How Can We Evaluate if an Election Is Free and Fair?

Last updated October 27, 2020.

Elections are the essence of democracy. They allow people to select their political leaders and then to hold them accountable.1 But organizing a free and fair election—which accurately measures the will of the people—is more complex than it might seem, as is managing a peaceful transfer of power after the election. In the past 100 years, only about half of the world’s countries have managed to transfer power peacefully to a new leader after holding an election.  

Many Americans are concerned about the upcoming 2020 presidential elections and the challenges of organizing an election during a pandemic, such as the potential for delays in counting absentee ballots and the pressures on the postal system caused by increased voting by mail. These logistical challenges are further complicated by accusations of voter fraud and concerns about voter intimidation2 or unrest during a transfer of power. It is important to note that despite past and current challenges around voting and voting rights in the United States, the country has successfully managed 11 peaceful transitions of power since the beginning of the twentieth century. While there are important actions that individuals, journalists, and politicians can take to strengthen democratic institutions, the United States has a strong record of respecting the results of elections.

This Teaching Idea uses our Free and Fair Elections Explainer to help students to reflect on the importance of elections, define the phrase “free and fair elections,” and learn about the strengths and weaknesses of electoral systems in their region.

  1. Why Is It Important for Your Country, State, or Town to Hold Elections?

    Ask students to reflect on the importance of elections in their journals using the following prompts:
    • Why do countries hold elections?
    • Why do elections matter to you and your community?

    Remote Learning Note: Use our teaching strategy Journaling in a Remote Learning Environment for guidance on how to set up journaling during remote learning.

  2. How Do You Define the Phrase “Free and Fair Elections”?

    Use the Concept Maps teaching strategy to have students generate, sort, and connect their ideas about the phrase “free and fair elections” on a piece of paper. If you have colored pencils or markers, pass them out for the sort and connect stages of the strategy to help students categorize and organize their ideas.

    After students have created their initial concept maps, ask them to share their ideas in pairs or small groups, elaborating on their own maps. Then, use the Wraparound strategy to have each student share one idea with the class.

    Remote Learning Note: Ask your students to create their concept maps individually ahead of time. Then, students can share their concept maps with a small group synchronously in a virtual breakout room or asynchronously during a defined period of time in a discussion forum. Ask students to share one idea with the class, either synchronously or asynchronously, using the Wraparound (Remote Learning) strategy.

  3. How Well Does Your State Meet the Requirements of Free and Fair Elections?

    Note: This activity uses the Free and Fair Elections Explainer. Students will need to have access to the internet in order to conduct research.

    Share the Free and Fair Elections Explainer with your students. (Note: This Explainer is also available as a PDF or Google Doc.) Ask them to read the introduction and the bold headings for each section and then to write down any questions that they have about the headings.

    Use the Jigsaw teaching strategy to help your students analyze the information in the Explainer. Divide your students into seven “expert” groups, and assign each group one of the first seven sections of the Explainer. Each group should write down a summary of their section in their own words, and then research and brainstorm answers to the “ask yourself” questions at the end of their section.

    Then, place students into “teaching” groups with seven members, one from each “expert” group. Ask each student to present the summary that they wrote in their “expert” group about their section and their answers to the “ask yourself” questions. After each student presents, their group mates should ask them any questions they may have about their point. They can use the questions they wrote at the beginning of the activity.

    Finally, ask students to return to their concept maps and add any additional ideas that they have after discussing the Explainer.

    Remote Learning Note: To teach the jigsaw activity synchronously, assign students to work in small groups in virtual breakout rooms. Assign each group one section of the Free and Fair Elections Explainer. Then, assign students to new breakout rooms, this time with group members who read different sections of the Explainer.
    To teach the jigsaw activity asynchronously, assign students to small groups. Ask each group member to read a different section of the Free and Fair Elections Explainer. Students should record or write a summary of their section to share with their group members.

  4. What Actions Can We Take to Protect the Integrity of Elections?

    Ask students to choose one or more of the following prompts to reflect on, either in their journals or on an Exit Card.
    • What can I or groups in my community do to make sure elections are free and fair?
    • What can the media do to make sure elections are free and fair?
    • What can politicians do to make sure elections are free and fair?

    Remote Learning Note: Students can complete their reflections asynchronously. Ask students to submit their reflections using the Exit Card Routine.


  • 1 : Steven L. Taylor, Matthew S. Shugart, Arend Lijphart, and Bernard Grofman, A Different Democracy (Yale University Press, 2014).
  • 2 : Note: The New York Times is offering free digital subscriptions to high school students and teachers through September 2021. Without a subscription, you have access to a limited number of free articles per month.

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