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 near-universal way of choosing legislative representatives and government leaders. They are standard practice in many public and private organizations as well. 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.

Electoral Rules

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. Gender, race, religion, age, place of residence, and property qualifications were qualifying factors. Even in the United States, the first modern democracy, suffrage was limited. Only white males who could meet certain property qualifications were allowed to vote. Suffrage 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 age 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. In such cases no majority may be achieved. The rules in these cases may stipulate a further election or a run-off 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. This system is designed to ensure the representation of minority political groups.

In the United States a general election is almost always preceded by a primary election. These preliminary contests are used to choose the candidates of each party. 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. It was used 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. These contests allow voters to 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 or her. The U.S. presidential election under the electoral college system is an example. 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. His or her chosen associates in the leadership become the leader's cabinet members. 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.


Balloting, the actual process of voting, may be done in a variety of ways. The secret ballot has become almost universal, but in the past choice was expressed publicly by a show of hands, by standing up, by announcing one's vote aloud, or by dropping colored balls into a container. The paper ballot is still widely used, but special precautions are taken to assure secrecy. During most of the 19th century in the United States, political parties printed their own ballots on paper of different colors and shapes so they could be identified as they were dropped into the ballot box. These ballots invited intimidation of voters and encouraged corruption through vote buying. Eventually the individual states adopted the Australian ballot, so called because it had been used in Victoria state, Australia. The purpose of the Australian ballot is secrecy and honesty in voting. The law requires that the ballot be printed or prepared at public expense and, if printed on paper, be of uniform size and color. It must list all candidates legally entitled to have their names included and must be distributed or available only at polling places where the voting is done in private booths.

In the United States paper ballots have been largely replaced by voting machines. Votes are cumulated on the machines, and when the voting is completed, the totals can be read off. Some U.S. districts have introduced electronic balloting, in which voters mark cards that are run through a machine for rapid counting. Although voting machines furnish no tangible evidence of the voters' intentions beyond the recorded totals, electronic voting permits the ballots to be examined and recounted in case of a dispute.

Demands for recounts of the vote in Florida and other states were a major issue in the extremely close presidential election of 2000. Disputes over the same election led many critics to urge a reform of the balloting system; they alleged that some voters may have been disenfranchised because the machine count failed to register their ballots or because poorly designed cards caused them to vote for the wrong candidate by mistake.

Voting Turnout

There are national differences in voter turnout — the percentage of eligible voters who actually vote. Several Western European countries (where elections are often held on Sundays) tend to have larger turnouts than does the United States. In U.S. presidential elections the rate of voter participation has fluctuated over the years. The average turnout from 1932 to 1948 was 55 percent; from 1952 to 1968 it was 61 percent; from 1972 to 1984 it averaged only 53 percent; and from 1988 to 2000 it was 51 percent. The number of ballots cast in 2008 was estimated at between 125 million and 135 million, likely the highest total ever. This included approximately 6.5 million new registered voters. Those numbers represent between 60 percent and 65 percent of the electorate. That compared with 122.3 million, or 60.6 percent, in 2004.

Compulsory voting has been introduced in some countries, including Australia, Belgium, and Ecuador. Those who fail to vote must pay a fine, and chronic nonvoters may be disenfranchised.

William Goodman


Further Reading

  • Amy, Douglas, Real Choices — New Voices: The Case for Proportional Representation in the United States (1993).
  • Bibby, John F., Politics, Parties, and Elections in America, 3d ed. (1996).
  • Brewer, Mark D., Parties and Elections in America: The Electoral Process, 5th ed. (2007).
  • Butler, David, British General Elections since 1945, 2d ed. (1995).
  • Fredman, L. E., The Australian Ballot (1968).
  • McGillivray, Alice, and Scammon, Richard, America at the Polls, 2 vols. (1995).
  • Norris, Pippa, ed., Elections and Voting Behavior (1998).


How to Cite This Article

MLA (Modern Language Association) Style:

Goodman, William. "Election." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online, 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2015. (use the date you accessed this page)

Chicago Manual of Style:

Goodman, William. "Election." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online (accessed October 12, 2015). (use the date you accessed this page)

APA (American Psychological Association) Style:

Goodman, W. (2015). Election. Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 12, 2015, from Grolier Online (use the date you accessed this page)