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Representative democracy is a form of government founded on the principle of elected individuals representing the people, as opposed to either autocracy or direct democracy.[1]

The representatives form an independent ruling body (for an election period) charged with the responsibility of acting in the people's interest, but not as their proxy representatives; that is, not necessarily always according to their wishes, but with enough authority to exercise swift and resolute initiative in the face of changing circumstances. It is often contrasted with direct democracy, where representatives are absent or are limited in power as proxy representatives.

In many representative democracies (Canada, Australia, UK, etc), representatives are most commonly chosen in elections by a plurality of those who are both eligible to cast votes and actually do so. A plurality means that a winning candidate has to win more votes than any other candidate in the race, but does not necessarily require a majority of the votes cast. This is not the case in Australia where the elected representatives of the house of representatives are elected by a system of preferential voting and require the support of 50% or more voters in a single round to be elected. While existing representative democracies hold such elections to choose representatives, in theory other methods, such as sortition (more closely aligned with direct democracy), could be used instead. Also, representatives sometimes hold the power to select other representatives, presidents, or other officers of government (indirect representation).

A representative democracy that emphasizes individual liberty is called a liberal democracy. One that does not is an illiberal democracy. There is no necessity that individual liberties are respected in a representative democracy.

Countries highlighted in blue are designated "electoral democracies" in Freedom House's 2010 survey Freedom in the World

Today, in liberal democracies, representatives are usually elected in multi-party elections that are free and fair. The power of representatives in a liberal democracy is usually curtailed by a constitution (as in a constitutional republic or a constitutional monarchy) or other measures to balance representative power:

The term republic may have many different meanings. Today, it often simply means a state with an elected or otherwise non-monarchical head of state, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran or Republic of Korea. It may also have a meaning similar to liberal democracy. For example, "the United States relies on representative democracy, but its system of government is much more complex than that. It is not a simple representative democracy, but a constitutional republic in which majority rule is tempered by minority rights protected by law"[2].



The major problem with representative democracies is that voter apathy is more common than political interest. This often means that governments are in power without a mandate, suggesting that they do not have electoral legitimacy, or the right to rule, while in office.

Real world representative democracies are not always that representative. Measures such as the Gallagher Index attempt to quantify the extent to which parliaments are representative. Voting based on local electorates tends to creates a high degree of Stratified sampling which selects parliamentarians with centrist views. As such radical views are somewhat excluded from parliamentary debates much more so that if parliamentarians were a random selection from the population.



Australia, unlike the UK or Canada, has adopted compulsory voting where citizens are required to register and vote in public elections. Those who do not vote are subject to a fine of AU$50.00 and or possible imprisonment although this rarely is the case. A voter is not required to cast a vote for a candidate and can cast what is known as an informal vote. Australia uses a single round preferential voting system. Where each candidate is ranked in order of preference. For the House of Representatives, a successful candidate requires 50% or more votes to be elected. If no candidate has 50% or more votes then the candidate(s) with the least number of votes is excluded and their votes redistributed according to the voters nominated preference. The Australian Senate is elected by a preferential Single Transferable Voting system of Proportional Representation.

United Kingdom

In the 2005 election in the United Kingdom, voter turnout was only 61.36% of the electorate, albeit an increase from the from 59.4% turnout in 2001. In the UK of late, there has been considerable discussion as to how the electoral system might be reformed to increase its representativeness. Significant proposals have included:

  1. introducing more technologically advanced, elector friendly, and secure voting/political communication methods;
  2. holding two-stage elections or run-off ballots in multi-candidate constituencies so that no candidate can get elected on the basis of just a small portion of the total vote. (Modern developments in tele-voting have enormously increased the speed and reduced the cost and effort of holding such ballots);
  3. legislating for equal-sized constituencies and adopting measures to ensure more accurate and up-to-date electoral registers;
  4. halting and reversing recent experiments in Continental European-type indirect (party proportional, corporatist) representation which reduce political competition and voter choice and influence compared with the traditional Anglo-American system of direct (territorial, local community ) representation;
  5. scrapping various protectionist-type curbs on the private funding boom and advertising of political parties;
  6. further extending the franchise; and
  7. increasing the ratio of significant elected to non-elected political posts: creating substantially more elected as opposed to appointed or hereditary positions.[3]


  1. ^ "Victorian Electronic Democracy : Glossary". 28 July 2005. Retrieved 14 December 2007. 
  2. ^ Scheb, John M. (2006). An Introduction to the American Legal System. Thomson Delmar Learning. p. 6. 
  3. ^ Lewis F. Abbott, British Democracy: Its Restoration & Extension, Industrial Systems Research Publications, Manchester (UK), 2006. ISBN 978-0-906321-31-7. Chapter seven: “Electoral System Reform: Increasing Competition & Voter Choice & Influence”.

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