Elections

Types of Elections

From the broad and general to the small and local, elections are designed to serve different purposes for various political voting systems.

Learning Objectives

Identify the different types of elections in American democracy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In a parliamentary system, a general election is an election in which all or most members of a given political body are chosen.
  • A by-election is an election held to fill a political office that has become vacant between regularly scheduled elections.
  • A primary election is an election that narrows the field of candidates before the general election. Primary elections are one means by which a political party nominates candidates for the next general election.
  • In the case of closed primaries, only party members can vote. By contrast, in an open primary all voters may cast votes on a ballot of any party.
  • A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal, usually a piece of legislation which has been passed into law by the local legislative body and signed by the pertinent executive official(s).
  • A recall election is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote before his or her term has ended.

Key Terms

  • referendum: A direct popular vote on a proposed law or constitutional amendment.
  • general election: An election, usually held at regular intervals, in which candidates are elected in all or most constituencies or electoral districts of a nation.
  • primary election: A preliminary election to select a political candidate of a political party.

Types of Elections

In a parliamentary system, a general election is an election in which all or most members of a given political body are chosen. The term is usually used to refer to elections held for a nation’s primary legislative body, as distinguished from by-elections and local elections. In this system, members of parliament are also elected to the executive branch. The party in government usually designates the leaders of the executive branch.

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Afghan Elections, 2005: An Afghan man casts his ballot at a polling station in Lash Kar Gah, Helmand Province, September 18, 2005. Polling stations were busy, but orderly, across the city.

A by-election is an election held to fill a political office that has become vacant between regularly scheduled elections. Usually, a by-election occurs when the incumbent has resigned or died. Local elections vary widely across jurisdictions. In an electoral system that roughly follows the Westminster model, a terminology has evolved with roles such as mayor or warden to describe the executive of a city, town, or region, although the actual means of elections may vary. Political careers are often made at the local level: Boris Yeltsin, for instance, as the top official in Moscow, was able to prove his effectiveness and eventually become President of Russia after the collapse of the USSR. When he fought his first contested local election, he demonstrated a willingness to put his policies to the ballot.

Primary Elections

A primary election is an election that narrows the field of candidates before the general election. Primary elections are one means by which a political party nominates candidates for the next general election. Primaries are common in the United States, where their origins are traced to the progressive movement to take the power of candidate nomination away from party leaders and give it to the people. In the case of closed primaries, only party members can vote. By contrast, in an open primary all voters may cast votes on a ballot of any party. The party may require them to express their support to the party’s values and pay a small contribution to the costs of the primary.

Referendum and Recall

A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal, usually a piece of legislation which has been passed into law by the local legislative body and signed by the pertinent executive official(s). A referendum may result in the adoption of a new constitution, a constitutional amendment, a law, the recall of an elected official, or simply a specific government policy. Similarly, a recall election is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote before his or her term has ended. Recalls, which are initiated when sufficient voters sign a petition, have a history dating back to the ancient Athenian democracy and are a feature of several contemporary constitutions.

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Montenegro Referendum: In 2006, a referendum in the Republic of Montenegro took place.

The Purpose of Elections

Elections have been the usual mechanism by which modern representative democracy has operated since the 17th century.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the nature of elections in democratic forms of government

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • An election is a formal decision-making process by which a population chooses an individual to hold public office.
  • The universal use of elections as a tool for selecting representatives in modern democracies is in contrast with the practice in the democratic archetype, ancient Athens.
  • Where universal suffrage exists, the right to vote is not restricted by gender, race, social status, or wealth.
  • Citizens become eligible to vote after reaching the voting age, which is typically eighteen years old as of 2012 in the United States. Most democracies no longer extend different rights to vote on the basis of sex or race.
  • Compulsory voting is a system in which electors are obliged to vote in elections or attend a polling place on voting day.

Key Terms

  • suffrage: The right or chance to vote, express an opinion, or participate in a decision.
  • election: A process of choosing a leader, members of parliament, councillors or other representatives by popular vote.
  • compulsory voting: Compulsory voting is a system in which electors are obliged to vote in elections or attend a polling place on voting day. If an eligible voter does not attend a polling place, he or she may be subject to punitive measures, such as fines, community service, or perhaps imprisonment if fines are unpaid or community service not performed.

Purposes of Elections

Definition

An election is a formal decision-making process by which a population chooses an individual to hold public office. Elections have been the usual mechanism by which modern representative democracy has operated since the 17th century. Elections fill offices in the legislature, sometimes in the executive and judiciary, and for regional and local government. This process is also used in many other private and business organizations, from clubs to voluntary associations and corporations.

