A short preamble for the reason of the question:

During the existence of the German Democratic Republic the population had not only the right to vote, they had the obligation to vote - a composed list of candidates. The approval of the list was very easy, you only needed to throw in an unmarked vote. The citizens were proud to show their decision so they demonstratively ignored the polling booths. It should be said that usage of the polling booths was completely voluntarily, there were absolutely no repercussions to expect during the election. To show disapproval, you only needed to add your concerns to the vote which were duly noted.

So even during the protests 1989, one year before the end of the GDR, the leading party claimed 98,85 % "yes" votes with a voter turnout of 98,78 %. Those people saying that they checked the votes and found massive discrepancies, well, don't you trust the leading party ?!

It seems that.."authoritative regimes" have a massive problem with their self image that they put out those ridiculous numbers. My experience is that if in a multi-party system a party gets over 50%, it's champagner time and if they would get over 66%, the party leaders would sell their soul and their grandmothers as give-away.

Which leads to the question:

To get a realistic picture what approval rates are possible for democratic votes with a great number of voters, what is the highest ever win achieved in a democratic decision ?

Elections are preferred, but I am interested in every important decision.

Voter condition:
At least 20% of the population in a given area (state/country), at least 500 000 people.

Vote conditions:

  • Fair (No tricks like gerrymandering allowed)
  • Free (No obligation, no pressure to vote)
  • Equal (Everyone has exactly one vote)
  • Secret (The enthusiasm for a political goal still allowed the people to vote secretly and there were no repercussions against polling booths).
  • Direct (The decision does not need intermediaries. This kills US presidential voting with electors).
  • I think there are at least three different possible answers here: 1. in a referendum. 2. Max in a general election in (effective) two-party systems. 3. Max in a general election with several parties. – andejons Aug 10 '16 at 8:49
  • 1
    I've seen referendums pass with approval rates in the high 90s. These are generally things like "change the language used to be gender-neutral" or "formally codify current practice" where everyone agrees it's a good idea, but the rules still require a formal vote. – Mark Aug 10 '16 at 23:40

The French presidential election of 1848 will likely catch your interest. This direct popular vote saw Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte win with 74.44% of the votes. (No idea what the turnout was.) He was the first (and only) president of the 2nd French Republic. He was blocked by the Constitution and by the Parliament from running for a second term, so did a coup in 1851 and took the throne as Napoleon III in 1852. It had a durable impact on French politics: the fear of popular politicians gaining dictatorial control over the country through plebiscite votes led France to avoid direct elections until De Gaulle a century later.

The French Presidential elections of 2002 were a bit peculiar but might also be a good answer for your question. The second round of the two round direct presidential election saw the winning candidate get 82.21% of votes with a 79.71% participation rate.

The latter pitted (right wing) Jacques Chirac, then President, against (far right wing) Jean Marie Le Pen. Chirac was then quite unpopular, but still seen as the lesser of two evils by the country - left included, and its electors basically showed up en mass to form a barrage against Le Pen.

Depending on the commentator, the final score was either commended as a clear message in favor of democracy and tolerance, or mocked as approaching banana republic levels. Needless to say, Chirac had no legitimacy whatsoever after the vote, and the Elysée Palace received a number of unused "Le Pen" bulletins sent by enraged left wing voters to remind Chirac that they voted against rather than in favor.

In the follow-up legislatives elections, Chirac's party went on to successfully campaign against a new period of cohabitation, against a left in shambles (its leader, Jospin, quit politics on the spot) that was campaigning for the opposite. It too was very much a for/against vote.

  • Its debatable how much of a legitimate democratic election 1848 was, since that government essentially came to power by winning a revolution. When I analyzed French Elections I argued for throwing out the first one of the 3rd Republic for similar reasons. If the first USA POTUS "election" had been a real direct election, I'd argue against including that one too. – T.E.D. Aug 10 '16 at 14:32
  • 2
    ...of course one problem with this argument of mine is that if you want to argue some other country isn't a real democracy based on this analysis, you have to wait until their second election. – T.E.D. Aug 10 '16 at 14:33
  • Upvoing though, because you independently arrived at the same answer I did, and your analysis of the aftermath of a "non-democratic" election in an otherwise functioning democracy is wonderful. :-) – T.E.D. Aug 10 '16 at 14:35
  • 1
    +1, very good examples. The result of the second vote (Chirac vs. le Pen) was quite predictable as soon as the results of the first ballot were known. I remember Chirac being interviewed on the spot (in the evening right after 20:00) and it was a good thing he had ears otherwise his smile would have made it around his head. He knew he was the next president. – WoJ Aug 13 '16 at 18:35

Switzerland practices direct democracy and has many votings.

