No consensus exists on how to define democracy, but legal equality, political freedom and rule of law have been identified as important characteristics. These principles are reflected in all eligible citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to legislative processes. For example, in a representative democracy, every vote has equal weight, no unreasonable restrictions can apply to anyone seeking to become a representative, and the freedom of its eligible citizens is secured by legitimised rights and liberties which are typically protected by a constitution. Other uses of "democracy" include that of direct democracy.
One theory holds that democracy requires three fundamental principles: upward control (sovereignty residing at the lowest levels of authority), political equality, and social norms by which individuals and institutions only consider acceptable acts that reflect the first two principles of upward control and political equality.
The term "democracy" is sometimes used as shorthand for liberal democracy, which is a variant of representative democracy that may include elements such as political pluralism; equality before the law; the right to petition elected officials for redress of grievances; due process; civil liberties; human rights; and elements of civil society outside the government. Roger Scruton argues that democracy alone cannot provide personal and political freedom unless the institutions of civil society are also present.
In some countries, notably in the United Kingdom which originated the Westminster system, the dominant principle is that of parliamentary sovereignty, while maintaining judicial independence. In the United States, separation of powers is often cited as a central attribute. In India, parliamentary sovereignty is subject to the Constitution of India which includes judicial review. Though the term "democracy" is typically used in the context of a political state, the principles also are applicable to private organisations.
Majority rule is often listed as a characteristic of democracy. Hence, democracy allows for political minorities to be oppressed by the "tyranny of the majority" in the absence of legal protections of individual or group rights. An essential part of an "ideal" representative democracy is competitive elections that are substantively and procedurally "fair," i.e., just and equitable. In some countries, freedom of political expression, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and internet democracy are considered important to ensure that voters are well informed, enabling them to vote according to their own interests.
It has also been suggested that a basic feature of democracy is the capacity of all voters to participate freely and fully in the life of their society. With its emphasis on notions of social contract and the collective will of all the voters, democracy can also be characterised as a form of political collectivism because it is defined as a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in lawmaking.
While representative democracy is sometimes equated with the republican form of government, the term "republic" classically has encompassed both democracies and aristocracies. Many democracies are constitutional monarchies, such as the United Kingdom.