Elections are the most powerful method of indirect democracy in which the people choose representatives to shape policy and represent their interests. They are an essential part of the process of democratic accountability that demands elected officials return to the public at regular intervals to seek a new mandate to continue to govern on their behalf. In the absence of a revolution, elections provide the only avenue by which citizens can change their national leaders in a peaceful and orderly way.
Electoral systems vary widely in their form and operation. Some are fair but many are not; in fact, they can be highly undemocratic. Regardless of the form, they serve to give a formal legitimacy to decisions made by an elite group. Elections are also a major source of contention between individuals and societies. They can be used by a dominant party to reinforce its authority and by dissident groups to challenge it.
The process of elections involves the nomination of candidates for a position. If only one person agrees to stand, he or she is elected by acclamation. If more than one person agrees, they are asked to speak to the group about their views on policy and why they believe that they would be the best candidate for the role. If the majority of those present supports the candidate, then nominations are closed. A chair may close nominations by declaring that time is up or by a motion that has been passed by a two-thirds majority of those present to that effect. The elections officer then announces that the vote will take place.
Voting is done by placing a vote in a ballot box or by sending it via mail. It is counted by a group of people called election officials. The results of the vote are published in the media.
While the function of an election is to give people a choice between competing alternatives, it is important that voters be informed enough to make the right decision. This can be a difficult task in some countries, where the media is not free to explore issues and where the government does not allow citizens access to the information necessary for informed voting.
It is important for governments to ensure that all voters are able to participate freely and without hindrance in elections. This includes not preventing eligible voters from voting, not imposing restrictions on registration based on age, citizenship or residence, and not requiring that they pass a literacy test (as was the case in some US states until 1965). It is equally important for governments to promote voter education so that voters understand their electoral system, the contests they are being asked to decide, and how and where to cast their votes. This is particularly critical in post-conflict situations.