There is a list of Swiss federal referendums at wikipedia with the results. The results are listed in the German version. A short translation help of the columns:

  • Beteiligung = voter participation
  • Anteil Ja-Stimmen: Yes-votes.

Some results with high yes vote (>80%):

  • 11.03.2012: 87% yes with 43% voter participation Regelung der Geldspiele zugunsten gemeinnütziger Zwecke (regulation of gambling for charitable uses).
  • 18.05.2014: 88% yes (54% participation), about primary health care
  • 21.05.2006 85% yes (27% participation)
  • 2.03.2000 86% (41%): justice reform
  • 10.03.1996 91% yes (30% participation) Affiliation of Vellerat to Jura

There is one problem on this numbers and your question: You can only decide yes/no (or invalid?). So all votes are normally shared between two possibilities.

  • While it does not have many options, at least we have now an overview how good can it get during referendums. Together with andejons answer it seems that 90% is definitely reachable if the consensus is strong enough. – Thorsten S. Aug 9 '16 at 20:54
  • Even 99.8% is reachable, although in smaller constituencies. See my answer. – Pere Nov 29 '20 at 10:14

There's an assumption in your question, that free and democratic voting can't result in very high percentage wins. In addition to whether it's free and fair, it also depends on the voting system and the choices being voted for.

There's an important observation in economics known as Hotelling's law that's applicable to political elections. The premise is that:

Suppose that there are two competing shops located along the length of a street running north and south. Each shop owner wants to locate his shop such that he maximises his own market share by drawing the largest number of customers. In this example, the shop itself is the 'product' considered and both products are equal in quality and price. There is no difference in product to the customers. Customers are spread equally along the street. Therefore, considering the prices are exactly the same, each customer will always choose the nearest shop because there is no difference in product.

The law predicts that, when the number of choices is limited to two, those two choices will tend to become similar and towards the middle in order to maximise their voters. This is the reason why two-party voting systems produce two parties that are very much alike, and where the winners tend to win just over 50% of the votes (discounting anomalies like protest votes). You may have heard such observations being applied to the American voting system.

However, when the number of choices isn't limited to two, the "winner" can get even less of the total votes. For example, in the 2013 German federal election, the winning party won 42% of the votes, despite this result being the best in decades for the party.

Another counterexample is referenda, where the choices are fixed and mostly immutable. As the other answers noted, there are many referenda where the winning choice won overwhelmingly.

  • At the local level, multi-party situations can lead to very low winning totals. In the last UK general election, one seat was won with <25% of the vote - en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/… ; in 1992, another in Scotland was effectively a four-way marginal (four parties ranging from 22.6% to 26%). Definitely weird situations! – Andrew Aug 10 '16 at 17:26
  • 1
    Was the question changed? Because this is not an answer. – Robert Tausig Nov 16 '18 at 21:07

Your goal seems to be to establish good bounds for what a reasonable margin for a "big victory" looks like in a national election for a single leader in a functioning Democracy. Not a lot of Democratic countries actually have direct elections for Head of State. The two most prominent I know of are the USA and France.

I know you specified direct election, not electors, so we will ignore the messy issue of the USA Electoral College. Even though that exists as a mechanic, USA presidential elections (after 1866) do have their overall vote totals calculated and publicly available. So we can still look at those, and ignore the details of what the Electoral College decided to do with the votes that were cast. There is still the priviso that we have to start looking after the 14th Amendment, since before then some states simply appointed electors rather than holding an election.

The largest margin of victory since 1866 in a presidential election was a 26.1% margin of victory for Warren Harding in the 1920 election. His actual raw percentage of the vote was 60.3%, which was bested slightly a couple of times. The record holder there is Lyndon Johnson in 1964 with 61.1% of the vote (and a 22.6% margin over Barry Goldwater).

Comments from user @andejons mentioned France, which is one of the few other western countries I'm aware of that has a nationwide vote for a Head of State. Since the foundation of the current French Republic there have been two "blowout" elections. The first one (which we probably ought not to count. The next opponent wikipedians couldn't even dig up a photo for), and the election of 2002, where the opponent was largely viewed as a neo-Nazi. The latter was won by a whopping 64.4% margin (with 82.2% of the vote). That probably takes the cake for the largest victory in an indisputably Democratic direct head-of-state election ever.

Aside from those two exceptional circumstances, the largest ever margin of victory in a French Presidential election (for the current Republic) was in 1969, where 16.4%, with the winner Pompidou getting 58.2% of the vote. Both lower than the USA records, but we have less French elections to use as data points.

Based on this, I think its fair to say that if we are looking at a first-past-the-post national election for a single leader, in a legit Democracy the largest margin of victory you should see should be somewhere in the 20's, and largest total vote % in the 60's. If you see something significantly higher than that, something fishy is going on. Most likely the voters did not think voting for the next best candidate was really an option.

