Absentee Voting: A Global Challenge

As democracy spreads across the globe, advances in communications technology have facilitated inclusion of voters in the electoral process—even if they live in expatriate diaspora communities thousands of miles from home.

As democracy spreads across the globe, advances in communications technology have facilitated inclusion of voters in the electoral process—even if they live in expatriate diaspora communities thousands of miles from home. In the course of a three-day conference held last week by the International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES), representatives from 30 nations on every continent discussed challenges in this arena.

A key issue of concern to almost every participating nation was how to develop an effective absentee voting system. Absentee voting remains a challenge in the United States, as managing absentee voting has been a significant chapter in the 2010 midterm election cycle story.

In Illinois, a large number of servicemen and women were not provided ballots, highlighting the difficulty in ensuring that all eligible voters absent from their official residency area are served. Furthermore, absentee ballots have the potential to throw an election’s outcome into protracted doubt – as is the case currently in New York’s 1st district, where absentee votes have thrown out the apparent Election Day victory of incumbent Rep. Tim Bishop and given his challenger new hope for a narrow win. The same problems that dog the United States’ absentee voting system may soon plague the globe as more and more nations commit to enfranchising their expatriates.

John Phillips, president and CEO of Aristotle International, a political technology firm, was impressed by the level of investment he sees foreign governments devoting to absentee voting technologies. “There is a big percentage of the population that is disenfranchised because they are not in their home country,” he said, adding that he was surprised by how many nations have provisions for electronic voting already in place. “One thing I predict is that by 2014 some of the people in this room [at the IFES conference] will be tabulating votes coming in from ATM machines.”

Phillips said that the Indian delegation was particularly interested in absentee balloting “The prime minister of India said that by 2012 he wants all Indian expatriates to vote,” said Phillips. “Some of the brightest young people are outside the country--students for example. You want to get them engaged and eager to vote.”

What nation has the most technologically advanced system for expatriate absentee voting today? The answer may surprise those not familiar with the level of investment in Internet coverage and mobile technology found in Estonia. Its citizens have been voting electronically for several cycles now and officials do not anticipate any major security concerns endangering or disenfranchising citizens abroad. In 2007, Estonia and Russia engaged in a brief cyber-war over the relocation of a Soviet-era statue from a prominent square in Tallinn. Within hours of this decision by the Estonian government, much of the country’s electronic infrastructure was crippled and the Internet as a whole was briefly shut down as experts dealt with the incoming attacks, most of which emanated from public and private computers inside Russia.

Estonian advisors that Phillips spoke with at the conference voiced no concerns over security threats or systemic vulnerability in their electronic absentee voting systems. “They also have a strong national identity card which has a biometric [indicator] on it,” said Phillips. “There are always concerns about any potential violations of voting systems, but it doesn’t really seem to be a big motivating factor for citizens of this country.”

The IFES conference focused on more than just absentee voting. Foreign delegates were invited to observe the process of campaigning and conducting an election in the United States. Some of the observers were taken aback by the lack of security forces ensuring civility at polling places. Others, particularly Ghana’s observers, were struck by the fact that electioneering was allowed as close as 50 feet from a polling place – in their country such activities would be prohibited for at least a day before an election to prevent politically-motivated violence.

As more nations democratize, and the votes of their expatriate communities matter more and more, conferences like the IFES will become increasingly relevant. Today, they are taking tips from the U.S. system, but based on the pace at which some countries’ electoral systems are evolving, we may find ourselves learning from them in the not-too-distant future.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com

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