This article discusses criticisms of political systems, specifically representative democracy and direct democracy, that use elections as a tool for selecting representatives and/or deciding policy through a formal voting process as well as the act of voting itself. While representative democracy (and electoral systems in general) have become the modern civics global-standard, many of the below criticisms describe alternatives that existed before and/or independently of electoral systems. This includes but is not limited to the actions and political movements that stem from anti-electoralism, which describes activism around encouraging people not to vote for ethical or ideological reasons. It is also important to differentiate between criticisms of representative government and elections. Several of the following criticisms can be applied to both; however, the election of representatives and the consequences of the process on accountability of elected officials are the main focuses. This article does not address criticisms of neither "electoralism", the term coined by Terry Karl nor voter suppression, which is the act of discouraging or preventing people from voting in order to influence the outcome of an election in your favor. Criticisms of electoral politics range from cons of specific electoral mechanisms such as legislating by elected officials, initiative, referendum and recall to theoretical opposition to voting. These criticisms are relevant to discussions around electoral reform in both democratizing countries in the less developed world as well as most developed countries that espouse some form of electoral democracy.
Today, the popularity of electoral systems in the Western hemisphere has made them a widely accepted benchmark for democracy and citizen participation around the world. For that reason, scholarly work surrounding alternatives to electoral politics or ideologies in opposition to voting are either fairly limited or not legitimatized by accepted studies or empirical work. Scholarly work from universities surrounding electoral politics tends to focus on improvements, especially electoral reform, based on the assumption that a completely separate alternative could not function in modern society.
Anarchists and some other libertarians typically argue against the legitimacy of political representation although most libertarians accept the concept of delegation. This is primarily due to their belief that majority rule voting systems will erode the liberty of social and political minorities. Libertarians argue that any truly just political system must include voluntary association to prevent the oppressive enforcement of law. Additionally, libertarians argue that the election of representatives creates a priest-class of political administrators while disempowering and alienating the general public, for which voting is a highly mediated form of political engagement that diverts energy away from more effective means of political and social reform (or, for some anarchists, revolution in the form of Direct Action). Some libertarians argue that representation is philosophically impossible due to the unique nature of each individual, distinct from social, political, and economic class interests.
Many anti-statists believe that the act of voting itself symbolizes delegate power that they themselves cannot possess. Social anarchists support consensus-based direct democracy as an alternative to an electoral system, and direct action as a means to implement decisions made individually or collectively. Mainstream evolutionary anarchists typically oppose participation in elections or democratic institutions. They believe in the effectiveness of efforts outside of the electoral process, such as mass demonstrations, strikes, occupations, resistance against laws, virtual participatory-based campaigns, etc. Notorious 20th century anarchist Emma Goldman was famously quoted as saying, "If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal."
Revolutionary communists generally argue against elections under capitalism as being, at best, insufficient for revolutionary change, and at worst as diverting the personal, economic, and mental resources of the working class individual towards dead end politics when that same energy could be used to foment a communist revolution and create a proletarian dictatorship. Communists see the global-standard status of elections in the current world as clear evidence that market society has entrenched itself and been, for the moment, completely victorious over armed struggle and other truly grassroots forms of change. For Marxists, the overthrow of the entire ruling class means not just a seizure of their state power, but the establishment of an entirely different sort of state, one structured to protect working class control of production—such a fundamental change, it is usually argued, cannot take place within the electoral system of a state designed foremost for the protection of private property.
This is not, however, a critique of elections in general, and most communists hold that elections of some sort are compatible or even necessary for workers' democracy. Friedrich Engels argued that a Communist society could only exist with a representative constitution. Election of leaders at the local level and, in turn, for wider leadership on the global level, would to a communist undoubtedly make fully participatory elections absolutely necessary. However, the difference under such circumstances as compared to capitalism would be that communist elections would reject the representative democracy model as a residual of capitalism; that model, in the view of communists, would make it more likely for the new society to revert to profit and the market if fully participatory democracy were not pursued.
It is also not the case that Marxists necessarily shun capitalist elections altogether. The question of whether fighting for reforms is worthwhile and, if so, how much energy should be devoted to them has been an ongoing debate within Marxism from the beginning, and a broad spectrum of positions has resulted. Communists may consider some reforms within capitalism to be tactically important—a civil rights struggle, for instance, may help to overcome divisions that hurt and weaken all workers. In the most extreme cases of "reformism", a party may actively work to curb more "revolutionary" activity, whether out of momentary caution or genuine commitment to other methods—during the 1968 General Strike of France, Marxist and Communist Parties urged workers to return to their jobs, and express their dissatisfaction with the power of voting. On the other hand, groups such as the Progressive Labor Party make a point of abstaining completely from elections. Finally, many Marxist parties run candidates without regard to their chances of winning, purely as a means of disseminating their message.
|“||Even in advanced democracies, there are concerns about electoral systems being inadequately free, competitive, or fair. Complaints are made about financial barriers to running for office; electoral advantages that come with incumbency; systemic difficulties of mounting viable third-party candidates; the role that corporate money and inadequately-regulated television advertising play in determining who is elected; the hurdles erected to keep poor, marginalized, and unsophisticated citizens from successfully registering and voting; the intentional, competition-reducing gerrymandering of districts; and even inadequacies in the mechanics of casting and counting ballots.||”|
|— Alex Guerrero, "Against Elections: The Lottocratic Alternative," (4)|
The promotion of good governance and responsiveness are often cited as the two main justifications for a system of elected representatives. According to Alex Guerrero, these make up mechanisms for meaningful accountability. He argues that in order for these to exist, elections must be free, regular, competitive and fair. Without this perfect system, officials are likely to be able to avoid accountability mechanisms that should be built into the democratic system. Citizens' ability to monitor the behaviors of their representatives and therefore vote or protest in line with their own values is also diminished by conduct, issue, and broad and narrow evaluative ignorance. This is particularly important because many political problems are information intensive. Guerrero argues that political power is actually more important for interest groups the less it is connected to constituent preferences; therefore, less accountability to constituents may be the easier and cheaper option for representatives. The interests exercise the voting process by either influencing the elections and those elected.
Rational ignorance is a theory based on the idea that there is not adequate enough incentive for voters to educate themselves fully on political issues. The theory explains that the expected benefits of this information are so small, that, for several voters, the reward of informed elections is not worth the cost. This is an inherent flaw in mass popular elections, when the majority of constituents have a reason not to vote in a manner that holds elected official completely accountable.
In many developing and transitioning countries, electoral fraud is at least anecdotally present. More recently, in developed countries, especially in the Western Hemisphere, voter fraud has become a hot-button political issues. In several circumstances, however, the broader ideological concerns surrounding voter fraud focus on the idea that fraud or any form of misrepresentation is inherent in the electoral system.
For several scholars who oppose the electoral system, the existence of democratic deficient organizations that do not aid in fulfilling the participatory conditions of representative democracy is a driving factor in their criticism. Colin Crouch argues in Post Democracy that focus on electoral politics detracts from the power of issue- and cause-based outside groups like large international organizations and smaller grassroots coalitions. He states that citizens engaging with these organizations provides more means to become involved in the political process than simply helping politicians get elected. This is especially true in the era of modern technology. This speaks to larger issues with the American pluralist system and the impact of lobbying groups on elections.