Elections can be very worthwhile institutions. They stabilize and regularize popular participation in overnment, and can provide decisive results about which leaders will direct the government. They provide a means not only for the citizens to direct and control their government, but also for the government to direct and control the mass citizenry. Elections remain indispensable links between the public and government. Thus, electoral systems have great consequences for the democratic qualities of any constitutional government. Yet, to be of any use, elections need to be credible, free, fair – and seen to be so. In short, they need to be legitimate.
Issues of electoral legitimacy
This article will attempt to address two issues. The first is to clarify what we characteristically mean when we talk about electoral legitimacy. In pursuit of this goal I shall draw a number of distinctions. Perhaps most important, I shall argue that the term electoral legitimacy invites appeal to three distinct kinds of criteria that in turn support these three concepts of electoral legitimacy: legal, sociological, and moral. When electoral legitimacy functions as a legal concept, legitimacy and illegitimacy are gauged by legal norms. As measured by sociological criteria, a claim of electoral authority is legitimate insofar as it is accepted as deserving of respect or obedience. A final set of criteria is moral. Pursuant to a moral concept, electoral legitimacy inheres in the moral justification, if any, for claims of authority asserted in the name of the law as an exemplar of normative conduct.
Distinguishing among legal, sociological, and moral legitimacy often yields an immediate and practical payoff. It comes in increased understanding of electoral debates, enhanced precision of thought, and the potential for clearer expression. When we can identify a particular electoral legitimacy claim as legal, sociological, or moral, its meaning will typically become plain. We will also be better situated to consider the standards for establishing benchmarks in an assessment of an electoral process.
The second aim of the article is to advance substantive understanding of the electoral process. When we examine electoral legitimacy with improved conceptual tools — with a sharpened awareness of what we mean by electoral legitimacy and why we care about it — striking conclusions emerge.
First, the legal legitimacy of an electoral process depends much more on its present sociological acceptance (and thus its sociological legitimacy) than upon the legality of its formal ratification. Other fundamental elements of the electoral process, including practices of interpretation, also owe their legitimacy to current sociological acceptance. By contrast, most ordinary electoral protocols derive their legitimacy from legal/convention norms established by or under a code of conduct.
Second, although an electoral process deserves to be recognized as morally legitimate, the nature and significance of its moral legitimacy are easily misunderstood. The electoral process is not perfect, nor has it ever possessed the unanimous consent of the governed. As a result, the electoral process qualifies as legitimate only under what I shall describe as “minimal” (rather than “ideal”) theories of moral legitimacy.
The electoral process’s moral legitimacy, like that of elections of most nations, arises from the facts that it exists, that it is accepted as law, that it is reasonably (rather than completely) just, and that agreement to a better electoral process would be difficult if not impossible to achieve.
Finally, as should be evident already, the electoral process does not rest on a single rock of electoral legitimacy, as many appear to assume, but on sometimes shifting sands. Realistic discourse about electoral legitimacy must reckon with the snarled interconnections among the electoral legal process, its diverse sociological foundations, and the felt imperatives of practical exigency and moral right.
I am of the strong opinion that elections are an instrument of social policy designed to regulate choice not to create policy.
Freedom of association is a central value, a fundamental requirement, of democratic practice and politics. Democracy is possible only if the citizens chose to vote or not, to join this or that political entity/movement, to form a caucus or oppositional faction, or to avoid political activity completely.
When we stand alone in the voting booth, democratic citizens are exercising power in the radically individualistic way that liberal theory is most comfortable with.
I can identify four criteria for evaluating electoral systems—the degree to which they promote:
- Political, governmental, and regime stability
- Accountability of elected officials
- High voter turnout
- Thorough deliberation of public policy
The primary tasks of elections
Elections perform two primary tasks in constitutional democracies.
The first, long hallowed in liberal democratic theory, is to provide a means of popular control of government. John Locke, a political philosopher of individual rights and limited government (an approach known as “philosophical liberalism”), defined the legitimate powers of government in terms of popular consent:
“The constitution of the legislative [authority] is the first and fundamental act of society, whereby provision is made for the continuation of their union under the direction of persons and bonds of laws…by consent and appointment of the people, without which no one man, or number of men, amongst them can have authority of making laws that shall be binding on the rest.” John Locke 1690
Locke’s formulation is now accepted throughout much of the world—governmental legitimacy depends on popular consent.
The second function of the electoral system is far less obvious. Elections provide a means not only for the citizens to direct and control their government, but also for the government to direct and control the mass citizenry. By producing public acquiescence to the act of governing, elections empower governments to act. Elections also produce political order out of potential chaos.
Elections can be very worthwhile institutions. They stabilize and regularize popular participation in government, and can provide decisive results about which leaders will direct the government. Elections remain indispensable links between the public and government. An electoral system’s central objectives must be political order, high voting participation, liberty and accountability. Electoral systems have great consequences for the democratic qualities of any constitutional government.
The author of this article, Monte McMurchy is a member of the Editorial Board of Read-Online.Org. He is a member of UNDP Democratic Governance Roster For Electoral Systems, Member of UNDP Expert Roster For Crisis Prevention and Recovery, and Member of UNDP Expert Roster For Parliamentary Development. He has 20+ years international experience in Civic Electoral Building and Civil Capacity Good Governance Development under the aegis of CIDA-USAID-OSCE-CoE-Commonwealth-UNDP-UN.(Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the editorial position of Read-Online.Org