Elements of Elections

The concept of democracy is often a subject of debate. However, the fundamental idea is that it is a system of political governance in which decision-making power is ultimately – if indirectly – controlled by citizens, who are all considered equals within the system.

The right of citizens to participate in governance through genuine and periodic elections has long been recognised under international human rights law. Several leading international and regional treaties and other instruments set out the four elements that constitute the core of that right:

  • Universal and equal suffrage
  • Voting by secret ballot
  • Elections at reasonable, periodic intervals; and
  • No discrimination among voters, candidates or parties

Despite its codification in numerous human rights treaties, however, the right to political participation has just recently been widely accepted as a fundamental right.And only in the past few years have issues regarding access to the media been discussed as an important element of that right.

Freedom of political debate is now acknowledged by institutions and governments around the world as an essential foundation for a democratic society. The vital importance of free political expression rests largely on the fact that an informed electorate is critical to the proper functioning of a genuine democracy. There is little doubt that media freedom is indispensable if the public is to enjoy its right to information and freedom of expression. The broadcast media, especially radio, are particularly crucial for communicating political messages effectively to diverse populations.

There is general consensus, internationally, that standards for elections should include freedom from coercion, and a commitment to the idea of “one person-one vote.” In addition, it is now recognised that the conduct of elections must enable the fair representation of all citizens, in keeping with the growing recognition of the equality of men and women, and the rights of various categories of minorities within the general population.

Consent of the governed

If consent of the governed is the most fundamental concept of democracy, the most essential right within democracy is that of citizens to choose their leaders in free, fair, and regular elections. Clearly elections alone are insufficient to sustain democracy. But the right to elect one’s political representatives, shape the political nature of one’s government and influence the political direction of one’s nation is an indispensable foundation of democracy. Without free elections, citizens would not have the opportunity to express their will, change their leaders, address wrongs, or protest the limitation of their rights. Elections establish the political rights of the people as a whole, as well as of the individual citizen. They constitute the ongoing representation of the “consent of the governed.”

There are no precise definitions for “regular, free, and fair elections.” As mentioned earlier, international human rights conventions have established a basic consensus, most clearly articulated in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that elections must be periodic, genuine, organised according to universal suffrage and by secret ballot.

Regular or periodic implies elections held on the basis of a set schedule known to the electorate, either on a specified date (in the United States of America, for example, electionsare held on the first Tuesday of November every other year) or within a particular time frame (in the United Kingdom elections are held within five years of the previous one; in India, too, general elections are held once every five years, unless the lower house of parliament – known as the Lok Sabha – is dissolved earlier for some extraordinary reason). This provides citizens with the opportunity to change their leaders and to support new policies at regular intervals.

Free and fair, or genuine, suggests that elections must offer equal opportunities for all competing parties and candidates. Among the prerequisites for equality among parties and candidates are the following: the opportunity for people to register for office without unreasonable requirements, balanced access to the media for all candidates, the absence of campaign finance abuse, and an independent electoral process.

Universal suffrage means that there should be no burdensome impediments in the way of adult citizens wishing to register themselves as voters or casting their votes. The only legitimate requirements for eligibility to vote are age and/or residence. All those above the minimum age for voting must be encouraged and assisted to register themselves as voters and exercise their franchise. Serious efforts must be made to maximise participation in elections so that the results are seen to reflect the will of the people as a whole. In fact, voting has been made a legal obligation in some countries in an attempt to achieve this.

The principle of one person-one vote is distinct from the principle of universal suffrage; it applies particularly to political systems that involve direct representation. But both principles require that no person’s vote is counted twice. A secret ballot means that no one – except the voter himself or herself – should know how anyone has voted. Without absolute privacy while casting the ballot voters would be vulnerable to intimidation or reprisals by political parties in power or seeking power. Under such circumstances, elections would have no integrity.

Collective verdict

For democracy to work, everyone has to agree to accept the results of freely held elections. The people must accept their own collective verdict. Parties and candidates who have either lost power or failed to gain it must be willing to concede defeat. If the loser refuses to acknowledge the winner, the legitimacy of the election would be diminished and the political system could be disturbed by conflict and instability. A key test for a democracy is the successful and peaceful transfer of power from one party to another.

The majority of democracies across the world have parliamentary systems, in which elections for the legislature determine the party that will be in control of the executive branch. Under this system the party or coalition of parties with a majority of seats in parliament forms the government (although there are rare occasions of minority governments, they typically have at least majority support in parliament). In a presidential system, such as in the United States, or in a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, such as in France and Poland, there are separate elections for the executive and legislative branches. Although parliamentary systems may more directly reflect the citizens’ will, presidential or mixed systems are said to provide more checks and balances in the exercise of power.

An electoral system can be broadly defined as the system for regulating the election of public officials. It is the way in which people’s votes can be turned into elected representatives. Electoral systems have to be based on the Constitution of the nation concerned and subsequent legislation specifically relating to elections.

There are two main types of electoral systems: proportional (in which seats are apportioned according to the percentage of the vote) and direct (in which elections are conducted by a majority or plurality vote). However, some countries have introduced variations in these systems, while others use both systems for their elections.


