THEORY AND PRACTICE OF VOTER REGISTRATION –
DEFINITIONS, STANDARDS, PRINCIPLES, EXAMPLES
This comparative study was made in the framework of project ‘Developing accurate voters’ list in transitional democracies’ realized by Association of European Election Officials (ACEEEO). Authors are Eszter Bodnár (Chapter 1-11) and Attila Kaszás (Chapter 12-13).
1. THE IMPORTANCE OF VOTER REGISTRATION 4
2. INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS 5
3. LEGAL FRAMEWORK 8
4. FUNCTIONS OF VOTER REGISTRATION 9
5. TYPES OF VOTER REGISTRATION 13
5.1. Voter register – voter list 13
5.2. Active and passive voter registration 13
5.3. Continuous and periodic voter registration 14
6. AUTHORITIES RESPONSIBLE FOR THE VOTER REGISTRATION 15
7. USE OF VOTER REGISTER 17
7.1. Compilation 17
7.2. Updating 20
7.3. Closure 21
7.4. Voter list on election day 22
7.5. Use of voter register in special voting arrangements 23
7.6. Voter list after election day 26
8. DATA OF VOTER REGISTER AND DATA OF VOTER LISTS 27
9. PUBLICITY AND TRANSPARENCY OF VOTER REGISTRATION 28
10. LEGAL REMEDIES 31
11. BEST PRACTICES AND PROBLEMS IN LEGAL FRAMEWORK 34
12. BEST PRACTICES AND PROBLEMS IN IMPLEMENTATION 35
13. VOTERS’ LIST EFFECT ON GENDER AND VULNERABLE GROUPS 36
1. THE IMPORTANCE OF VOTER REGISTRATION
Voter registration usually seems to be something merely technical that is why one can forget about importance of this part of electoral process.
However, all electoral experts acknowledge significance of the principle of universal and equal suffrage. That principle is declared also in international human rights instruments.
Voter registration is the tool for enforcing universal suffrage by ensuring that every individual who is eligible to vote is able to exercise his or her right to vote. It serves also the principle of equal suffrage as it guarantees that every voter will cast his or her ballot only once.
In our essay we make an attempt at offering a brief survey of legislation and practice in connection with voter registration. We examined almost 40 participating states of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for exploring similarity and difference between the ways in which they regulate voter registration and between the ways in which voter registration effectively operates.
Our research principally covered the legislation for parliamentary elections, but in some cases, we took also legislation for other types of election (presidential election, election of the members of European Parliament, local elections) into consideration.
As the goal of the essay was foundation of a project about voter registration, we aimed for writing an impartial comprehensive study without any estimation. Drawing the conclusion is mission of readers.
2. INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS
As human rights became universal, right to vote and to be elected happened to be also a part of the international documents. This took place in the middle of the 20th century and this procedure goes on till recently.
In the framework of United Nations Organization, it is Universal Declaration of Human Rights which mentions at first time the periodic and genuine elections in article 21: ‘The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.’
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) words similarly: ‘Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions: (…) (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.’ Distinctions mentioned in article 2 are ‘distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’
Naturally, the abstraction level of these international treaties does not allow them to expressly mention voter registration, but the legislation of Member States has to take into consideration the principles of them while regulating voter registration system.
The General Comment No. 25 on the ICCPR refers also to voter registration: ‘States must take effective measures to ensure that all persons entitled to vote are able to exercise that right. Where registration of voters is required, it shall be facilitated and obstacles to such registration shall not be imposed. If residence requirements apply to registration, they must be reasonable, and shall not be imposed in such a way as to exclude the homeless from the right to vote. Any abusive interference with registration or voting as well as intimidation or coercion of voters shall be prohibited by penal laws and those laws shall be strictly enforced. Voter education and registration campaigns are necessary to ensure the effective exercise of article 25 rights by an informed community’1.
In the field of voter registration, there is another part of ICCPR which is really important. According to article 2 paragraph 3, each State Party undertakes to ensure that any person whose rights or freedoms as herein recognized are violated shall have an effective remedy, and to ensure that any person claiming such a remedy shall have his or her right thereto determined by competent judicial, administrative or legislative authorities, or by any other competent authority provided for by the legal system of the State, and to develop the possibilities of judicial remedy. It means that in connection with the election, complaints mechanisms shall be in place. Voters shall be given the opportunity to claim their rights before the judiciary and raise claims about the conduct of the election administration, including voter registration.
The international documents of regional organizations do not forget right to vote either.
In the Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe participating States declared among others that they will hold free elections at reasonable intervals, as established by law; permit all seats in at least one chamber of the national legislature to be freely contested in a popular vote; and guarantee universal and equal suffrage to adult citizens.
Some document of OSCE and Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHIR) deals specifically with voter registration. The document titled International Standards and Commitments on the Right to Democratic Elections: A Practical Guide to Democratic Elections Best Practice specifies the requirements which the regulation of voter registration must meet. According to the document voter register must be true, accurate, accessible and transparent, must be regularly updated. Circumstantial orders handle the legal remedies: Requests for changes, entries, and deletions in the voter registers shall not be limited to a time period just before a given election, except where necessary to finalise registers prior to an election. A person shall not be limited to making requests that relate only to that person. A person shall be permitted to make a request that affects another person, provided the other person is notified of the request and permitted to respond to the request.
Pursuant to Guidelines for Reviewing a Legal Framework for Elections the legal framework shall require that voter registers be maintained in a manner that is transparent, accurate, protects the right of citizens of legal age to register, and prevents the unlawful or fraudulent registration of persons.
Council of Europe deals also with right to vote. Article 3 of Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms guarantees the right to free elections: ‘The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.’ The European Court of Human Rights discussed several times in its judgement the principle of universal suffrage but until now nobody applied to the Court about problems with voter registration2.
The most detailed criteria of voter registration are drafted in Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters accepted by the Venice Commission. According to the Code, fulfilment of the following criteria is essential if electoral registers are to be reliable: