Text credit: Principles of Democracy, webcast by the the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), US Department of State (https://www.ait.org.tw/infousa/zhtw/DOCS/prinDemocracy/prinDemocracy.html)
Unlike a dictatorship, a democratic government exists to serve the people, but citizens in democracies must also agree to abide by the rules and obligations by which they are governed. Democracies grant many freedoms to their citizens including the freedom to dissent and criticize the government.
Citizenship in a democracy requires participation, civility, and even patience.
• Democratic citizens recognize that they not only have rights, they have responsibilities. They recognize that democracy requires an investment of time and hard work — a government of the people demands constant vigilance and support by the people.
• Under some democratic governments, civic participation means that citizens are required to serve on juries, or give mandatory military or civilian national service for a period of time. Other obligations apply to all democracies and are the sole responsibility of the citizen — chief among these is respect for law. Paying one’s fair share of taxes, accepting the authority of the elected government, and respecting the rights of those with differing points of view are also examples of citizen responsibility.
• Democratic citizens know that they must bear the burden of responsibility for their society if they are to benefit from its protection of their rights.
• There is a saying in free societies: you get the government you deserve. For democracy to succeed, citizens must be active, not passive, because they know that the success or failure of the government is their responsibility, and no one else’s. In turn, government officials understand that all citizens should be treated equally and that bribery has no place in a democratic government.
• In a democratic system, people unhappy with their leaders are free to organize and peacefully make the case for change — or try to vote those leaders out of office at established times for elections.
• Democracies need more than an occasional vote from their citizens to remain healthy. They need the steady attention, time, and commitment of large numbers of their citizens who, in turn, look to the government to protect their rights and freedoms.
• Citizens in a democracy join political parties and campaign for the candidates of their choice. They accept the fact that their party may not always be in power.
- They are free to run for office or serve as appointed public officials for a time.
- They utilize a free press to speak out on local and national issues.
- They join labor unions, community groups, and business associations.
- They join private voluntary organizations that share their interests — whether devoted to religion, ethnic culture, academic study, sports, the arts, literature, neighborhood improvement, international student exchanges, or a hundred other different activities.
- All these groups — no matter how close to, or remote from government — contribute to the richness and health of their democracy.
Free and Fair Elections
Free and fair elections allow people living in a representative democracy to determine the political makeup and future policy direction of their nation’s government.
• Free and fair elections increase the likelihood of a peaceful transfer of power. They help to ensure that losing candidates will accept the validity of the election’s results and cede power to the new government.
• Elections alone do not assure democracy since dictators can use the resources of the state to tamper with the election process.
• Free and fair elections require:
- Universal suffrage for all eligible men and women to vote — democracies do not restrict this right from minorities, the disabled, or give it only to those who are literate or who own property.
- Freedom to register as a voter or run for public office.
- Freedom of speech for candidates and political parties — democracies do not restrict candidates or political parties from criticizing the performance of the incumbent.
- Numerous opportunities for the electorate to receive objective information from a free press.
- Freedom to assemble for political rallies and campaigns.
- Rules that require party representatives to maintain a distance from polling places on election day — election officials, volunteer poll workers, and international monitors may assist voters with the voting process but not the voting choice.
- An impartial or balanced system of conducting elections and verifying election results — trained election officials must either be politically independent or those overseeing elections should be representative of the parties in the election.
- Accessible polling places, private voting space, secure ballot boxes, and transparent ballot counting.
- Secret ballots — voting by secret ballot ensures that an individual’s choice of party or candidate cannot be used against him or her.
- Legal prohibitions against election fraud — enforceable laws must exist to prevent vote tampering (e.g. double counting, ghost voting).
- Recount and contestation procedures — legal mechanisms and processes to review election processes must be established to ensure that elections were conducted properly.
• Voting methods — varying by country and even within countries — include:
- Paper ballots — votes are marked on or punched through paper.
- Ballots with pictures of candidates or party symbols so that illiterate citizens may cast the correct vote.
- Electronic systems — voters use touch-screen or push-button machines.
- Absentee ballots — allowing those who will not be able to vote on election day to cast their ballots prior to the election.