Definitions, Functions, Types and Characteristics of Election



Definitions, Functions, Types and Characteristics of Election

The central concern of this post is to acquaint the student with the concept of election and some other basic issues that surround it. The article is divided into meanings and characteristics. Under meanings we examine some definitions of the concept in order to provide you with broad views. Under the types and characteristics we discuss the political circumstances and situations that can produce elections.

Table of Content 

You should be able to do the following at the end of this article:

1. Have an adequate insight into the meaning of elections

2. Understand the various functions of election in a political system

3. Understand the various types and characteristic of election

4.  Have good knowledge of the kind of political process used in election

Definitions of Elections

Although elections are fundamental and very common in modern political discourse and there is hardly any dispute about their meaning, they have, like many other social science concepts, been discussed from several perspectives. In what follows we consider some of the definitions.

A good one to begin with is the definition by R. Dowse and J. Hughes (1972) who assert that “Elections are one type of social mechanism, amongst others, for aggregating preferences of a particular kind. An election is, therefore, a procedure recognized by the rules of an organization, be it a state, a club, a voluntary organization or whatever, where all, or some, of the members choose a smaller number of persons to hold an office, or offices, of authority within that organization.

By analysis, this definition assumes that every political organization is democratic, and goes through the mechanism of elections in arriving at the smaller number of leaders that hold her offices. It is quite easy to describe this definition as impressionistic and hastily generalizing, considering the fact that it was given in 1972 when only about forty two percent of world’s nations were democratic and produced their leaders through elections.

Ball, A. (1977) can be accused of similar thing based on his definition that “elections are the means by which the people choose and exercise some degree of control over their representatives”. This simply suggests that wherever people are chosen to lead other people, the mechanism used is election.

9 Main Functions of Elections

9 Main Functions of Elections

1. Political Recruitment

Elections provide people of a political community with the opportunity to vote and be voted for in the process of choosing representatives in government. This process is systematized, and it provides, at least in theory, platform for fair participation of many people. Perhaps without elections, only one family or clique will dominate political offices in a political community.

2. Peaceful Transfer of Power

This systematization of recruitment process in elections is open and competitive, and therefore promises to eliminate unwarranted grudges and agitation. This means that elections provide the basis for the orderly and peaceful transfer of power in a political system. It facilitates crisis free political succession if the rules guiding it are followed.

3. Interest Articulation

During elections people are able to articulate their political interest either as individual candidates where allowed by the constitution, or as representative of a political party. Interest articulation is a very vital aspect of the workings of a political system.

4. Interest Aggregation

As political interests and preferences differ in politics, elections help to aggregate them in political communities. It is through elections that the views and opinions of people are organized, translated and consolidated into definitive electoral choices and mandates that will eventually produce leaders and representatives at different levels.

5. Enhancement of Political Equality.

Elections are very good means of are a means of bringing together the rich and the poor before the ballot box, making them equal at least for that moment, in their duties of politics. But for a mechanism like elections, the poor may never have any opportunity to mix up with the rich at all, especially in highly stratified societies.

6. Citizens’ Control of Government

Major role that elections play is provide means and mechanisms through which the people who are governed can influence the ways those who govern them conduct themselves. It is one sure way among “violence, in the form of riots and political assassination, and the exercise of pressure groups influence" through which, “the governors are controlled”.

7. Sense of Political Community

Elections help to integrate people into a strong sense of community spirit through the interaction it provides. This can assist a people in ameliorating contradictions such as ethnicity, religious dichotomy and indigene settler rivalry as we have in Nigeria and other parts of the world.

8. Extra Party Political Participation

Elections often provide the opportunity for people outside political parties to participate in the political system, while enabling the government to lay claim to some degree of popular support or legitimacy. This is particularly so in one-party states where competition for elective offices is dominated and even controlled by the only political party, and where the people merely support candidates chosen, or reject him or her if they like. They alone do not have direct choice.

