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What is an Indirect Election?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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An indirect election is an election in which individual citizens vote for electors who will select a candidate. In other words, they don't vote for the candidate directly, choosing instead to put the decision in the hands of others. Indirect elections are used in a number of ways in nations around the world, and, historically, indirect elections were extremely common. The selected electors belong to a group known collectively as the electoral college.

Several nations elect their heads of state through the process of indirect election, including Hungary, Latvia, Israel, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the United States, and the Czech Republic. In other nations, indirect elections are used to select members of legislative bodies and other public officials. Some people argue that the indirect election system allows candidates to focus more on national issues, since they do not necessarily need to focus on winning the popular vote, as long as they can secure the number of electors they need in order to win. Others feel that direct elections more accurately reflect the will of the people.

Indirect elections were often used historically to take power out of the hands of the people. Historically, the right to vote was often limited to land-owning men, and these men selected legislative bodies, relying on the legislature to select a president, prime minister, and other key officials. Many nations reformed these systems as the right to vote expanded, under the argument that the people should be allowed to play a more direct role in the selection of their governors.

The indirect method is not just used in government elections. Union elections, elections of student officials in schools, and other elections may also use an indirect method. In some cases, indirect elections are used to ensure that qualified individuals are elected, as for instance when people are electing someone who will serve as an administrator. The flashiest candidate may not necessarily be the best suited to governance from an administrative point of view, and an indirect election allows the electors to choose the most qualified candidate for the position.

Electors are typically “bound” to a specific candidate or party in an indirect election, so that citizens can be confident that they are represented accurately. If an elector chooses to vote for an opponent, he or she is known as a “faithless elector,” referencing the idea that the pledge has been broken. Faithless electors may vote for opponents as a symbol of protest, or because they genuinely believe that the opponent is a better candidate.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Ivan83 — On Aug 03, 2011

I have always admired the caucus system that Iowa uses during the presidential elections. This is kind of the opposite of indirect elections, they even go beyond the classic definition of direct elections.

In this system all the members of a caucus are required to put their support behind one candidate. If 70 percent of people want candidate A and 30 percent want candidate B it is the burden of those in the majority to convince those in the minority to come over to their side. This process promotes debate, discussion and consensus. I wish that more states took such a civilized approach to the electoral process.

By truman12 — On Aug 03, 2011

I think in the debate over direct and indirect elections the judgment really comes down to who won the last one and how you felt about them. I don't think we can ever come to a rational and empirical judgment about which system is more effective. Elections are emotional processes and everyone has a stake in them. Sometimes you are happy with the result and other times you are outraged.

What I think is most important is having a mechanism in place that makes it very difficult to change the electoral process. Not impossible, just difficult. This will ensure that emotional reactions don't begin to undermine our democracy. If people are forced to get huge majorities or convince large parts of the population that a change is necessary it will inspire the kind of debate that is necessary when making a decision this big. It forces everyone to calm down and think clearly.

By subway11 — On Aug 02, 2011

@Cupcake15 - I agree and I think that both indirect and direct elections can have negative consequences. For example, in a direct election, sometimes the candidate that spends the most money is the one that usually gets their message across to more people and generally wins over the underfunded candidate.

With an indirect election, you could also have a problem with cronyism. You could have a person elected based on who they know and the relationships that they have developed rather than what they know which would be a problem if the candidate turns out to be unqualified for the job.

By cupcake15 — On Aug 01, 2011

I think that the Electoral College really makes a lot of sense because it gives all of the states equal power and representation. For example, if the presidential election allowed for the popular vote to replace the Electoral College then essentially only four states would be electing the president of the United States.

If you lived in California, New York, Texas, or Florida then your vote gets counted otherwise it doesn’t. To me this really doesn’t seem fair and it would leave the rest of the country feeling a little disenfranchised. I think that this was the best compromise to ensure that all states receive an equal chance to select a president.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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