DEVELOPING ACCURATE VOTER LISTS IN TRANSITIONAL DEMOCRACIES
A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS
REPORT ON PRACTICAL EXPERIENCES OF VOTER REGISTRATION IN ACEEEO MEMBER STATES
SAM YOUNGER – ÁKOS ZSUFFACONTENT
1. Legislative basis, eligibility, legal exclusions 5
1.1. Legislative basis 5
1.2. Eligibility 5
1.2.1. Age 5
1.2.2. Citizenship 5
1.2.3. External Voting 7
1.3. Legal exclusions 9
1.3.1. Conviction of a criminal offence 9
1.3.2. Mental incompetence 9
2. Operational conditions, integrity, implementation 10
2.1. Approaches 10
2.2. Authorities 10
2.3.. Operational conditions 11
2.4. Completeness 11
3. Voter information, accuracy, fraud 13
3.1.1. Voter information 13
3.1.2. Accuracy 13
3.1.3. Fraud 13
4. Transparency, accountability 14
4.1. Public display 14
4.2. Data protection 15
Glossory of acronyms and terms
The Association of European Election Officials (ACEEEO) is managing a two-year project called „Developing accurate voters’ list in transitional democracies”. This project is funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund and the purpose is to research and analyse the voter registration systems in the Central and Eastern European region. The results will be published in a form that is useful for countries considering reform of their voter registration systems.
The following study is an important part of the project, which analyses and compares the voter registration systems in the region, based on information, data and self-assessment of Election Management Bodies (EMBs) from the region. There were two levels of analysis for this project. All of the EMB’s of ACEEEO were asked to report on the general aspects of their voter registration systems. Six countries were selected for case studies and they provided more detailed descriptions of their voter registration systems. The countries selected for the case studies include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Macedonia, and Moldova.
The Experts’ Team prepared two questionnaires, one for the general survey, and one for the case studies, to assist EMBs in assessing their systems. The general survey questionnaires were sent to all ACEEEO member countries, while the case study questionnaires only to the six countries selected for the case studies. Unfortunately not all EMBs were able to respond, however ACEEEO is grateful to the majority of member countries who did participate and provide the necessary material to complete the quantitative analysis for this project.
The materials that were received was analysed from legislative, technical, practical aspects, and merged into a comprehensive study by the project team. The ACEEEO Secretariat would like to thank all those, who contributed to the success of this research project and encourage all ACEEEO member countries to use the findings of the study when developing and reforming their voter registration systems.
1. LEGISLATIVE BASIS, ELIGIBILITY, LEGAL EXCLUSIONS
1.1. LEGISLATIVE BASIS
In most of the ACEEEO countries, as in most democratic states, the basic principles of elections are regulated by the constitution. Constitutional requirements for voter eligibility usually include citizenship, residency and minimum age. It means that, as a general rule, those who meet these three criteria stipulated in the constitution can be enrolled in voter registers. The constitutions also regulate the question of disenfranchisement by specifying criteria to be used to determine if a citizen can lose the right to vote such as a criminal conviction or declaration of mental incompetence (leading to a deprivation of the right to vote - see the Venice Commission Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters, CDL-AD (2002)023rev, I. 1.1 d.).
However, there are some states where the basic electoral principles are not the part of the constitution, like in Latvia, Macedonia, and Moldova. In Moldova Article 11 of the Election Code declares that “all citizens of the Republic of Moldova who turned 18 on the Election Day are eligible to vote”. Russia also establishes minimum voting age requirements through the Federal Law on the Basic Guarantees of Voter Rights and the Right to Participate in Referenda which established the legal voting age in all elections at18 years of age.
Some constitutions do not cover questions related to elections, and in these cases the electoral act or electoral code governs the election process. In these cases the electoral act specifies the rules for voter registration and outlines the process and identifies the authorities with the responsibility for oversight of the process.
Sometimes, as in the case of Armenia, acts other than the electoral code regulate voter registration such as the Law of the Republic of Armenia On Personal Data.
