An election is the democratic process of selecting one person from among a group of candidates to fill a political office or other position of responsibility. The word "election" comes from the Latin root meaning "to choose." The election process is accomplished by voting. The people who are qualified to vote are called the electorate. The electorate may vote on issues as well as for candidates. For example, they may vote on tax measures or changes in the law.
Elections are decided in a variety of ways. In many elections the winning candidate must win by a plurality. That is, the winner must receive more votes than any other candidate. In other elections a winning candidate must win by a majority. That is, the winner must receive more than half the total number of votes cast.
Elections may be held to select officers at any level of government. In the United States, for example, voters elect members of the U.S. Congress and the president and vice president of the United States. They also elect mayors, county supervisors, some judges and sheriffs, members of the state legislatures, and governors. The practice is different in some countries with parliamentary forms of government, such as the United Kingdom. There, only the members of the county and national legislatures are elected.
ELECTIONS IN DEMOCRATIC SOCIETIES
Elections are an essential political feature of democratic nations, such as the United States, Canada, Japan, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. Elections give people the opportunity to choose their leaders and to replace those whose actions have become unpopular. Elections are thus an important means of limiting the power of government leaders. By choosing among different candidates and political parties, voters also help give direction to their government. For example, by voting for a candidate who promises to improve local schools, voters show that education is important to them.
REQUIREMENTS FOR FREE, DEMOCRATIC ELECTIONS
Five protections are necessary to safeguard a democratic election. First, candidates and parties must be free to communicate with voters and campaign publicly. Second, any person meeting the minimum requirements, such as age or citizenship, must be allowed to run for office. Third, people must be allowed to vote in private to protect them from being intimidated (made fearful or threatened). Fourth, the votes must be accurately and fairly counted. And fifth, any person meeting the minimum requirements of age, citizenship, and residence must be allowed to vote.
When elections are held in nondemocratic countries, these requirements may not be safeguarded. For example, candidates the government does not support may be attacked or forbidden from campaigning. Citizens may fear punishment if they vote against the government. Votes may be miscounted or even destroyed to ensure the victory of a particular individual. Or certain groups may be prevented from voting, either by law or intimidation. The government may claim that a free and open election has taken place. But the outcome may not reflect the true desires of the people.
Some countries are neither fully democratic nor totally nondemocratic. In such cases, elections may be partially free and fair. For example, the government may allow opposition candidates and parties to run for office. But the government controls all the news media. Thus the opposition cannot get its message out to voters.
Most countries hold elections even when it is apparent the elections are not free or fair. They do so because an elected official is seen as having been given a mandate (bestowed with the authority) to lead or to represent the electorate. In the modern age, elections are essential to the appearance of lawful rule. Even the most feared and cruel dictators hold elections to try to prove to their own people and the outside world that their leadership is legitimate.
Besides governments, many organizations hold elections. In the United States, political parties and labor unions choose their leaders through elections. So do a variety of associations, from local social clubs to business and political groups. Corporations choose their boards of directors by election, but with a special rule. Instead of each person casting one vote, stockholders have one vote for each share of stock they own.
THE ELECTORAL PROCESS IN THE UNITED STATES
The national government establishes federal election requirements. States generally adopt the same rules and practices. This reduces costs and avoids the complexity of having two different systems. For example, most states and cities hold their elections the same day as federal elections.
The electoral process begins with the selection of candidates. It ends with the casting of votes on Election Day. For more information on voting procedures, see the article Voting.
Political parties are made up of groups of voters who share similar political views. They are an important feature of the American political system. The two major parties are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. They nominate most of the candidates who run for public office in the United States. There are also minor parties, or third parties. Many minor parties promote a single cause or issue.
In most elections, each major party selects a candidate. The party supports that candidate with money, advice, and publicity. Candidates for major federal and state offices, including U.S. president, senator, representative, and governor, are identified with their party on the ballot. Candidates for judge and for many local government offices often run without any party identification. These are known as nonpartisan races.
QUALIFICATIONS NECESSARY TO RUN FOR OFFICE
Candidates need not belong to a political party. But they must meet certain requirements to run for various offices. According to the U.S. Constitution, to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives a candidate must have been a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, be a resident of the state (and usually the district) he or she will represent, and be at least 25 years old. To serve in the U.S. Senate, a candidate must have been a U.S. citizen for at least nine years, be a resident of the state he or she will represent, and be at least 30 years old. To become president of the United States, a candidate must have lived in the country for at least 14 years, be a natural-born U.S. citizen, and be at least 35 years old.
A variety of nominating procedures are used to select candidates. Usually, any person who wants to run for an elective office must show a minimum amount of public support. He or she may have to collect a number of signatures of registered voters to appear on the ballot.
In the most important national and state elections, the candidates from one party compete with each other in a primary election. The primary determines who will represent the party in the general election. Primaries are usually held a few months before the general election.
