According to this answer by Anixx

In the ancient world, democracy or oligarchical republics existed only in city-states because it was unfeasible to conduct elections in a large country and potentially could lead to a civil war between the cities.

At what point in history did it first become logistically feasible for a large country (e.g. an empire, kingdom, or a nation-state, not just a city-state) to conduct a universal election to choose a government? What was the specific technology or development that allowed it?

I am not referring to the date universal suffrage was first extended. I believe some nation chose not to extend the right to vote to people of certain race/gender, despite universal election was technically feasible.

  • I think you'll find the US Electoral College system interesting. As it deals with the problem of distance and time by using electors: Electoral Colleges
    – Nathan
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 10:46
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    @NathanCooper: I think you misunderstand the purpose of the electoral college, because it wasn't set up so much because of logistic problems (if it were, the same would have applied to elections for the House), but for the purpose of checks and balances. There's no room in a comment to expand on it, so I can only recommend the Federalist Papers, and in particular #68. If anything, it is quite a pity how irrelevant it has been made these days.
    – Dolda2000
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 15:53
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    The first-past-the-post system common to most Westminster-style democracies eliminates the logistical issues with holding elections in a large country. Consequently the English House of Commons could hold effective elections from the time of the Parliaments of the late 13th century: britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/128885/House-of-Commons Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 17:05
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    Citizens of the Icelandic Free State sent their chieftans to represent them at the Althing starting somewhere around the year 900.
    – user18968
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 1:00

3 Answers 3


First of all, I don't really buy the premise that elections were often limited to city states mainly because of logistical problems. I would rather argue that it was because the polis was the primary societal identification for most freemen in the Mediterranean lands, and therefore it was natural for the people of each city-state to want to govern their own affairs. Recall that the Greeks were organizing Olympic Games between the various Greek city-states as early as the 8th century BC. It is hard to imagine there to be a far step from there to holding elections, if they had so wanted to.

As to when, more precisely, "large scale" elections first took place, that's a bit of a matter of definition. To begin with, clearly, in Ye Olden Tymes, countries were overall far lesser in terms of population than they are today, so in that way it isn't really comparable at all. It also depends a bit on just how "centralized" you want to specify the elections to be, and the nature of the assemblies being elected. Here are some examples of elections which affected larger areas:

  • The classical example is probably the English parliament, whose Commons were being elected by the boroughs from, I think, the 14th century or so (though I admit I don't know more precisely how the local elections evolved).
  • The Riksdag of Sweden was first convened in 1435, following elections in the local hundreds (which had a previous history of sending representatives to the ancient things of the various provinces).
  • The old Swiss Confederacy was established in 1291 by representatives of the founding cantons. I cannot find any precise details on exactly how the Eidgenosse were bestowed with the authority to swear for the entirety of the cantons, but it is likely that they were chosen by local Landtage or similar.
  • The Third Estate of France seems to have been elected with rather wide suffrage from the 15th century onwards, though I know very little about the details.
  • The Holy Roman Empire had complex (non-centralized) systems of representation, some of which were elected. For instance, the Free Imperial Cities elected local burgers to represent the cities at the Imperial Diets. While mixed, of course, with hereditary nobles, it's not as if the Diets didn't have elected components. Likewise, while the election was between a very small number of Kurfürsten, it should be said that the Holy Roman Emperor himself was elected by geographically widely separated electors.
  • The Christian Pope has clearly been elected from the very beginning by the bishops and/or cardinals (depending on era) of the entirety of Christendom, clearly spanning a very large geographical area. Likewise, the Ecumenical Councils were constituted of representatives from the whole of Christendom.

Some of these, particularly the English Parliament, the Swedish Riksdag and the French Estates, have evolved in rather straight lines to their modern-day descendants. Exactly when you want to draw the line for them being a "large election" is up to you. :)

There may be many more examples outside of Europe, too, but I'd be less knowledgeable about them. My spontaneous reaction to the answer you linked about China is, however, that it seems somewhat simplistic. I very much doubt China was quite as integrated as both that question and the answer make it seem, and I would not be the least bit surprised if there were assemblies of representatives of various levels organized in different ways at different times. I really wish I knew more about this.

  • Good overall answer; the only omission I can think of is how the first-past-the-post system of Westminster-style democracies addressed the logistics of elections compared to either ancient Greek and Roman elections and the proportional voting systems of modern non-Westminster-style republics. Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 3:23
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    @PieterGeerkens: Once again, I'd argue it wasn't so much intended primarily to address logistics, but simply sprang from the idea that local communities sent representatives. These were (I'd argue, better, in this regard) times where there wasn't talk about "political platforms" or parties, but where people assembled to, well, parler. To compromise, rather than "win". Under such circumstances, it isn't so much about a candidate "winning", but rather a community choosing someone to represent them. (If anything, I would think the chosen candidate would rather think of himself as having lost.)
    – Dolda2000
    Commented Apr 2, 2014 at 3:26
  • I'll admit the contrast to Greek or Roman assemblies is interesting, though, but it is probably merely due to the fact that the city-states were small enough to allow for direct democracy, whereas the gathering of the whole of England required representatives. Whether or not the logistics were possible, you can't gather hundreds of thousands of people at one assembly in a meaningful way.
    – Dolda2000
    Commented Apr 2, 2014 at 3:32

I think that @Anixx is onto something here, although I would phrase it rather differently. I'm not comfortable using the term "political party" prior to the 19th century. The meaning of the term changes around that time.

I agree that the obstacle is not logistics. Secret Ballots can be carried out even in great adversity. The obstacle is that the institutions of democracy must be stronger than the opposing institutions. I don't agree that weapons/means of control are the key. Certainly if the state is strong and committed to democracy, then the state's weapons will enforce democracy. But if the state is strong and opposed to democracy, the elections will be corrupt.

I wish I could cite a good, terse reference on the institutions needed to support democracy. Fukayama touches on the topic, as does Drezner, but in both cases the treatment is a side effect of their primary concern.

Societies with strong, successful institutions based on kinship or tribe, or based on economic class are going to have trouble conducting large scale elections. The stakeholders in these institutions are going to be reluctant to yield control to Democracy because it is less effective at ensuring the welfare of their institutional membership.

Large scale democratic elections are difficult, and need to be carried out by a powerful, organized institution that is organized and committed to democracy. That's not easy to do.


The main obstacle to universal election is not logistics as such. The most difficult problem is to keep a country where there are rivalling political parties united, avoid secessions and strong in the face of the enemies who can try to utilize the conflict for their purpose.

I refer you to this answer of mine. In short, the means of control (the weapons) available to the state were constantly improving compared to the weapons available to the rebels throughout the history. It is only when the state became strong enough to control any losing party within its borders, the elections over separate areas became possible.

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