However, in most of the countries analyzed in this study the technical particulars of voter registration (forms, updating, compiling, storing, analyzing etc.) are regulated by decrees or orders from EMBs. One exception is Georgia, where the electoral code regulates these issues as well.
See Table 1 in Annexes – Legislative basis of elections
Legal voting age is the same all throughout the countries included in this study. Every citizen living in the region having turned eighteen up to or on day of election has the right to vote. One exception is Hungary, where those persons who marry before reaching the age of 18 can receive full adult legal rights including the right to vote. Also, in Slovenia, persons who are 16 years of age and employed have the right to vote.
See Table 2. in Annexes - Legal voting age
Citizenship is one of the key requirements to determine voter eligibility. As a general rule being an adult member of a country automatically confers electoral rights. A person can become a citizen by descent, by place of birth, or by naturalization. However, in some cases other persons like EU citizens, refugees, and IDPs, also may have the right on vote (see detailed 5. table).
18.104.22.168. EU CITIZENS
In all EU member countries, like Hungary, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, EU citizens with the domicile or residence have the right to vote for the elections of European Parliament. In addition, in Romania and Latvia the EU citizens residing in the country may also vote in local elections (this should be the case in all EU member states). Britain and the Netherlands also allow residents who are non-citizens to vote in local elections.
Refugees are those who have migrated to a second country because of political, social or cultural circumstances, and therefore may qualify as external voters. In Latvia, Moldova, Romania, Russia, and Slovakia the current legal provisions do not provide a right to vote for refugees.
However, in three ACEEEO countries residents from Bosnia-Herzegovina a, Georgia, and Macedonia have refugee status which allows them to be able to participate in the electoral processes of their home countries by means of out-of-country voting. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia citizens living outside of the country who have refugee status may vote in elections by mail.
Bosnia-Herzegovina guarantees the right to register to vote for citizens having status of a refugee from Bosnia. In order to be registered with the Central Voters Register a refugee from Bosnia and Herzegovina is obliged to submit an application to the Central Election Commission for every election. Applications must be received prior to the deadline set by the Central Election Commission in the period after election announcement. The deadline for refugees to register to vote is 75 days prior to Election Day. Registration of voters is done according to constituency where persons had their previous place of residence before departing abroad, unless they can submit written evidence on change of place of residence in Bosnia. Persons having refugee status or who temporarily reside abroad may vote by mail.
In the remaining three countries, in Armenia, Hungary, and Slovenia, refugees residing in the country have the right to vote only for local elections, popular initiatives and referenda.
See Table 3 in Annexes - Refugees’ voting right
22.214.171.124. INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS
IDPs may be regarded as migrants or refugees within their own country, and can constitute a large group whose right to vote is threatened. Organizing external voting for IDPs or refugees may be very complicated, as a great deal of information is needed before such activities can take place.
Only in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia do IDPs have the right for vote. In Georgia displaced persons have equal voting rights and the electoral register lists their actual place of residence. Bosnia-Herzegovina ensures for IDPs special voting rights since they can choose to vote either in their current place of residence or in their pre-war constituency in person or absentee ballot.
See Table 4. in Annexes - Internationally displaced persons’ voting rights
As has already been mentioned, one of the basic principles for voting is the citizenship. However, in some cases other persons, like EU citizens from EU member states, refugees, and IDPs, may also have the right to vote (see summarized findings in 5. table).
See Table 5. in Annexes - Citizenship
126.96.36.199. INVOLVING RURAL (REMOTE) AREAS
After reviewing the questionnaires it seems that there are no difficulties with participation in elections for people living in rural (remote) areas in analyzed countries. Only Bosnia-Herzegovina established mobile teams that visit remote areas to conduct data processing, and record the place of residence for voters for the issuance of ID documents.
In addition to the responses received on the questionnaire for this study, it could be useful to know the all of the election stakeholder’ view s about the voter registration processes in their countries. The involvement by all stakeholders is essential for the process of peaceful reconciliation and in building an inclusive voter registration process. The election stakeholders want to see a proper voter registration process as the basis for a fair, credible and legitimate electoral process.
