A primary defining characteristic of democracy is the regular occurrence of free, fair, competitive elections in which practically all the people of a country can vote to select their representatives in government. Elections are not authentically democratic if there is only one candidate for each office or if only one political party is permitted to present candidates. Nor can a genuine electoral democracy stop or discourage significant numbers of persons from becoming citizens or from voting by using such onerous methods as physical intimidation, difficult procedures, and unfair tests of knowledge. If the government or a single political party controls or dominates the mass media, there cannot be the free flow of reliable information required for fair competition between rival candidates and political parties, and the consequence is a less than fully democratic election.
In the United States, there is a two-party system. Candidates from the two major political parties, Democratic and Republican, are the dominant competitors for election to positions in government, and candidates of minor political parties have little or no chance to win an election. However, minority parties can influence the outcome of an election by attracting a significant number of voters away from one of the major parties. In most democracies, there is a multiple-party system in which candidates from several political parties have a chance to win an election.
Elections in a democracy usually contribute to the stability and legitimacy of government. Citizens who participate in the elections have a sense of connection to their government and an expectation that it will be responsive to them. In return, they are likely to obey laws readily, pay taxes promptly, and contribute voluntarily to the common good of their country.
By John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide (Oxford University Press)