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An election is a decision making process where people choose people to hold official offices. This is the usual mechanism by which modern democracy fills offices in the legislature, and sometimes in the executive and judiciary, and in regional and local government. This is also typically the case in a wide range of other private and business organizations, from clubs to voluntary associations and corporations.

The universal acceptance of elections as a tool for selecting representatives in modern democracies is in sharp contrast with the practice in the democratic archetype, ancient Athens, where elections were considered an oligarchic institution and where most political offices were filled using sortition, also known as allotment.

Electoral reform describes the process of introducing fair electoral systems where they are not in place, or improving the fairness or effectiveness of existing systems. Psephology is the study of results and other statistics relating to elections (especially with a view to predicting future results).

In political theory, the authority of the government in democracies derives solely from the consent of the governed. The principal mechanism for translating that consent into governmental authority is the holding of free and fair elections.

There is a broad consensus as to what kind of elections can be considered free and fair. Jeane Kirkpatrick, scholar and former United States ambassador to the United Nations, has offered this definition: "Democratic elections are not merely symbolic....They are competitive, periodic, inclusive, definitive elections in which the chief decision-makers in a government are selected by citizens who enjoy broad freedom to criticize government, to publish their criticism and to present alternatives."

The Democracy Watch (International) website, further defines fair democratic elections as, "Elections in which great care is taken to prevent any explicit or hidden structural bias towards any one candidate, aside from those beneficial biases that naturally result from an electorate that is equally well informed about the various assets and liabilities of each candidate". This was more formally stated in 2000 by Chief Justice Murray Gleeson of the Australian High Court as "The democratic and lawful means of securing change, if change be necessary, is an expression of the will of an informed electorate."

The apparently simple requirement of an informed electorate is difficult to achieve in modern electorates with thousands of voters, most of whom have no prospects of knowing candidates other than by information published by third parties. The party with the most immediate interest in having structural biases is the government conducting the election. One possible result is the 'show' elections described below.


A pre-election hustings at the Oxford West and Abingdon constituency, England.Some other scholars argue that elections are at most secondary to a functioning democracy. They argue that the rule of law is more important. An example would be pre-unification Hong Kong, which was ruled by an unelected British administrator but was generally considered to be a free and open society due to its strong legal institutions.