An election is a method for choosing a person or persons to hold an office, or to choose between alternate policies, by soliciting the votes of the electors or voters of the organization. The term is mostly used in political situations, to describe the choosing of officeholders, where each of the eligible voters (electors) casts an equally-weighted vote, but can also refer to choosing officeholders by weighted votes (such as stockholders' meetings electing a Board of Directors), and to the choosing of particular policies or laws by vote. The word election can also be used to mean an event where multiple offices or policy initiatives are voted on at the same time, such as most American elections.
Elections are seen as a key feature of democracies, but many non-democratic polities have used elections among small groups to choose important leadership posts: for example, in the Catholic Church, Cardinals are appointed by the Pope, but on the death of the Pope, the Cardinals assemble to elect a new Pope. Many ancient and some medieval monarchies held elections among the members of an aristocracy to elect a new king when the reigning king died.
Elections can be held by open vote or by secret ballot. In an open vote, each person voting declares their choice publicly; in a secret ballot election, each elector submits a ballot which is marked with the voter's choice(s), but does not have any marking to identify the voter; after all the votes are submitted, the ballots are counted and the results announced. Open votes are considered more open to illicit influence, but also leave a record for the voter to be judged, while secret ballots allow people to vote freely without fear of repercussion. As a result, most democratic countries require legislators to vote openly, while using secret ballots for elections of legislators and executive officers. Preventing fraud in secret ballots can be accomplished in several ways; methods include registration of voters and limiting voters to specific polling places, and marking voters in a way which will last past the end of the election, but not be permanent.
Elections for offices often take multiple steps, as often there are more than two candidates who are likely to attract a substantial amount of the vote. In the United Kingdom, elections to Parliament are "first-past-the-post" - the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of how small a fraction of the total votes the candidate has received. In many other countries, elections contested by more than one candidate may conclude with a run-off election if the leading candidate does not receive a certain fraction of the total vote. Often, but not always, this fraction is 50%. In some places, the minimum to avoid a runoff is less than 50%, and some post-Communist countries have inherited a rule requiring candidates to receive votes from 50% of all eligible voters (which was easier when only one candidate could legally run, and legislative bodies were primarily rubber-stamps for the executive). One alternative to run-off elections is called Instant Runoff Voting or Single Transferable Vote, where voters indicate a preference order for candidates, and during vote-counting, votes cast for the least-successful vote-getter are transferred to the next choice of the voter, and the process repeated until a winner emerges. Single Transferable Vote has the advantage of not requiring the time and expense of a second election, but can be significantly more complicated to administer. Another method, used frequently in the United States, but rarely elsewhere, is the Primary election; where voters vote first to choose the candidate of a party, then vote in a general election among the candidates nominated in the primary. Primary elections can be open or closed depending whether the ability to vote in a particular party's primary is restricted to voters who have declared an affiliation before the election.
In many countries, the executive is not directly elected, but is chosen by the legislative body, who are directly elected. In the United States, the President and Vice-President are elected by an electoral college, whose members are chosen state-by-state by the voters.