Fear of tyranny, and a need for practicality drives most people away from direct democracy. Representative democracy is an alternative.
The following features define a typical form of representative democracy.
- Elected legislators are chosen by the citizens to represent them in a regular cycle of elections.
- In a single-member district, the candidate who wins the largest number of votes wins a seat, assuming there are at least two candidates for a single position. (There are other ways to decide the winner. See the Ballotpedia page on electoral systems.)
- Very importantly, elections are also opportunities for citizens to hold their representatives accountable for their performance.
- Elected legislators are the only people empowered to make laws. They do so through competition and collaboration to attract a majority of votes for their proposals from their fellow legislators in a congress, legislature, or parliament.
- The laws made by the legislators are carried out by an executive office of government.
- In a presidential system, the citizens elect the chief executive. In the U.S., the president is elected by the citizens indirectly through an Electoral College.
- In a parliamentary system, the chief executive is a prime minister nominated by the controlling party or party coalition in the parliament.
- The chief executive and appointed cabinet secretaries (or ministers) together administer a bureaucracy of civil service employees to do the actual work of upholding the laws made by the elected legislators.
Most modern, mature representative democracies have features that look like these, with some deviations or innovations here and there.
Excerpted from America: Republic or Democracy.
 Descriptive elements are from Diamond, L. (2003). Defining and developing democracy. In R. Dahl, I. Shapiro, and J. Cheibub (Eds.), The democracy sourcebook (pp. 29-39).
 Although electing executives is a long-established practice, it is also possible to have an executive branch without an elected head. Notably, the Articles of Confederation that preceded the U.S. Constitution did not include an elected representative.
 Other forms of democracy not covered here include parliamentary systems, semi-presidential systems, and semi-parliamentary systems. See also LeDuc, Niemi, and Norris (2014). Comparing Democracies.