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Presidential Elections in Poland: Presidential Election 2005 in Poland (second round of voting, Oct.23rd).

History of Elections

The universal use of elections as a tool for selecting representatives in modern democracies is in contrast with the practice in the democratic archetype, ancient Athens. As the elections were considered an oligarchic institution and most political offices were filled using sortition, also known as allotment, by which officeholders were chosen by lot.

Elections were used as early in history as ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and throughout the Medieval period to select rulers such as the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. In ancient India, around 920 AD, in Tamil Nadu, Palm leaves were used for village assembly elections. The palm leaves with candidate names, will be put inside a mud pot, for counting. Ancient Arabs also used election to choose their caliphs, Uthman and Ali, in the early medieval Rashidun Caliphate; and to select the Pala king Gopala in early medieval Bengal.

Suffrage

The question of who may vote is a central issue in elections. The electorate does not generally include the entire population; for example, many countries prohibit those judged mentally incompetent from voting, and all jurisdictions require a minimum voting age. Suffrage is the right to vote gained through the democratic process. Citizens become eligible to vote after reaching the voting age, which is typically eighteen years old as of 2012 in the United States. Most democracies no longer extend different rights to vote on the basis of sex or race.

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Graph of Voter Turnout in U.S. Presidential Elections, 1824-Present: Between 1824 and 1840, voter turnout when from about 26% to 80%. This extremely sharp rise was caused by the removal of property qualifications from the right to vote.

Where universal suffrage exists, the right to vote is not restricted by gender, race, social status, or wealth. It typically does not extend a right to vote to all residents of a region. Distinctions are frequently made in regard to citizenship, age, and occasionally mental capacity or criminal convictions. Suffrage is typically only for citizens of the country, though further limits may be imposed. However, in the European Union, one can vote in municipal elections if one lives in the municipality and is an EU citizen; the nationality of the country of residence is not required. In some countries, voting is required by law. If an eligible voter does not cast a vote, he or she may be subject to punitive measures such as a small fine. Compulsory voting is a system in which electors are obliged to vote in elections or attend a polling place on voting day. If an eligible voter does not attend a polling place, he or she may be subject to punitive measures such as fines, community service, or perhaps imprisonment if fines are unpaid or community service not performed.

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Universal Suffrage: Suffrage universel dédié à Ledru-Rollin, painted by Frédéric Sorrieu in 1850. This lithography pays tribute to French statesman Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin for establishing universal male suffrage in France in 1848, following the French Revolution of 1848.

Types of Ballots

A ballot is a device used to cast votes in an election; types of ballots include secret ballots and ranked ballots.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the different types of ballots used for elections

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A ballot box is a temporarily sealed container with a narrow slot in the top sufficient to accept a ballot paper in an election. The ballot box is also designed to prevent anyone from accessing the votes cast until the close of the voting period.
  • Ranked ballots allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, while ballots for first-past-the-post systems only allow voters to select one candidate for each position. In party-list systems, lists may be open or closed.
  • The secret ballot is a voting method in which a voter’s choices in an election or a referendum are anonymous.
  • In the United States today, the term ballot reform generally refers to efforts to reduce the number of elected offices.

Key Terms

  • secret ballot: The voting system involving ballots available only at official polling places, prepared at public expense, containing the names of all candidates, and marked in secret at the polling places.
  • ballot: A paper or card used to cast a vote.
  • ballot box: A sealed box with a slit, into which a voter puts his completed voting slip.

Introduction

A ballot is a device used to cast votes in an election, and may be a piece of paper or a small ball used in secret voting. Each voter uses one ballot, and ballots are not shared. In the simplest elections, a ballot may be a simple scrap of paper on which each voter writes in the name of a candidate, but governmental elections use pre-printed ballots to protect the secrecy of the votes. The voter casts his or her ballot in a box at a polling station. A ballot box is a temporarily sealed container, usually square box though sometimes a tamper resistant bag, with a narrow slot in the top sufficient to accept a ballot paper in an election. The ballot box is also designed to prevent anyone from accessing the votes cast until the close of the voting period.

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Haitians voting in the 2006 elections.: Clear sided ballot boxes used in the Haitian general election in 2006.

Types of Voting Systems

Depending on the type of voting system used in the election, different ballots may be used. Ranked ballots allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, while ballots for first-past-the-post systems only allow voters to select one candidate for each position. In party-list systems, lists may be open or closed.