Primary elections fall into two main categories. In a closed primary, only voters registered with the party can vote in that party's primary. More common is the open primary. Voters can participate in an open primary even if they are not registered with that party.
For some positions, candidates are chosen by party caucuses. A caucus is a gathering of voters from the same party at the local level. These gatherings have the authority to select the party's candidates.
In the case of presidential nominations, states send representatives called delegates to each party's presidential convention. At the convention, the delegates agree on a final candidate. They also publicly demonstrate their support for that candidate.
TYPES OF ELECTIONS
The most important election in the United States is the general election. This is when Americans vote for the president and vice president and members of Congress. It takes place on Election Day, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In some states Election Day is a holiday. State and local elections are also usually held that day.
A candidate who receives a majority of the votes in the general election is usually declared the winner. But sometimes there may be three or more strong candidates. Then no one may receive a majority of votes. In such a situation, a runoff election may be held several weeks later. The two candidates who received the most votes run against each other again. The candidate who receives the majority of the votes is declared the winner.
There are several types of elections in addition to primary, general, and runoff elections. Special elections may be held to fill an office whose occupant has died, resigned, or been recalled. An issues election, called a referendum, may be held to decide whether to accept or reject a piece of legislation. A recall election may be held to decide whether an office holder should be removed from office. If the recall election succeeds in removing the elected official, the office may be filled by appointment by the president or governor or by a special election.
FREQUENCY OF GENERAL ELECTIONS
Under the American political system, general elections are held in early November. The choice of that time of year dates from the days when America was largely an agricultural society. Farmers were unable to take time to vote until the fall, after the harvests had been gathered.
In the United States, presidential elections are held every four years. Congressional elections are held every two years, in even-numbered years. The entire House of Representatives and one-third of the United States Senate are elected.
There are state elections for governors and other statewide officers. The term of an American governor varies with the individual state. It may be two or four years. The state legislatures are also elected at regular intervals. In addition, there are county, city, and even school-board elections. These local elections are of vital interest to taxpayers and parents. They are held at various times during the year.
Federal, state, and local elections go on in every community throughout the nation. No war or disaster has ever halted this vital function of the American electorate.
ELECTORAL SYSTEMS IN OTHER COUNTRIES
In the United States, most candidates are elected in single-member districts. That is, two or more candidates run for office in one district, such as a congressional district. The person who receives the most votes wins. But many other democratic countries, such as Japan, Germany, and Israel, use a different system to elect the nation's parliament. It is called proportional representation. In this system, if a party gets a certain proportion (percentage) of the vote nationwide, it gets that percentage of representation in parliament. In Israel, for example, if the Labor Party gets 25 percent of the votes, it will receive 25 percent of the seats in parliament. An advantage of this system is that it allows small parties to have more of a voice in government. But sometimes many small parties are more or less equally represented. Then it may be difficult to form a stable parliamentary majority to run the government.
From the time of the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, people have fought tyranny for the right to choose their own leaders. The early kings of Israel were chosen. So were the generals of the ancient Greek armies. Xenophon's famous march across Asia Minor in 401 BC began with his election as captain by a band of Greek soldiers. The Greeks voted for their new leader while standing in the very shadow of the pursuing Persian armies.
The Teutonic tribes of Northern Europe elected the bravest members as their leaders. Anglo-Saxon conquerors brought this habit of freely choosing leaders to Britain some 1,500 years ago. As the British Parliament gradually gained power, elections became more frequent and regular. Gradually the number of people allowed to vote was increased.
In colonial America, election of church and public officials began shortly after the first colonists arrived. Democratic self-government through elections became common in most of the American colonies. But until the 1900's, most election laws in the United States did not regulate the way the major parties selected candidates. Candidates would simply announce their intentions to run for office. They would distribute stickers with their names to the voters. These were pasted on the ballot on election day. After many years, political organizations began holding conventions in districts, wards, cities, counties, and states. In these conventions, tough political bosses often ruled with an iron hand. They chose the party candidates themselves.
A direct primary system was first tried in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, in 1868. The voters in each party used ballots to select the nominees for the next election. For the first time this put the choice of candidates in the hands of the party members. Other states adopted the plan. Today direct primaries are used almost everywhere throughout the United States.
Reviewed by Kay J. Maxwell, President
League of Women Voters of the United States
MLA (Modern Language Association) style:
"Elections." Reviewed by Kay J. Maxwell. The New Book of Knowledge®. 2007. Grolier Online. 28 Aug. 2007 .
Chicago Manual of Style:
"Elections." Reviewed by Kay J. Maxwell. The New Book of Knowledge®. Grolier Online http://nbk.grolier.com/cgi-bin/article?assetid=a2008880-h (accessed August 28, 2007).
APA (American Psychological Association) style:
Elections. (2007). (K. J. Maxwell, Rev.). The New Book of Knowledge®. Retrieved August 28, 2007, from Grolier Online http://nbk.grolier.com/cgi-bin/article?assetid=a2008880-h
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