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Features of a representative democracy

Updated March 23, 2017

Representative democracy characterises the governing system of the United States, as well as nations such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Although these and other countries have features specific to their own forms of government, commonalities include elected representatives and regular elections.

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Elected Representatives

The key feature of representative democracy is that the people elect officials to decide issues on their behalf. This distinguishes representative democracy from a direct, or participatory, democracy, in which all people participate directly in every public decision. The New England town meeting is an example of direct democracy, according to political scientist Thomas Dye in his book "Politics in America." Representative democracy recognises the difficulty in getting a large number of people together to decide every issue, he writes.

Regular Elections

Having elections is not enough to make a country a representative democracy. A country in which the leaders are elected for life is not an example of one. Dye points out that elections must occur on a regular basis. This allows the voters to choose new leaders if they become dissatisfied with the incumbents. The United States holds frequent elections: every two years for the entire House of Representatives and a third of the members of the Senate, who are elected for six-year terms. The U.S. elects a president every four years. The National Conference of State Legislatures, in a publication on representative democracy, points out that regular elections help keep elected officials accountable for their actions.

Other representative democracies have regular elections but without fixed terms of office. In a 2001 article, Australian Chief Justice Murray Gleeson wrote that in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, government ministers, including the prime minister, hold their offices as long as they keep the confidence of the lower house of parliament (or the sole house in unicameral New Zealand).

Bicameral Legislature

Four of the world's five leading representative democracies--the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom--have a national legislature or parliament with two houses, or chambers. The fifth country, New Zealand, is unicameral, with only one house of parliament. All five nations choose representatives through popular election but the four nations with bicameral legislatures select their upper houses in different ways. The U.S. and Australia choose senators by popular vote, while in the U.K., members of the nobility serve in the House of Lords. In Canada, meanwhile, regional governors choose members of the upper house on the prime minister's advice.

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About the Author

Shane Hall

Shane Hall is a writer and research analyst with more than 20 years of experience. His work has appeared in "Brookings Papers on Education Policy," "Population and Development" and various Texas newspapers. Hall has a Doctor of Philosophy in political economy and is a former college instructor of economics and political science.

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