizens . . . to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Yet when Reconstruction and federal oversight of the southern states ended, blacks quickly faced a new form of white oppression in the form of Jim Crow. This system of state and local laws institutionalized segregation and discrimination that denied them their civil rights. (In practice, Jim Crow in the South meant much more: it gave protection to a regime of violence and lawlessness against African Americans both in general and if they dared to assert their rights.) Poll taxes, so-called literacy tests, and other obstacles to voting were adopted that were applied only to black citizens. Blacks were systematically disenfranchised soon after having been freed from bondage and “guaranteed” the right to vote as full citizens. In a series of decisions, the Supreme Court blatantly ignored the post-Civil War 14th and 15th amendments by allowing Jim Crow laws to stand.

Over the next century, African Americans struggled against systematic discrimination and racism, using various non-violent methods. In the 1940s, political pressure organized by A. Philip Randolph through the March on Washington Movement resulted in presidential orders by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman banning segregation in defense industries, the federal workforce, and the US armed forces. In the 1940s and 1950s, a series of Supreme Court decisions (most famously Brown v. Board of Education) overturned previous rulings and began to give substance to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee to all citizens of “equal protection” under the law. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, symbolized by the 250,000-strong 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, propelled passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public places and discrimination in employment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned literacy tests for voting and established the federal government’s authority to intervene against voting discrimination by states with a history of such discrimination (see also the Essential Principles and History section in Majority Rule, Minority Rights).

While full equality remains elusive, these and other civil rights laws led to tangible improvements in political participation and representation for black Americans. The percentages of blacks who are registered and vote in national elections has increased substantially over time. Indeed, in the 2012 general election, the percentage of black turnout exceeded that of white Americans for the first time. In addition, African Americans have achieved increased representation in most state legislatures and in the House of Representatives. In 2008, Barack Obama was the first African American to be elected president of the United States with an electoral college victory of 365 to 173 and a clear national majority of the vote, 53 to 46 percent, representing all ethnic communities. He was reelected by a similar, though slightly smaller, margin in 2012. Still, minority representation in the Senate is small. Following Barack Obama’s departure from the US Senate, two African Americans were appointed by Governors to serve interim terms and subsequently two were elected to full terms, Republican Tim Scott from South Carolina (in 2014 and 2016) and Democrat Cory Booker from New Jersey (in 2014).

Despite the general advancement of electoral representation for African Americans since the 1960s, there has been a steady erosion of voting rights through state laws mandating photo and other forms of state-issued IDs as well as various restrictions on voting by limiting early periods and polling places. The 2014 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder revoked Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — special federal oversight over states with a previous history of denying voting rights to African Americans and other minorities. Overall, twenty-two states with Republican majorities in state legislatures have adopted more restrictive laws since 2010; twenty-two are currently considering further or new restrictions. Generally these restrictions on registration and voting have limited participation of older and poorer minority voters in elections; it was the case in five key states won by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election (see Washington Post article in Resources).

Universal and Equal Suffrage

As American history indicates, a fully participatory democratic political system is not achieved easily. Often, greater participation of citizens in a democracy emerges from a long and difficult struggle to expand the right to vote and other freedoms to all groups. The founders of the United States, such as James Madison, were by and large republicans who believed that some property ownership should be necessary to exercise the voting franchise. By contrast, the more radical French Revolution in 1789 established the principle that citizen participation in politics is a civil right and this was included in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Although the French Revolution descended into terror and its ultimate downfall led to the rule of Napoleon as “emperor,” the republic's initial spirit of equal citizenship became the basis for future French republics and has been a source of democratic inspiration around the world.

As representative political systems evolved, popular social and political movements inspired by both liberal and radical philosophies achieved general suffrage based on citizenship and not property ownership. Women's suffrage lagged general male suffrage, but not by long. Wyoming was the first US territory to establish women’s suffrage in 1869; New Zealand was the first country to grant universal suffrage including women in 1893; and Finland was the first European country to do so in 1906. As the first democracy in the Muslim world, Azerbaijan adopted universal suffrage including women in 1918 (see Country Study in this section). The United States and the United Kingdom adopted full women's suffrage only in 1920 and 1928, respectively. France, although being the first to adopt general male suffrage in 1792, achieved women's suffrage only after the country's liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944. In many other countries, such as in Latin America, universal suffrage took longer to adopt. Venezuela, for example, did not lift property, literacy, and other restrictions on voting until 1946 (see Country Study in this section).

Yemeni women voting in 2006.

The New Normal

Today, full and equal suffrage is today considered a universal principle specified in Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it is the norm for most of the 125 electoral democracies listed in the Survey of Freedom in the World 2015, a number that has increased substantially from the first survey in 1972 (42 countries). It must be said, however, that not all countries considered electoral democracies are listed as “free” in the Survey. Freedom House counts 88 such countries, meaning that in 45 electoral democracies other norms are not fully respected and elections may not reflect the people’s will. Indeed, while the number of electoral democracies has increased, the overall trend in Freedom House’s indicators for the twelve categories of freedom it measures has gone down for the tenth straight year. There are many indicators of a growing “democracy deficit,” even in Europe and North America, propelling a number of anti-democratic political parties and candidates to political representation and leadership of countries (see Resources).

To further foster free, fair and regular elections as a universal norm, several international institutions monitor elections around the world, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States, and the United Nations, as well as parliamentary, political party, and civic monitoring organizations from the European Union (EU) and the United States. Within countries, domestic observers are another check on abuse by national and local officials. International observers are likely to be found in countries seeking to transition to democracy or looking for international legitimation of political changes. Even dictators allow observer teams into the country in the belief that the government controls the process so well that observers can be fooled into giving nondemocratic elections a seal of approval (see, for example, the case of the 2003 presidential elections in the Azerbaijan Country Study in this section).