Representative democracy is based on elections; therefore, they must be free and fair. Further, while there are many elements involved in administering such elections, there is also one overriding concern. The government itself conducts elections for government officials. This means current officials may try to manipulate them to ensure that they (or their political parties) remain in power. All possibilities for such manipulation need to be blocked, through additional checks and balances.

For example, in the United States, federal employees are prohibited from participating in election campaigns.

Elections manifest the will of the citizenry, and citizens in turn are individuals who have political rights. They can vote, run for office, hold non-elected positions, and also receive protection and other services from the state, and lodge grievances against it.

Citizenship represents a form of equality: the right of equal participation in the society’s political system. Elections provide a formal means of political participation, in contrast to more unstructured conduits such as dissent and rebellion.

Many governments have traditionally placed restrictions on citizenship as a means to deny the vote and the ability to hold office to certain groups, and thereby forestall challenges from such groups to their power. Restrictions based on religion and ethnicity are still commonplace around the world. Also, under the principle of ostracism, people who have been convicted of a serious crime are typically denied voting rights. In addition, there is usually a minimum voting age.

Of course, just having the right to vote does not guarantee that one will vote well. Democracy makes great demands on its participants, on its voters. For a democracy to be effective, to function at its optimal level, it requires that voters have the following characteristics:

- A well developed general education, to be able to grasp the basic complexities of life, and the need in social organizations for fairness, justice and ethics.
- Effective defenses against social influences.
- Education about the purposes, organization and functioning of government.
- Education about currently important governmental issues.
- And a well-developed sense of personal identity and responsibility, and the exercise of discipline and free will through participating in the vote.

It is obvious that in any given society a significant portion of the population will not be able to meet this standard. This raises the question, what should we do about them? We cannot take away their right to vote, and in any case a rational and fair means of measuring whether or not one meets the standard could never be devised. The only solution is to work to educate the electorate, with the goal of improving both their interest and performance with time.

Elections are held for political office. On specific issues of pressing concern, the citizenry may also participate in votes called referendums. These take place together with or separate from the normal elections.

Associated with the actual office is its term. Normal terms are four or five years. Shorter lengths in general are best, since it is quite difficult to remove office holders during their terms. If an official exhibits poor leadership, which is so common now, there needs to be a check against being stuck with him or her for an extended period.

In a presidential democracy, the election for the executive and other officials is held at the conclusion of their terms. In many parliamentary democracies, though, the Prime Minister has the power to set an earlier election date. This has the potential to be undemocratic, as it can confer an advantage to the PM or his or her party. (Parliamentary democracies also allow for votes of confidence, which provide a mechanism to remove officials during their terms. Early elections are called following government defeats on confidence votes.)

Candidates for office generally must have a number of required characteristics, related to age, residency, and years as a citizen. Other than this, there are no set qualifications. Some countries, though, do impose additional requirements, for instance, for a university education. This serves to limit candidacy in these countries only to members of the upper class, which is also inherently undemocratic. Candidacy in a democracy should be based on merit; therefore, anyone should be able to run for office.

In a democracy, one’s choice for office holder is private, and this must be protected at the polls, including through voting booth design and placement. In addition, the electorate must be free of intimidation: if necessary polling places must have armed guards and international monitors.

For the vote itself, it is essential to obtain an accurate result. This requires procedures to guard against voter fraud, including both improper registration and fraudulent representation at the polls. Voter rolls must be confirmed, and standards adopted for voter identification. Also, since intimidation can be achieved using complex systems which certain people, such as the elderly and less educated, may find difficult to understand, voting procedures should be as simple and as clear as possible.

The basic assumptions in a representative democracy are not only that the electorate can and will make informed choices, and that everyone entitled to vote is given the opportunity, but also that their choices will be properly registered and counted. You must be able to count the vote. Elections, including those using new electronic voting machines, require auditing and paper documentation, to guard against both tampering and machine and human error. In addition, there must be provisions for both recounting and re-voting in situations where an election is subject to serious dispute.

Re-votes are a variation of what are known as by-elections, or elections held outside of or in addition to the normal timetable. These may occur in an unplanned fashion and sporadically, when incumbents die or otherwise leave office, or more formally following normal elections to replace winners who have been disqualified due to electoral malfeasance.

A final question with elections – other issues that relate to political parties will be considered in the next lesson – is if voting should be obligatory? In some countries the citizens must vote, and if they fail to do so they lose this right for subsequent elections.

This is also an example of an ends and means argument. Nations do want as high a turnout as possible, since it enables a better record of the public’s desires, which in turn increases the legitimacy of the elected officials. But obligatory voting is a form of dictatorship, of telling the people what they must do. Voting is a privilege, but even a privilege should be voluntary.

© Roland O. Watson 2008