An alderman is a member of a municipal assembly or council in many jurisdictions founded upon English law. The term may be titular, denoting a high-ranking member of a borough or county council, a council member chosen by the elected members themselves rather than by popular vote, or a council member elected by voters.
Similar titles exist in other Germanic countries, such as the Swedish Ålderman, the Danish and West Frisian Olderman, the Dutch Ouderman, the Finnish Oltermanni and the German Ältester which all mean "elder man" or "wise man".
Many local government bodies used the term "alderman" in Australia. As in the way local councils have been modernised in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the term alderman has been discontinued in a number of places. For example, in the state of Queensland before 1994, rural "shires" elected "councillors" and a "chairman", while "cities" elected a "mayor" and "aldermen". Since 1994, all local and regional government areas in Queensland elect a "mayor" and "councillors." (Australian capital cities usually have a Lord Mayor). An example of the use of the term alderman is evident in the City of Adelaide. Aldermen were elected from the electors in all the wards.
Historically, in Canada, the term "alderman" was used for those persons elected to a municipal council to represent the wards. As women were increasingly elected to municipal office, the term "councillor" slowly replaced "alderman", although there was some use of the term "alderperson". Today, the title of "alderman" is rarely used except in some cities in Alberta and Ontario, as well as some smaller municipalities elsewhere in the country, that retain the title for historical reasons.
The title "alderman" was abolished for local authorities in the Republic of Ireland by the Local Government Act 2001, with effect from the 2004 local elections. Early usage of the term mirrored that of England and Wales. Local elections since the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1919 have used the single transferable vote in multiple-member electoral areas. In each electoral area of a borough or county borough, the first several candidates elected were styled "alderman" and the rest "councillor". Someone co-opted to fill a seat vacated by an alderman would be styled "councillor".
In South Africa the term "Alderman" refers to senior members of municipal assemblies. They are distinguished from ordinary councillors for their "long and distinguished service as a councillor". This can be achieved either via long term of service, or through alternative means such as 'point' systems.
Although the term originated in England, it had no single definition there until the 19th century, as each municipal corporation had its own constitution. It was used in England, Wales and Ireland/Northern Ireland (all of Ireland being part of the United Kingdom from January 1801 until December 1922), but was not used in Scotland. Under the Municipal Reform Act 1835, municipal borough corporations consisted of councillors and aldermen. Aldermen would be elected not by the electorate, but by the council (including the outgoing aldermen), for a term of six years, which allowed a party that narrowly lost an election to retain control by choosing aldermen. This was changed by the Municipal Corporations Amendment Act 1910, so that outgoing aldermen were no longer allowed to vote. Aldermen with voting rights were finally abolished under the Local Government Act 1972 in 1974, except for the Greater London Council and the London borough councils, where they remained a possibility until 1977/1978. County councils also elected aldermen, but not rural district and urban district councils.
Councils in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland still have the power to create honorary aldermen, as a reward for their services as a councillor, doing so at a special meeting to pass the title approved by two-thirds of those attending. This power is used much more often in Northern Ireland than in England or Wales, where councils may additionally designate up to a quarter of their elected councillors as aldermen.
In the City of London, but nowhere else, aldermen are still elected for each of the wards of the City, by the regular electorate, and until 2004 could hold office for life, but now have a term of not more than six years. They form the Court of Aldermen. To be a candidate to be Lord Mayor of the City of London, it is necessary to be an alderman and to have been a sheriff of the City of London.
"Alderman" is used for both men and women and may be prefixed to a person's name (e.g., Alderman John Smith, Alderman Smith or, for women, Alderman Mrs (or Miss) Smith).
A "board of aldermen" is the governing executive or legislative body of many cities and towns in the United States. The term is sometimes used instead of city council, but it can also refer to an executive board independent of the council, or to what is essentially an upper house of a bicameral legislature (as it was in New York City until the 20th century). Its members are called "Alderman."
Some cities, such as Chicago, IL, mix the two terms, whereas, some cities such as, Kenosha, WI identify Aldermen as Alderpersons to recognize both males and females as members of the City Council without prejudices. Some states such as Pennsylvania established aldermen in the 19th century to serve as local judges for minor infractions. Pennsylvania's aldermen were phased out in the early 20th century. Depending on the jurisdiction, an alderman could have been part of the legislative or judicial local government. Boards of aldermen are used in many rural areas of the United States as opposed to a larger city council or city commission.
The electoral system is based on proportional representation with single transferable vote.