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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 fundamental to democracy. Indeed, elections alone are insufficient to sustain it.

Suffragettes marching down Fifth Avenue, New York, 1917
Yet the right to elect one's representatives and to influence the political direction of one's government is democracy's indispensable political foundation. Without free elections, there is neither the possibility for citizens to express their will nor the opportunity for citizens to change their leaders, 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 "Consent of the Governed").

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, from the Otpor resistance movement in Serbia, which helped to overthrow the dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, to the students of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, who occupied the capital's central square and mobilized resistance to reverse the fraudulent presidential election of 2004. In the United States itself, young people played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, including the hundreds of students who challenged segregation throughout the South and those who registered blacks to vote in Mississippi during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964.

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.

Representative and Electoral Systems

The majority of democracies have parliamentary systems, in which elections for the legislature 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 rare occasions of minority 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 executive and legislative branches. Although parliamentary systems may reflect more directly the citizens' will, presidential or mixed systems may provide greater checks and balances on power.

There are two main types of electoral systems: proportional (seats are apportioned according to the percentage of the vote) and direct (elections are conducted by a majority or plurality vote). But there are many variations on these systems, and some countries even use both systems for their elections. Furthermore, 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 or majority vote be needed for election? Should there be a threshold to enter parliament? There are no simple answers. Often, they depend on a country's political history and culture (see Resources).

Free, Fair, and Regular

As with defining electoral and representative systems, there are no precise definitions for regular, free, and fair elections. International human rights conventions have established a basic consensus, most importantly Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that elections must be periodic, genuine, organized according to universal suffrage, and by secret ballot.

Orange Revolution in the Ukraine

Regular or periodic means holding elections on a set schedule known to the electorate, either on a specified date (the first Tuesday of November every other year, as in the United States) or within a particular time frame (within five years of the previous election, as for Parliament in the United Kingdom), thereby guaranteeing citizens the opportunity to change their leaders and to support new policies. Free and fair, or genuine, means that elections offer equal opportunities for all competing parties and candidates. Such equality requires the ability of political parties and candidates to register for office without unreasonable requirements, balanced access to the media for all candidates, the absence of campaign finance abuse, and an independent electoral process.

Universal suffrage means that there can be no burdensome impediments to registering or voting for any citizen, with only such legitimate requirements as age or residence. The ideal is to have maximum participation in elections. To achieve this, some countries make voting a legal obligation. It should be noted that the principle of one person, one vote, is distinct from the principle of universal suffrage and applies more to political systems with direct representation. But both principles mean that 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 to 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.

For democracy to work, everyone must agree to accept the results of freely held elections. The people and parties who have lost power, or those who 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 may 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, as the United States witnessed during the 2000 presidential elections.

For democracy to work, everyone must agree to accept the results of freely held elections.

Controversy and Abuse 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 an electoral commission to oversee the administration of elections? Should candidates and parties have spending limits? Or limits on campaign speech? Rules for media access? And so on. In European countries, for example, there are strict limits on spending. In the United States, the Supreme Court's Buckley v. Valeo (1976) decision allows individual candidates to spend an unlimited amount of their own money. However, the Supreme Court has upheld other restrictions on campaign spending, most recently some parts of the McCain-Feingold law, which instituted additional limits on campaign financing and spending, as established by McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003).

Additionally, in the United States, a common abuse of power is gerrymandering, which is when sitting legislators alter electoral district boundaries to benefit their own reelection. In most countries, it is possible to discover a rich history of electoral abuse, including ballot stuffing, fraud, and voter intimidation. The potential for abuse shows that the integrity of democracy is not an inevitable outcome of elections and must be ensured by a country's citizens.

Dictatorships and Elections

Dictatorships often abuse the term "elections." Former countries of the Soviet bloc, called "people's democracies," held regular elections, but citizens were forced to vote only for candidates of Communist parties or their satellite parties. Often taking over 90 percent of the vote, the Communist parties claimed greater legitimacy than Western political parties. The fallacy of this claim was made clear in the period from 1989 to 1991, when publics in many Central and Eastern European states mobilized to peacefully overthrow their governments and initiate the democratization process.

The fabrication of electoral results is another form of rigging common to dictatorships. Sometimes, however, dictators misassess their own popularity and allow a relatively free vote to be held, believing that they cannot lose. Through voter mobilization and vigilant oversight, citizens have used such opportunities to make democratic breakthroughs (as in Chile in 1988, Poland in 1989, Serbia in 2000, and Ukraine in 2004). Many dictators, however, respond to public dissatisfaction by strengthening their control. In the last presidential election in Belarus in 2006, Alexander Lukashenko manipulated the electoral process to achieve an unbelievable Soviet-era level of 83 percent of the vote.

The Insufficiency and Abuse of Elections

Where democratic institutions are weak, elections are easily used by violent and dictatorial political groups to manipulate the will of the people and seize control of the government.

Elections are the sine qua non of democracy. But dictatorships make evident the notion that elections alone cannot establish or sustain democracy. Without democracy's other essential elements—consent of the governed, constitutional limits, the protection of human and minority rights, accountability and transparency, a multiple party system, economic freedom, and the rule of law (Sections 1 and 3–12)—elections cannot guarantee that freedom will be achieved.

Where democratic institutions are weak, elections are easily used by violent and dictatorial political groups to manipulate the will of the people and seize control of the government. During the 1930s in Germany, for instance, Adolf Hitler rose to power in the Weimar government through elections and then assumed complete control through intimidation and thuggery. Today, in the context of political instability, elections have validated the militant Islamist group Hamas, which has won control of the Palestinian legislature but has yet to recognize the state of Israel and abandon violence as a weapon of resistance. Neither result fulfills democratic principles to any degree. In these cases, elections were carried out in conditions where democracy was either being undermined or did not exist.

Can elections ever legitimate a dictatorship or revolutionary violence? The terrible consequences of the Nazi regime alone make clear that the answer must be no. Dictatorships claiming to hold genuine elections manipulate and distort them instead, which imposes fraudulent results that create fictitious consent. Democracy is a liberal political system based on freedom; its main vehicle cannot legitimately be used to impose tyranny or foment violence (as in Palestine and Iraq). In such instances, elections are not signs of democracy, but rather serve as a facade to mask authoritarian political structures.