The secret ballot is a voting method in which a voter’s choices in an election or a referendum are anonymous. The key aim is to ensure that the voter records a sincere choice by forestalling attempts to influence the voter by intimidation or bribery. This system is one means of achieving the goal of political privacy. However, the secret ballot may increase the amount of vote buying where it is still legal. A political party or its affiliates could pay lukewarm supporters to turn out and pay lukewarm opponents to stay home, therefore reducing the costs of buying an election.

The United States uses a long and short ballot. Before the Civil War, a larger number of elected offices required longer ballots, and at times the long ballot undoubtedly resulted in confusion and blind voting, though the seriousness of either problem can be disputed. Progressivists attacked the long ballot during the Progressive Era. In the United States today, the term ballot reform generally refers to efforts to reduce the number of elected offices.

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Butterfly Voters View: Perspective view of the infamous Florida butterfly ballot, reconstructed in 3-D from a reproduction in a Florida newspaper, to show how hard it is to identify which hole links to which name in “real life”, rather than the flat way it is usually displayed.

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The Polling (Painting): The Polling by William Hogarth (1755). Before the secret ballot was introduced, voter intimidation was commonplace.

Winning an Election: Majority, Plurality, and Proportional Representation

Common voting systems are majority rule, proportional representation, or plurality voting with a number of criteria for the winner.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the voting systems of majority rule, proportional representation and plurality voting

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A voting system is a method by which voters make a choice between options, often in an election or on a policy referendum.
  • Majority rule is a decision rule that selections the option which has a majority, that is, more than half the votes. It is the binary decision rule used most often in influential decision-making bodies, including the legislatures of democratic nations.
  • Proportional representation (PR) is a concept in voting systems used to elect an assembly or council. Proportional representation means that the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes received.
  • The plurality voting system is a single-winner voting system often used to elect executive officers or to elect members of a legislative assembly that is based on single-member constituencies.

Key Terms

  • plurality: A number of votes for a single candidate or position which is greater than the number of votes gained by any other single candidate or position voted for, but which is less than a majority of valid votes cast.
  • majority rule: A decision rule whereby the decisions of the numerical majority of a group will bind on the whole group.
  • voting systems: A voting system is a method by which voters make a choice between options, often in an election or on a policy referendum.

Introduction

A voting system is a method by which voters make a choice between options, often in an election or on a policy referendum. A voting system contains rules for valid voting, and how votes are counted and aggregated to yield a final result. Common voting systems are majority rule, proportional representation, or plurality voting with a number of variations and methods such as first-past-the-post or preferential voting. The study of formally defined voting systems is called social choice theory, a subfield of political science, economics, and mathematics.

Majority Rule

Majority rule is a decision rule that selects the option which has a majority, that is, more than half the votes. It is the binary decision rule used most often in influential decision-making bodies, including the legislatures of democratic nations. Some scholars have recommended against the use of majority rule, at least under certain circumstances, due to an ostensible trade-off between the benefits of majority rule and other values important to a democratic society. Being a binary decision rule, majority rule has little use in public elections, with many referendums being an exception. However, it is frequently used in legislatures and other bodies in which alternatives can be considered and amended in a process of deliberation until the final version of a proposal is adopted or rejected by majority rule.

Proportional Representation

Proportional representation (PR) is a concept in voting systems used to elect an assembly or council. Proportional representation means that the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes received. For example, under a PR voting system if 30% of voters support a particular party then roughly 30% of seats will be won by that party. Proportional representation is an alternative to voting systems based on single member districts or on bloc voting; these non-PR systems tend to produce disproportionate outcomes and to have a bias in favor of larger political groups. PR systems tend to produce a proliferation of political parties, while single member districts encourage a two-party system.

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German federal election, 2005: Seats won by each party in the 2005 German federal election, an example of a proportional voting system.

Plurality Voting System

The plurality voting system is a single-winner voting system often used to elect executive officers or to elect members of a legislative assembly that is based on single-member constituencies. This voting method is also used in multi-member constituencies in what is referred to as an exhaustive counting system where one member is elected at a time and the process repeated until the number of vacancies is filled. In political science, the use of the plurality voting system alongside multiple, single-winner constituencies to elect a multi-member body is often referred to as single-member district plurality (SMDP).

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Plurality ballot: An example of a plurality ballot.

