- Grades: 6–8, 9–12
An election is a method of choosing leaders or making decisions by a process of voting. Ancient Athens had a system of elections in which all citizens could vote. With the birth of modern democracy, elections have become a universal way of choosing legislative representatives and government leaders and are standard practice in many public and private organizations. Elections are not confined to democracies; they have been used in other, more authoritarian kinds of government. Rulers who are not accountable to the people may be elected by the vote of an elite group such as a feudal aristocracy or party bosses.
Elections are never entirely free; they are conducted according to various rules and restrictions. First, elections are limited to those who have the right to vote. Early in the 19th century the franchise in those countries which had popularly elected governmental institutions was limited by such factors as sex, race, religion, age, place of residence, and property qualifications. Even in the United States, the first modern democracy, suffrage was limited to white males who could meet certain property qualifications. It was soon extended to most white adult male citizens, but women were not allowed to vote in the United States until 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. Despite the 15th Amendment (1870), guaranteeing the vote to all male citizens regardless of race, many blacks were effectively denied the franchise until the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. All citizens 18 or over were given the right to vote in 1971 by the 26th Amendment. In order to exercise their voting rights, however, citizens must register under the local electoral laws. These require proof of age and residency in the relevant electoral district.
Methods of conducting elections are often complex. If only two candidates are competing, a simple majority of the votes may decide the winner. Often, however, there are three or more candidates, and then no majority may be possible. The rules in such cases may stipulate a further election or a runoff between the two candidates who received the most votes in the first election; otherwise, the candidate with the largest number of votes (a plurality) may be declared the winner. Special rules are necessary when members of legislative bodies are elected by proportional representation, which is a system designed to ensure the representation of minority political groups.
In the United States a general election is almost always preceded by a primary election, in which the candidates of each party are chosen. Primary elections arose late in the 19th century in the South, where the predominance of the Democratic party assured victory to its candidates. The practice spread to Wisconsin and other states in the early 20th century as a means of giving voters more say in the selection of candidates than they could obtain through party conventions. Some states even have open primaries, in which voters can choose a party's candidates without previously having been registered as members of that particular party. In recent years there has been an increase in the use of presidential primaries, in which voters select delegates to national party conventions on the basis of their commitment to one or another presidential candidate.
Elections may be direct or indirect. In an indirect election the voter chooses someone to vote for him, as in U.S. presidential elections under the electoral college system. France, under the Fifth Republic, uses the electoral college system for choosing senators. In parliamentary systems, such as Britain's, the party winning a majority of the seats in the legislature, or a coalition of parties having a majority, forms the government. The leader of the party or coalition automatically becomes the prime minister, and his chosen associates in the leadership become his cabinet members. While terms of office of elected officials may vary in length in presidential systems - in the United States, for example, senators are elected to terms of six years, members of the House of Representatives to two, and the president to four - all of the members of parliament must contest their seats in a general election or retire.