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Do Elections Make Democracies?


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


Elections are the most important instrument for modern democracies. It is impossible to imagine how Abraham Lincoln’s famous promise of a government of the people, by the people and for the people could be implemented without universal voting rights. Moreover, elections are a global phenomenon: no country today functions without them. Herein lies an interesting conundrum: after taking a closer look, we come to the realization that elections also determine governments in non-democratic regimes. Why is it then that we think of elections as the most important component of democratic governance? In a time when an increasing number of people decide to abstain from voting, or elect populists, can we still argue that Election Day is the peak of democracy?

In this research seminar, we use the contested history of elections to problematize its relationship with democracy. Not taking for granted that elections inevitably serve democratic decision-making processes, we use Europe’s diverse history to investigate the contested history of elections from the first suffrage rights extension to the discussions about populism today. This perspective is encouraged by a critical discussion of the literature where we will contrast simplified accounts of elections with “new” political history. We investigate what contemporaries thought about elections, and why they decided to extend suffrage rights to new groups. New research suggests that, initially, elections were used to consolidate the old, undemocratic order. In the nineteenth century, when elections were increasingly associated with popular politics, it remained an instrument of exclusion. In the early twentieth century, elections became increasingly linked with democratic governments, also in connection with its extension to women. We also investigate why elections formed an essential feature of post-war non-democratic regimes, like Franco’s Spain.

The course intends to contribute to current debates about populisms. The nineteenth-century distrust of ordinary people’s participation in government is, to some extent, reflected in today’s discussion about populism. Hence, the seminar also includes discussion of political science and political theory literature. This is also a way to encourage students to critically reflect on the role of historians in these current debates.

To start the course students will have to hand in a take-home exam (questions can be found on the blackboard site of the course, hand in during first class).

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;
  2. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;
  3. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical pr)blem;
  4. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  5. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;
  6. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;
  7. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;
  8. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;
  9. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;
  10. (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subtrack as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following; in the specialisation Politics, Culture and National Identities, 1789 to the Present: political practices, symbols and perceptions, nationalism, and national identities in a cultural and societal context from 1800;
  2. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation Politics, Culture and National Identities, 1789 to the Present: international comparison and transfer; the analysis of the specific perspectives of secondary studies; a cultural-historical approach of politics and a political-historical approach of culture.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  1. Has acquired basic knowledge and understanding of the history of elections in Europe since the early 19th century;
  2. Has acquired a thorough understanding of the concept of elections, its contestes historical nature, and its relationship to democracy;
  3. Has acquired in depth knowledge of one particular case study;
  4. Has acquired the ability to use a more complex corpus of sources in comparison to regular MA students; and/or the ability to set up and carry out original research which raises new questions, pioneers new approaches and/or and points to new directions for future research.


The timetables are available through MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)

This means that students must attend every session of the course. Students who are unable to attend must notify the lecturer beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the lecturer will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, the student will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Written paper (6500-7500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 12-15 (ResMA also: 9 and 16)

  • Entry test
    measured learning objectives: 13-14

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-7, 15

  • Participation in class and online
    measured learning objectives: 1-2, 8, 11-14


  • Written paper: 70 %

  • Oral presentation: 10%

  • Participation (incl. entry test): 20%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the entry test and written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised. 

Reading list

The readings for this course will be listed on Brightspace prior to the start of this course.


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.


  • For course related questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga.


Not applicable.