Although the “automatic” generation of all types of citizen data may result from having a legal obligation to register with the appropriate authorities, citizens do not always cooperate. As the Hungarian response noted: “If citizens meet their legal obligations (e.g. register their new address when migrating), the population register and therefore also the voters’ list is very current.”
A number of responses highlighted the difficulty of the registration system coping with citizens’ mobility. As the Russian response noted, “one important disadvantage is that being based on residential registration, the system is not well adjusted for population mobility. Many voters, who live in places that are different from where they are officially registered, cannot vote”. According to the Latvian response, “the mobility of voters has a very important effect on the efficiency of the system, as the existing system is not flexible enough to reflect the increased mobility”, while the Georgian response noted high internal migration as the main problem of developing and maintaining a unified voters’ list.
1.2.3. EXTERNAL VOTING
Globalization, the spread of democracy throughout the world and an increase in migration for many different reasons have all contributed to an increasing interest in voting rights for refugees, diplomats, members of the armed forces serving overseas and other people who are temporarily or permanently absent from their own country.
The citizen’s right to external voting is most common in Europe, but is found in almost every region of the world, and in the ACEEEO member countries.
However, while the constitutions of many countries guarantee the right to vote for all citizens, in reality voters who are outside their home country when elections take place are often disenfranchised because of a lack of procedures enabling them to exercise that right.
188.8.131.52. REGISTRATION OF CITIZENS RESIDENT ABROAD
In most ACEEEO countries, there are exceptions to the norm of “automatic” voter registration. The most common relates to citizens resident abroad. In only one of the countries surveyed, Armenia is there no provision for Armenian citizens to vote abroad.
In a number of countries the registration of citizens who reside out-of-country is “automatic” based on Foreign Affairs Ministry records. This is the case for Russia, Georgia, Latvia, Romania and Macedonia. The Macedonian response highlighted the registration of citizens abroad and its potential abuse. This was an issue raised by the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Report on the 2009 Presidential and Municipal Elections, which noted the high number of citizens registered as residing abroad, although the actual numbers may be even higher than those recorded.
In Slovenia, Slovakia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, citizens living abroad may apply to be included in the voters’ list. However, in Slovenia amendments to the Voting Rights Register Act 2006 allow for the automatic registration of citizens abroad if all the necessary registration data is available. The response from Bosnia-Herzegovina identified the registration of citizens abroad as an area where changing the current system to allow for automatic registration would be desirable. The election authorities from Bosnia indicated that voters who cast ballots outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina, “… are using a system of active registration”. In order to be included in the Bosnian Central Voter Register, “it is necessary to submit an application form and attach with it proof of citizenship, proof of identity and proof of residence”. Applications have to be made to confirm registration for each election. A project is now in place to move to passive registration for voters abroad, the first phase of which will enable electronic submission of requests for registration. Documents would not need to be submitted since checks could be carried out by the Central Election Commission. In the longer term (five to seven years) the plan is to move to “passive” registration.
184.108.40.206. METHODS FOR VOTING ABROAD
Most of ACEEEO countries’ citizens who reside out-of-country or who temporarily are traveling abroad, have the opportunity taking part in out-of-country voting; with Armenia being the only exception.
There are several ways in which electors can cast their vote from abroad. There are also a variety of procedures in use to enable electors to vote from abroad, including voting in person voting at pre-designated polling stations which is the predominant procedure. Out-of country voting options also include postal voting, voting by proxy, or a mix of different procedures.
The two main voting options in this region are the following. In the case of voting in person the voter must go to a specific place and cast his or her vote there in person. Usually polling places are located at each country’s diplomatic mission (embassies, consulates). This is the procedure most widely used for casting an external vote and is found as the single voting method in Georgia, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldova, and Russia. In Macedonia the next parliamentary elections will offer out-of-country voting for citizens on temporary work stays or who are traveling outside of the country.
In Georgia the only election where citizens who are outside of the country cannot participate is for the local governance bodies called Sakrebulo.