  • 3
    @MarkC.Wallace - That's why I reported raw vote totals, rather than electoral college votes. In theory these totals don't mean anything about who actually won (for instance, the raw vote winner lost the election in 2000), but for the purposes of seeing what such margins look like in a Democracy, I don't see why they wouldn't be considered valid. But I guess I should address that more in the answer, since it was specifically addressed in the question. – T.E.D. Aug 9 '16 at 18:20
  • @T.E.D Giving the raw vote count is completely acceptable. What I really find irritating is (if I understand the page correctly) that the electorals result are 486/538 votes which is a whopping 90.3%.For me as outsider at least the presidential election process seems to be a bit broken if we have a discrepancy of nearly 30% between the public opinion and the effective result.... – Thorsten S. Aug 9 '16 at 20:44
  • 1
    @ThorstenS. - I've seen it argued this is a feature, as it makes our typically close elections look more definitive, giving the President Elect more of an air of legitimacy. To be sure, if it is a feature, its entirely an accidental one. – T.E.D. Aug 9 '16 at 21:27
  • 1
    @T.E.D. Perhaps. But the US system is also such that it encourages the formation of two, roughly equal parties - but equal in terms of electors. How would this affect which results in terms of popular votes are probable? Difficult to say. So, looking at the first rounds of French elections might be better to see if 88 % is laughably fake, or just very unlikely. – andejons Aug 10 '16 at 14:06
  • 2
    @andejons - Discussing this with you, it occurred to me that France actually has nationwide first-past-the-post elections for Head of State as well. Very few western countries do that. I've added an analysis of their elections under the current Republic as well. Full credit to you, I think that's made this answer immensely better. – T.E.D. Aug 10 '16 at 14:16

The 2013 Falkland Islands sovereignty referendum yielded a 99.8% for British sovereignty. Runner ups are 1967 Gibraltar sovereignty referendum with 99.64% and the 2020 Gibraltar sovereignty referendum with 98.97%.

That level of support is uncommon because referendums are often deemed unnecessary when its outcome is clear in advance - that is, a parliament would yield the same decision and it would be unlikely that it were contested. Referendums for questions with nearly unanimous support are only held where there is a need to show that unanimous support.

  • The results of the 1920 referendums in East Prussia were also quite one-sided: .en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1920_East_Prussian_plebiscite – Jan Nov 29 '20 at 14:37
  • @Jan - According to your link, it may not have been free enough to qualify as free election. – Pere Nov 29 '20 at 15:22
  • Given that this was overseen by the very same Allies that had just defeated Germany in WWI, I think it is justified to assume that "according to several Polish sources" in the article is the equivalent to "according to several Republican sources" when discussing the recent US presidential elections. – Jan Nov 29 '20 at 17:40
  • Another referendum: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1993_Eritrean_independence_referendum – Jan Nov 29 '20 at 17:45
  • @Jan - This one may be a better answer to the question because it meets the question requirement for number of votes and fairness. – Pere Nov 29 '20 at 17:48

I would submit the Swedish general election of 1968, where the Social democratic party achieved 50,1 % of the (raw) votes, with a voter turnout of almost 90 % (they had achieved even more in 1940, but then war conditions made for some small infractions against the communist party and a lower turnout than usual).

As for referendums, I would cite the Norway referendum for approving the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905, but there were less than the required 500 000 voters, and women had no suffrage. Still, it achieved an impressive 99,95 % approval.

  • 1
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_referendum,_1967_(Aboriginals) The amendments were overwhelmingly endorsed, winning 90.77% of votes cast and carrying in all six states. – pugsville Aug 9 '16 at 11:53
  • Yes, I would think that referendums in general will have higher numbers. For starters, most general elections have more than the two or three possible answers that are ususal in general referendums. – andejons Aug 9 '16 at 12:56
  • Given that the Norwegians had approximately 2 Mio. citizens during 1905, even without women voting there should be ~1 Mio males. Why then only 368 000 votes with claimed 85% voter turnout ?. Even with an age pyramid at least 60/70% of the people should be eglible to vote. – Thorsten S. Aug 9 '16 at 20:58
  • 1
    @T.E.D. 50,1 % is huge in a parliamentary election with several parties. In what is effectively two-party systems, it might not look that impressive, but in a system with proportional representation and several parties, I don't think you can find many other examples of a party achieving an own majority. – andejons Aug 10 '16 at 8:45
  • @ThorstenS. I don't know how the Norwegian system worked at that time, but my guess would be that there were additional constraints on who could vote - e.g. a income requirement. – andejons Aug 10 '16 at 8:47

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.