Electoral Districts

An electoral district is a territorial subdivision whose members (constituents) elect one or more representatives to a legislative body.

Learning Objectives

Analyze how apportionment, malapportionment and gerrymandering affect the political process

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In an electoral district, the constituents are the voters who reside within the geographical bounds of an electoral district.
  • District magnitude is the number of representatives elected from a given district to the same legislative body.
  • Apportionment is the process of allocating a number of representatives to different regions, such as states or provinces, and is generally done on the basis of population. Malapportionment occurs when voters are under or over-represented due to variation in district population.
  • Gerrymandering is the manipulation of electoral district boundaries for political gain.

Key Terms

  • gerrymandering: The practice of redrawing electoral districts to gain an electoral advantage for a political party.
  • apportionment: The act of apportioning or the state of being apportioned
  • electoral district: A district represented by one or more elected officials.

Definition

An electoral district is a distinct territorial subdivision for holding an election for one or more seats in a legislative body. Generally, only voters who reside within the geographical bounds of an electoral district, the constituents, are permitted to vote in an election held there. The term ” constituency ” can be used to refer to an electoral district or to the body of eligible voters within the represented area. In Australia and New Zealand, electoral districts are called “electorates,” but elsewhere the term generally refers to the body of voters.

In the United States, there are several types of districts:

  • Congressional districts
  • states
  • state representative districts
  • city council districts

An election commission is a body charged with overseeing the implementation of election procedures. The exact name used varies from country to country, including such terms as “electoral commission”, “central election commission”, “electoral branch” or “electoral court”. Election commissions can be independent, mixed, judicial or governmental. They may also be responsible for electoral boundary delimitation. In federations there may be a separate body for each subnational government. In the executive model the election commission is directed by a cabinet minister as part of the executive branch of government, and may include local government authorities acting as agents of the central body. Countries with this model include Denmark, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia and the United States.

District Magnitude

District magnitude is the number of representatives elected from a given district to the same legislative body. A single-member district has one representative, whereas a multi-member district has more than one. Proportional representation voting systems inherently require multi-member districts, and the larger the district magnitude the more proportional a system tends to be. Under proportional representation systems, district magnitude is an important determinant of the makeup of the elected body.

The geographic distribution of minorities also affects their representation — an unpopular nationwide minority can still secure a seat if they are concentrated in a particular district. District magnitude can vary within the same system during an election. In the Republic of Ireland, for instance, national elections to Dáil Éireann are held using a combination of 3, 4, and 5 member districts. In Hong Kong, the magnitude ranged from 3 to 5 in the 1998 election, but from 5 to 9 in the 2012.

Apportionment and Redistricting

Apportionment is the process of allocating a number of representatives to different regions, such as states or provinces. Apportionment changes are often accompanied by redistricting, the redrawing of electoral district boundaries to accommodate the new number of representatives. This redrawing is necessary under single-member district systems, as each new representative requires his or her own district.

Apportionment is generally done on the basis of population. Seats in the United States House of Representatives, for instance, are reapportioned to individual states every 10 years following a census, with some states that have grown in population gaining seats. The United States Senate, by contrast, is apportioned without regard to population; every state gets exactly two senators. Malapportionment occurs when voters are under or over-represented due to variation in district population.

Gerrymandering is the manipulation of electoral district boundaries for political gain. By creating a few “forfeit” districts where voters vote overwhelmingly for rival candidates, gerrymandering politicians can manufacture more narrow wins among the districts they seek to win. Gerrymandering effectively concentrates wasted votes among opponents while minimizing wasted votes among supporters. Gerrymandering is typically done under voting systems with single-member districts.

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Gerrymandering in Illinois: Another example of Illinois gerrymandering is the 17th congressional district in the western portion of the state. Notice how the major urban centers are anchored and how Decatur is nearly isolated from the primary district.

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Gerrymandering in Ohio: An example of “cracking” style of gerrymandering. The urban (and mostly liberal) concentration of Columbus, Ohio, located at the center of the map in Franklin County, is split into thirds, with each segment attached to—and outnumbered by—largely conservative suburbs.

Swing Seats and Safe Seats

Sometimes, particularly under non-proportional winner-take-all voting systems, electoral districts can be prone to landslide victories. A safe seat is one that is very unlikely to be won by a rival politician due to the makeup of its constituency. Conversely, a swing seat is one that could easily swing either way. In United Kingdom general elections, the voting in a relatively small number of swing seats usually determines the outcome of the entire election. Many politicians aspire to have safe seats.