In the case of postal voting the citizen fills out the ballot paper at a place he or she chooses and the vote is then transmitted by ordinary post to the home country. Among ACEEEO countries Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovakia use this method.
Slovenia has a mixed system with three options. Voters can cast out-of-country ballots in parliamentary elections, presidential elections, national referenda and EU parliamentary elections. Out-of-country voters can cast their votes by mail, at the diplomatic-consular premises of Slovenia abroad. In case Slovenians who reside abroad happen to be back in the country on Election Day then they also would be allowed to vote at a location to be determined by the election authorities.
See Table 6 in Annexes - Voting abroad
1.3. LEGAL EXCLUSIONS
The withdrawal of the right to vote must observe certain conditions according to the electoral code. Although legal exclusions gradually disappeared from established democracies, two of them are still constant and are legal and moral. Citizens who may be considered unfit to vote are those who have been convicted of a crime. Loss of voting rights can extend through the period of imprisonment and in some cases even longer.
Some countries exclude voters who have been deemed not of sound mind by the courts. A few countries may regard admission to a psychiatric hospital as grounds for being deemed unfit to have the right to vote. However, there are many advocacy groups for persons with mental and physical handicaps who strongly oppose excluding persons from voting based upon mental disability or illness.
1.3.1. Conviction of a criminal offence
Most ACEEEO member countries deny the right to vote for persons convicted of a criminal offense. The legal precedents of the European Court of Human Rights support the right to vote to citizens being held in preliminary detention and prior to any conviction. This is also the case in some of the ACEEEO member countries such as Armenia where these persons under indictment for crimes are still allowed to remain on a special list of the central voter register.
See Table 7. in Annexes - Legal incompetence
1.3.2. MENTAL INCOMPETENCE
The second type of legal exclusion from voting pertains to persons who due to mental disability are unable to function on their own behalf in society. Persons who suffer from mental disabilities may or may not be deemed by the courts to be able to exercise their basic legal rights including the right to vote. According to the legislation of all ACEEEO countries citizens who are judged by a court of law to suffer from a permanent mental disability that impairs their ability to function on their own behalf, may be prevented from exercising their right to vote. There are many advocacy groups across Europe who strongly advocate for the right of persons with mental and physical handicaps to vote. In 2002 at a United Nations sponsored conference in Sigtuna, Sweden, issued a declaration in support of the right of persons with mental disabilities to be able to exercise their right to vote. Also in November 2009, one of the bodies of the EU ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which guarantees full human rights to all persons with disabilities including those with mental disability.
2. Operational conditions, integrity, implementation
As guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every citizen has the right to vote. As the previous section makes clear, the legal exclusions found in the ACEEEO member countries – for reasons of age, criminal record or mental incapacity - are by and large common to all jurisdictions and in line with democracies elsewhere in the world. For those who are eligible to vote it is necessary to have your name included on the voters’ list at election time. In all countries, if an individual arrives at a polling station on Election Day and finds his or her name is not on the list, the potential result is disenfranchisement. Accordingly, the completeness and integrity of the voters’ list is fundamental to any democracy.
Approaches to the compilation of the voters’ list in modern states reflect social and political traditions. Broadly speaking there are two such traditions. In countries whose history is characterised by scepticism of the power of the state and a strong emphasis on the individual, there is no “automatic” database of all citizens. This is the case, for example, in the United States and the United Kingdom. In the U.S. eligible voters must actually register at the local level to have their names included on the voter list. Voter lists in the U.S. are primarily compiled and maintained by election officials at the local level. In the U.K. historically the voters list has been compiled by local election officials in advance of each parliamentary election. Voters traditionally were registered on the basis of each household. In essence the local election authorities conducted a house-to-house census to confirm the names of all eligible voters on the list. Recent changes in 2009 mean that the U.K. is moving towards a system of individual voter registration similar to that to the system used in the U.S. In Australia, it is a legal requirement for individuals to register to vote and voting is compulsory. In other countries, voter registration is voluntary, with the result that there is abiding concern about whether all those who are eligible to vote are included on the voters’ list.
