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February 2020

Voting for change: how people vote around the world

How do people vote in the USA, Japan and India? We take a look at voting laws around the world, focusing on three world powers as well as a smaller country - Estonia - that offers a glimpse into the future of voting.

The USA: low turnout at the polling stations

All US citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote in local, state and federal elections. The only exceptions are people who have committed a felony offence and the mentally disabled. In most states, citizens must show official ID before they can register to vote, but some states are stricter than others. For example, Georgia is considered “strict”, as voters must show photo ID, while in California, as long as the person is not a first-time voter, no ID is required.

Voters cast their vote in one of the following ways:

  • Private voting booths at polling stations. There’s a wide range of voting machines in use across the country. Voters may fill out a paper form that can be read by a computer, or else vote directly on a computer screen.
  • By post. Voters can submit an absentee ballot if they have difficulty attending the polling station in person.

Voter turnout is remarkably low for a democratic country. In general, only 60% of eligible voters vote in presidential election years. Americans are more likely to vote if they are wealthy, older, more educated, white or female.

Experts have identified a few reasons for low turnout, including restrictive voting laws in some states, the damaging effect of negative campaigning (attack ads and smear campaigns), and voter apathy.

While there is clearly no simple solution for such a complex problem, the accessibility that comes with internet voting could make a significant difference, especially for young voters. 

Sheila Nix of Tusk Philanthropies (an organization that supports mobile voting in the USA):

"It just seems hard to believe that they're going to go into a system where they're going to go into a polling place or the vote-by-mail system, when they don't have a good understanding of stamps. Our theory is, let's get it started ... so that in four or eight years from now, when we get an influx of young voters, we have something to offer them and we don't make our turnout problem worse." (from In 2020, Some Americans Will Vote On Their Phones. Is That the Future?)

Japan: voting the old-fashioned way in a technological society

Japanese citizens are automatically allowed to vote in elections - no registration required. Japanese voters have the following options:

  • Most voters cast their votes at polling stations; they have to show their voter card and vote by writing the name of the candidate or party on a blank ballot paper. Some polling stations have electronic voting machines, but these are not yet widespread.
  • Voters can request to vote early by attending local municipal offices up to a week before the election.
  • Voters who are disabled or hospitalized are allowed to vote by post or from hospital.

Considering the dominance of technology in everyday life in Japan, it’s surprising that voters still rely on pen and paper. With an aging population and the gradual disappearance of polling stations - resulting in a declining voter turnout - Japan has to find a way to make voting more accessible. Online or mobile voting in Japan seems to be the obvious solution.

India: the success story of electronic voting machines

Indian citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote. The only exceptions to this rule are prisoners, or people who have been found guilty of corruption or illegal acts relating to elections; they are barred from voting in future elections.

Indian voters are required to register to vote.They then receive an official voter ID card, necessary for casting a vote. This is how people vote in India:

  • Voters cast their votes at polling stations using electronic voting machines (EVM). EVM were introduced in 1997 to prevent election fraud. After voting, the voter’s index finger is marked with indelible ink.
  • Postal voting is only for certain categories of voters, such as over-80s, members of the armed forces and government employees based abroad.

Voter turnout in India is higher than in the USA and has improved in recent years. According to a report by the State Bank of India, “citizens are more aware about their rights and responsibility, thanks to relentless campaigns by multiple stakeholders starting from election commission to civil societies who are encouraging all to cast their vote”.

Another reason for high turnout in India is the law mandating that no voter should have to travel more than 1.25 miles in order to cast their vote. There are more than 1 million polling stations and 2 million EVM, making voting surprisingly accessible for such a vast, complex country.

Online voting is not yet an option in India due to security concerns, low levels of internet access, and the success of EVM at polling stations.

Estonia: an e-voting trailblazer

Estonia may seem like an unusual country to highlight alongside world powers like the USA. However, it makes for an intriguing case study. Here’s how people vote in Estonia:

  • The majority of voters cast their vote in polling stations by filling in the ballot paper. Voters must bring an ID document such as their passport or official ID card.
  • A steadily increasing proportion of voters chooses i-voting: voting from home. In the 2019 parliamentary elections 43.8% of all participants voted this way.

While there has been some criticism of i-voting/e-voting, mainly around potential security concerns, Estonian election officials have deemed e-voting to be a success. Since the introduction of e-voting in 2005, the number of online voters has been increasing; people appreciate the convenience of voting from home and the quick turnaround of results. While overall voter turnout may not have changed substantially, e-voting does seem to be an attractive option.

According to one study of online voting in Estonia:

The facts that remote Internet voting appears to be engaging non-voters to a certain extent, is used after hours, has a devoted following in terms of use, and that many on-line voters actively seek out information regarding candidates, are significant points in its favour.”

The future of voting

The world is watching Estonia with interest, to see if i-voting/e-voting is indeed “the future of elections”. Of course, only time will tell, but as many democratic countries struggle to increase voter turnout and as technology becomes an even more integral part of our society, the widespread adoption of online voting in elections seems likely. 

The way that people vote around the world could look very different, and - as is always the case with technology - the change could come sooner than we think...

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