9. Political Communication

Conduct of elections also ensures political communication between the citizens and those who govern them. People of a country, during electioneering campaigns have ample opportunities to ask their leaders how they have governed them over years. Without this kind of opportunity, governance will be esoteric and clandestine, and democracy will be reduced to conspiracy.


6 Main Types of Election

6 Main Types of Election

1. Primary Election

primary election is the process by which voters, either the general public (open primary) or members of a political party (closed primary), can indicate their preference for a candidate in an upcoming general election or by-election, thus narrowing the field of candidates.

Primaries are used in various countries throughout the world. Its origins can be traced to the progressive movement in the United States, which aimed to take the power of candidate nomination from party leaders to the people. Political parties control the method of nomination of candidates for office in the name of the party. Other methods of selecting candidates include caucuses, conventions, and nomination meetings.

Where primary elections are organized by parties, not the administration, two types of primaries can generally be distinguished:

·  Closed primary: (synonyms: internal primaries, party primaries) In the case of closed primaries, internal primaries, or party primaries, only party members can vote.

·  Open primary: All voters can take part in an open primary and 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.

In the United States, when the primary elections are ongoing, separate party ballots are printed, ballot boxes are provided and the voter must choose between the ballot with interested Democrats running against other Democrats or the one on which Republicans run against other Republicans (all in the same party).

For example, if three or more candidates vying for a position, and if none receives majority votes, then a second primary election or runoff election is held between the two candidates with the highest number of votes in the first primary election held. The winner of this runoff election becomes the party nominee/representative.

In Nigeria, the statewide primary election is held in June of even-numbered years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday.

2. General Election

general election is an election in which all or most members of a given political body are chosen. These are usually held for a nation’s primary legislative body, as distinguished from by-elections and local elections.

In presidential systems, a general election is a regularly scheduled election where both the president, and either “a class” of or all members of the national legislature are elected at the same time but can also involve special elections held to fill prematurely vacated positions. A general election day may also include elections for local officials.

The term originates in the elections in the United Kingdom for the House of Commons started on November 26 1962.

In India, the elections held to elect the members of the Lok Sabha after expiry of the Parliamentary Elections. Earlier up to 1957 simultaneous elections were held for both the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies. However, on account of early dismissal and mid-term elections the two got separated.

In U.S. politics, general elections are elections held at any level (e.g. city, county, congressional district, state) that typically involve competition between at least two parties. General elections occur every two to six years (depending on the positions being filled with most positions good for four years) and include the presidential election, but unlike parliamentary systems the term can also refer to special elections that fill out positions prematurely vacated by the previous office holder (e.g. through death, resignation, etc.).

In Nigeria, the general election is held to determine and decide which political party, or candidates will occupy each office that are open for election. In addition, an eligible voter may split the ballot paper to select candidates from all parties on the ballot. However, a voter may choose only one candidate per office in the general election.

3. Local Election

In many parts of the world, local elections take place to select office-holders in local government, such as mayors, councilors and local government chairmen. Elections to positions within a city or town are often known as “municipal elections”. Their form and conduct vary widely across jurisdictions.

In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, local elections have proven to be easier to achieve than larger scale ones that affect the national or federal government. By giving voice to people on the smaller scales of government, over such issues as water supply, power, and sewer systems, confidence is thought to be built to eventually reform higher levels of government.

In the UK the term local elections refers to county, unitary authority, borough, district, city, town and parish elections. These take place on the first Thursday of May every year. Councilors generally sit for four years. The number of independent (non-party) Councilors has declined over the past forty years – nowadays the overwhelming majority of local Councilors belong to one of the major parties.

4. Special Election

Special elections are held in extraordinary situations such as the necessity to fill a vacancy that occurs during the term for which a person was elected, or when a referendum is held on some particular question or proposition such as the issuance of bonds.