For an election to represent the true wishes of the people it must meet certain conditions. Among the most important features of a democratic election are:

  • Diversity in political parties and candidates so that the choice before voters is real, not illusory. An election dominated by a single significant party is unlikely to generate different visions and plans for the country, let alone debate around these. Without such an exchange of ideas in the public sphere, voters will not be equipped to select parties or candidates in an informed manner. Further, a party that is elected more or less unopposed will have no real reason to listen to the people. Such a situation is contrary to the basic idea of democracy.
  • Competing political parties must have freedom to campaign in the run-up to the election. This means they must be free to hold meetings and to communicate with voters about their ideologies and proposed policies and programmes – through meetings, pamphlets, advertisements or any other legitimate means, including new information and communications technologies. Without such communication, voters will not be in a position to learn about the ideas and solutions offered by different parties and candidates, especially those who are not yet in power.
  • Rules to govern the election must not only be in place but they must be widely known and observed. A credible, respected individual or organisation (such as an election commissioner/commission) must be charged with administering the rules. Courts must have jurisdiction over both the rules and the administration of the election so that election-related complaints can be dealt with by the judicial system. The rules should include strong and effective legal procedures against electionrelated corruption and violence. Nobody should be able to dictate to voters who they should vote for. If citizens are not protected from such violations of their rights, the outcome of the election will be questionable and people will feel cheated. Members of the public who are unhappy with election results may express their dissatisfaction through protests; some may even take steps towards establishing a different kind of government. There is likely to be more public trust in the elected government if people perceive that the election was conducted in a free and fair manner.
  • Most importantly, the public must be aware of the importance of voting as well as the choices with regard to candidates and voting procedures. Voters must have the opportunity to become interested in and knowledgeable about the election through access to non-partisan information presented in a manner that is not only comprehensible but also clarifies the connection between politics and the lives of ordinary people. Without such knowledge they will be vulnerable to manipulation, if not deception, by special interests. The media have a key role to play in providing citizens with the relevant, balanced information they need to do justice to their vital role as voters.

The election process gets under way well before the beginning of the campaign period. The preparation and updating of voter lists is an important process that often does not get adequate media attention although it is crucial to ensure that the principle of universal and equal suffrage is upheld.

In countries where election dates are not pre-determined there is usually an official announcement about the date(s) of a particular election. Once that is fixed the authority responsible for managing elections (such as the election commission/commissioner) begins to make preparations to ensure the smooth and secure conduct of the polls. This process, too, needs to be reported so that citizens are aware of and assured about the arrangements.

This is also the time, in many countries, when political parties begin the process of screening and selecting candidates for the polls. This is an important procedure that requires more media scrutiny than it normally gets to ensure that the laws of the land, including rules and regulations about eligibility, are followed so that suitable candidates – acceptable to their constituencies – are picked. Where the process is not transparent the media can support civil society in advocating more openness, which can help prevent malpractices and thereby create more trust in the political system among the electorate.

The main subjects the media need to report on during the campaign period preceding voting day are the following:

1. Political parties and candidates

A political party is generally made up of people who share an ideology or, at least, similar ideas about governance, development, foreign policy and other issues, and accept the leadership of a particular person or structure. Candidates for elections are usually chosen from among party members. In some countries parties select one individual to run as the potential leader of the country; the person who wins the largest share of votes among those running for the top post becomes the leader of the government, often called the president. In others the party that wins the most votes and ends up with the most members in the legislature forms the government and often (though not always) its leader becomes the leader of the government, usually called the prime minister.

A number of political parties compete in most elections. The media should report how strong the parties are, how many candidates they are fielding and what groups and interests they represent. Some parties may not have candidates in constituencies across the city, state/province or country where the election is taking place. Even though the biggest parties with the largest number of candidates are likely to get more coverage, the media have a responsibility to provide voters everywhere with some information about every party participating in the elections. Some candidates run for elections as independent candidates who are not affiliated to any party. They, too, must be enabled by the media to introduce themselves and communicate their ideas to the people.

2. The issues

Each political party has its own views about the most important issues facing the country and how they should be dealt with. During the election campaign they generally issue manifestos outlining their policies and plans, telling the public what they intend to do on various matters and presenting reasons why voters should elect their party’s candidates.

These statements of intent need to be presented to the public in meaningful ways that can help people decide which party or candidate they would like to support – for example, by comparing and contrasting the positions of the various competing parties and candidates on a range of important issues (not just the hot-button ones that they may wish to highlight for their own purposes), by evaluating their adherence to previous party platforms, and by juxtaposing public opinion on key subjects with the stated stands of different parties on them. Manifestos can also be critiqued – for instance, if they are long on rhetoric and short on substance; voters need to know which parties offer plans that have been carefully thought through and which do not.

Professional reporters do not attempt to tell the voters which party is better. On the other hand, editorial-writers and other columnists and commentators can offer their opinions. Besides reporting on the proposals put forward by parties, the media need to highlight issues that different sections of the population believe are important, which may or may not be addressed by politicians.

In the course of the campaign some candidates may make controversial statements. While the media need to report such statements, and reactions to them from various political parties as well as the public, they must be conscious that these are sometimes no more than attention-grabbing tactics that should, therefore, be handled judiciously.

3. The voting process

Information about election rules and processes are necessary to assist people in participating in the elections. At the basic level citizens require information on how they can become registered voters, the duration of the campaign, the procedure and locations for casting votes, their rights as voters, the who, what, when, where and how of vote-counting, and so on.

They also need to be equipped with information on regulations regarding campaign spending and advertising by parties during elections, as well as guidelines on media coverage of candidates and campaigns. People must be familiarised with the authorities charged with  ensuring that such regulations and guidelines are followed and imposing penalties for violations. The media must also closely watch the election process – throughout the campaign, on voting day and until the results are announced – to determine whether or not laws and rules are being followed without corruption or favouritism and without interfering with the rights of voters as individuals or as members of any particular societal group.

Election reporting does not end with the declaration of the results. In a general election, for example, it extends to the process of forming the government. Reporters who have covered the election process are also best placed to keep tabs on political parties and candidates afterwards, especially in terms of action on election manifestos and fulfilment of election promises.