Voting, which can take many forms, influences the allocation of power at many different levels of office. The most prominent form of voting selects politicians and parties contending for national office and provides ordinary citizens with the opportunity to weigh the performance of incumbents and decide whether to reelect them or vote in new officeholders. This system of reward or punishment gives ordinary people power over the political process by determining how political power is configured for the next few years.
While voting in national elections is most conspicuous, citizens have many additional occasions for the opportunity to vote, including state, provincial, or regional elections; local elections; referendums (very common in Switzerland); and initiatives (prominent in California and some other U.S. states). These elections generally attract much lower turnout and attention than national elections, relatively little hinges on their outcomes, and citizens often do not pay much attention to them.
Voting can play an effective role in equalizing political participation. Whereas other forms of political participation (such as joining a political party or contacting a politician) are somewhat demanding in terms of time, resources, and skills, voting is an activity easily available to most citizens. For this reason, many other forms of political participation are skewed toward the wealthy and highly educated. In contrast, voting involves an extremely wide variety of individuals, many who participate in politics in no other way but through voting, and working-class parties often mobilize those who would be excluded from participation on the basis of their resources. Voting, then, is seen by many as the sine qua non of political participation. For ordinary citizens who may not participate in politics beyond the ballot box, it is one of the very few ways they can exert power over their political leaders. Voting is an opportunity for all citizens to express their preferences and voice their grievances.
While the origins of voting date back several thousand years, voting rights expanded rapidly in the 19th century, when many countries extended voting rights to those who did not own property, and in the 20th century, when women and many minorities obtained the right to vote and the legal voting age was reduced to 18 in many democracies. In the wave of democratization in the late 20th century, many former subjects became voting citizens.
Electoral systems determine how the electorate's votes are translated into political power. In majoritarian systems, voters typically choose between two major political parties and give one of them governing authority, which it may exercise with little constraint if its majority is large or within narrow limits if its majority is small. In proportional representation systems, such as are common on the European continent, voters typically can choose among several parties; typically, none can govern on its own, forcing parties to form coalition governments. Other institutional characteristics, such as the relatively costly registration laws in many U.S. states, can influence how many (and which) citizens actually vote. In a few established democracies (notably Australia and Belgium) voting is compulsory.
In the 21st century, various concerns about voting have arisen. Voter turnout has declined in many established democracies, prompting concerns about who exactly is voting and the representativeness of the active electorate. A particular concern with new and emerging democracies relates to the limitations of voting when not accompanied by a free press or a healthy civil society. Another debate concerns the argument that the importance of voting has lessened as a more cognitively capable electorate express themselves in more sophisticated ways. Rather than the relatively low-impact activity of voting, new political actions such as protesting or working together with others on political issues may have a greater and increasing impact. Because of the low impact and infrequent nature of voting in national elections, some have called for greater citizen input between elections by means of protesting, contacting politicians, and other forms of citizen advocacy. Some call for more frequent referendums or other means to formalize these processes by creating direct democracy, wherein citizens have greater input into political decision making. That said, the importance of voting remains unrivalled in terms of the numbers of people who participate. It is the one occasion in the election cycle when most of the public pay at least some attention to politics. For this reason, parties and candidates spend much of their time trying to capture people's vote.
The study of elections—sometimes called psephology—has enhanced our understanding of the reasons why people vote or fail to vote. National election studies, other academic surveys, and commercial and private polling can identify who is voting and identify various influences on the vote such as how trust effects voting and whether people are active in other forms of political participation. Recent comparative surveys focus on cross-national similarities or differences and institutional effects on voting. These studies are becoming more widespread and in the future will considerably enhance our understanding of what motivates voters.
Democracy, Elections, Qualified Majority Voting, Voting Paradoxes, Voting Power
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