A by-election or bye-election is a type of special election. A general election is the name of an election for all members of an elected body. A bye-election is the name of an election for just some members. A bye-election could be needed if a member dies or resigns while in political office. They are also used if a person is removed from office for some reason, for example he/she is guilty of a crime or is not qualified to be a member anymore.

In most cases, these elections occur after the incumbent dies or resigns, but they also occur when the incumbent becomes ineligible to continue in office (because of a recall, ennoblement, criminal conviction, or failure to maintain a minimum attendance). Less commonly, these elections have been called when a constituency election is invalidated by voting irregularities. In the United States, these contests have been called “special elections” because they do not always occur on Election Day like regular congressional elections. 

5. Direct and Indirect Election

Direct election is a system of choosing political officeholders in which the voters directly cast ballots for the person, persons, or political party that they desire to see elected. The method by which the winner or winners of a direct election are chosen depends upon the electoral system used. 

Examples of directly elected bodies are the European Parliament (since 1979) and the United States House of Representatives. The MPs (members of parliament), MLAs (members of legislature) and members of the local bodies are elected by direct election. By contrast, in an indirect election, the voters elect a body which in turn elects the officeholder in question. A major advantage of direct election is that it guarantees that the people will have the ultimate choice of who will represent them.

6. Indirect election 

An indirect election is an election in which voters do not choose between candidates for an office, but elect people who then choose. It is one of the oldest forms of elections, and is still used today for many presidents, cabinets, upper houses, and supranational legislatures. Presidents and prime ministers can be indirectly elected by parliaments or by a special body convened solely for that purpose.

The election of the executive government in most parliamentary systems is indirect. Upper houses, especially of federal republics, can be indirectly elected by state legislatures or state governments. 

The election of the United States President and the Vice President is indirect election. Voters elect the Electoral College, which then elects the President. The Electoral College is a controversial issue in American politics, as the Electoral College vote may not agree with the popular vote. Also, the President of Germany is similarly elected through indirect election by a Federal Convention.

Characteristics of Elections

It is quite important for the behavioral scientist to clarify that to the extent that there are many forms of political system, ranging from monarchy, to totalitarianism, election is not, and cannot be the only way of choosing political leaders. The work however, is made easier as it limits the scope of elections to government at the level of the state. We shall discuss the circumstances of election in government in the following part.

Electoral System: Elections often hold under clearly defined electoral system.

Suffrage: 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 age for voting. While in Nigeria the voting age is 18, in other countries it is sixteen.

Used in Democracy: Because democracy is often regarded as government of the people by the people and for the people, election is often the main mechanism used to endure that leadership is arrived at based on the wish of the people. Under democracy, election often means majority, mostly in number and sometimes in agreed forms of representation. In democratic systems, elections are based on certain electoral systems that are products of the evolution and history of the society. In the electoral system voting pattern, vote counting and winner declaration are the main issue. While we can have major electoral systems as proportional and majoritarian, other ones include party-list proportional representation, additional member system, First Past the Post (otherwise called relative majority) and absolute majority.

Used in Constitutional Monarchy: Elections are also used in constitutional monarchies where leadership is not arrived at through voting, but heredity, but, at the same time, operations of leaders are subjected to certain constitutional provisions. Elections in this type of political arrangement may not therefore necessarily follow any of the identified electoral systems

Periodicity Elections come periodically. While in certain countries they are held every four years as in the United States and Nigeria, other countries use five or six years. Nigeria at present is proposing six years single term for political office holders. Whatever it is, the period of elections is often also contained in a government’s constitution.

Conclusion on Meanings, Functions, Types and Characteristics of Election

Whichever way it is defined , what is certain is that elections are the means by which a wider body of persons chooses a smaller group of representatives to undertake specified tasks, and though it takes place in a wide array of human organizations governmental and non-governmental, elections are used mainly in democratic system and constitutional democracies. It also has certain characteristics, some of which are suffrage and electoral system.

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