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A general election is a political voting election where generally all or most members of a given political body are chosen. These are usually held for a nation, state, or territory's primary legislative body, and are different from by-elections (only one electorate goes to election).
In most systems, a general election is a regularly scheduled election where both a head of government (such as president or prime minister), and either "a class" or all members of a legislature are elected at the same time. Occasionally, dates for general elections may align with dates of elections within different administrative divisions, such as a local election.
The term general election in the United Kingdom often refers to the elections held on the same day in all constituencies of their Members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons. Under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the period between one general election and the next is fixed at 5 years, unless the House of Commons passes
- A motion of no confidence in the Government sooner than that, and does not pass a motion of confidence in a new Government within 14 days, or;
- a motion, approved by two-thirds of its members, resolving that a general election should take place sooner, or;
- a proposal from the Prime Minister to reschedule an election mandated by the Act to no later than two months after the original date. or;
- An act specifically calling for a general election. This was not provided for in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Unlike the second option, this only requires a simple majority. This was used to precipitate the 2019 General Election when the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019 was passed.
The term may also be used to refer to elections to any democratically elected body in which all of the members are up for election. Section 2 of the Scotland Act 1998, for example, specifically refers to ordinary elections to the Scottish Parliament as general elections.
Originally, British elections took place over a period of several weeks, with individual constituencies holding polling on separate days. The Parliament Act 1911 introduced the requirement that elections in all parliamentary constituencies be held on the same day. There has been a convention since the 1930s that general elections in Britain should take place on a Thursday; the last general election to take place on any other weekday was that of 1931.
In U.S. politics, general elections are elections held at any level (e.g. city, county, congressional district, state) that typically involve competition between at least two parties. General elections occur every 4 years (depending on the positions being filled with most positions good for four years) and include the presidential election, but unlike parliamentary systems, the term can also refer to special elections that fill out positions prematurely vacated by the previous office holder (e.g. through death, resignation, etc.). Some parallels can be drawn between the general election in parliamentary systems and the biennial elections determining all House seats, although there is no analogue to "calling early elections" in the U.S., and the members of the elected U.S. Senate face elections of only one-third at a time at two-year intervals including during a general election.
Unlike parliamentary systems where the term general election is distinguished from by-elections or local and regional elections, the term is used in the US about and distinguished from primaries or caucuses, which are intra-party elections meant to select a party's official candidate for a particular race. Thus, if a primary is meant to elect a party's candidate for the position-in-question, a general election is meant to elect who occupies the position itself.
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