POLYAS Election Glossary

We provide explanations and background information on elections, voting rights and digital democracy


Democracy is a term used to describe systems of government in which power ultimately lies with the people. The term itself traces its etymology back to the greek words “Demos”, meaning “people”, and “Kratos”, meaning “power”. Its opposite form of government is an autocracy, in which one person exercises absolute power.

There are many different countries today which can be described as democracies, however, their governments are not all structured in the same way. A constitutional monarchy, like the UK for example, whilst retaining an unelected head of state and an upper chamber, is nonetheless deemed to be a democracy by virtue of the fact that the elected House of Commons is the most powerful political institution in the country.

On the other hand, the democracy of the United States of America has an elected head of state and legislature, as well as a written constitution which clearly delineates the relative powers of each branch of government.

Both the UK and the US are considered forms of representative democracy, as opposed to direct democracy. Under systems of representative democracy, the populace periodically elects officials to make political decisions on their behalf.

Under systems of direct democracy, such as in certain cantons in Switzerland, citizens are frequently asked to vote on specific matters of policy through referenda, thus playing a direct role in political decision making.

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