Elections are the principal means through which citizens exercise their right to choose their leadership and representatives. When properly conducted they are a vital instrument for maintaining democracy and democratic accountability.
Elections establish a link between government of the day and public opinion (views shared by the majority of voters). They are also a key source of democratic legitimacy. They make governments publicly accountable to the people and ultimately removable from power. They demonstrate to the citizenry that they have chosen to be governed.
Moreover, democratic elections are important for the maintenance of political stability and social cohesion. They serve as the institutional connection between citizens and their government (Kirkpatrick, 1995a). Low turnout in general elections undermines democratic legitimacy and reinforces popular suspicion of their efficacy.
The concept of democratic elections emerged from the gradual emergence of representative government in Europe and America. This concept of representation replaced the holistic notion of representing estates, corporations and vested interests with one that emphasized the individual. The democratization of elections was accelerated by the expansion of universal suffrage in the 1950s and ’60s following decolonization in many countries. While a number of these countries later reverted to authoritarian forms of rule, many remained democracies and continued to employ competitive elections.
In the United States, the constitution vests the responsibility for regulating congressional elections in the states, subject to certain limitations set forth in the Elections Clause. The framers intended for Congress to be able to step in and regulate congressional elections if either state law or a state election procedure violated the federal constitution. This was a built-in self-defense mechanism that protected the nation from anarchy.
Competitive elections are essential for the democratic process because they allow for the emergence of competing political parties and ideologies. Without competition, the democratic system loses its ability to represent all the views of the electorate.
Competition also allows defeated political leaders to reenter the democratic arena at a future date. They can do so by running as a candidate for another political party or in some cases, through private means such as writing or teaching. In a pluralistic society, defeated politicians may find other ways to contribute to political debate through non-governmental organizations or the media.
The United States uses a unique electoral system that differs significantly from other democratic systems. Unlike most countries where electors vote for senators and members of the House of Representatives on a district basis, in the United States, voters cast two votes for President and one for Vice President. Those who win the most electoral votes, in each state, become president and vice president. The system has its problems, but it does work. Whether or not all states use it in the same way, a consistent application of election law is necessary to protect the integrity of the electoral process. Observation is a critical tool to ensure that elections are carried out in a fair and just manner.