The second approach is the tradition from countries with a strong central state. In these countries, there is a civil register of all citizens compiled either centrally or locally for purposes that have nothing to do with elections. The main purpose of the civil register is to insure that each citizen has an identity card which can be used for multiple purposes such as security purposes or to conduct daily tasks such as financial transactions. In countries such as these, it would make little sense to compile a separate voters’ list as an entirely separate operation. Rather the electoral authorities rely on the existing national database, which is then adapted to take account of the relevant legal exclusions and electoral district boundaries.
All the ACEEEO members countries surveyed follow the more centralized tradition with regard to civil registers. In almost all cases registration to vote is therefore "automatic" in the sense that the citizens need to take no action themselves in order to be included on the voters' list.
After reviewing answers, the efficient administrative measure to register voters is to combine the preparation of a voters roll with the civil registration and/or the issuance of a national ID card. In most ACEEEO member countries the civil registry and the electoral authority work together. The types of agencies working with the civil registry include, the Civil Registry Agency, the Department for Citizenship and Migration of Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Administration and the Interior). The electoral authority in most countries within the ACEEEO rests with the Central Election Commission). However in some countries like Slovenia some of these functions are combined. In Slovenia the Ministry of Internal Affairs has authority over civil registry and voter registration. In Moldova and Slovakia the electoral registers are compiled, and maintained by each municipality.
Russia follows a different process, where according to the CEC, “the compilation and maintenance of the voters’ lists is the responsibility of local self-government bodies in interaction with the Federal Migration Service, military recruitment offices, civil registry offices and the courts, who are under a legal obligation to provide the information to the municipal authorities. Voters serving in the military are registered by military commanders, and voters residing abroad by head of diplomatic missions.
Nevertheless, linking civil registration with voter registration can be costly, but offers the opportunity for reducing the duplication of workload for the electoral commission and civil registries. The civil register based voters registration system is a good method to apply in democratic societies, but it has some risks.
For example in cases where the electoral management body is not responsible for the issuance of civil registration may create perceptions of misuse of data. Therefore, where the voter registration is under the supervision of a governmental body other than the electoral authority, the independence of the EMBs can be undermined. However, the key consideration is not necessarily who undertakes the operation but the utilization of the civil register after its compilation and the mere fact that it exists. The key to good elections is having a credible and transparent voter register that the voters and political parties can trust.
See Table 8 in Annexes – Authorities responsible for voter registration
2.3. OPERATIONAL CONDITIONS
What is common to all the countries surveyed is that most individual citizens need take no action specifically to ensure that their names are on the voters’ lists. There are exceptions, notably in relation to citizens who reside abroad. However, for the overwhelming majority of citizens the process of voter registration is automatic and the respondents to this survey were unanimous in considering this system to be best for their country. For example, the response from Russia stated that “the system is generally good for the country. Given the passivity of the electorate, any kind of voluntary registration would probably greatly reduce the number of eligible voters.” In addition the response from Bosnia-Herzegovina stated that, if any change in the system is desirable, it is to extend the system of automatic registration to those residents abroad.
In some countries the automatic voter registration systems are well established and reliable. As the Hungarian election authorities commented, “When using a well planned and programmed automatic compilation of the voters’ list there is no risk of getting more errors in the database, which can easily happen if the voters’ list is based on manual data entry. In Hungary, where a well functioning population register is in use, the simplest, most economical, effective and accurate way of creating a voters’ list is to do it based on the population register.”
In Russia, the lists created by local self-government bodies, military commanders, or diplomatic missions are placed onto the State Automated System Elections (GAS Vybory), from which they are available to election commissions at different levels. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the accuracy and ability to update the Central Voter Register are directly impacted by the quality of data taken from the Civil Register. Updating of data on the Central Voters’ Register is done automatically following any change in data on the Civil Register. The response from Georgia illustrated the importance of computerisation, describing the move from a hand-written voters’ list in every precinct election commission to the position now, with an on-line connection between the Central Election Commission and the Registry Agency of the Ministry of Justice, who now provide an updated list twice a year to the CEC for onward transmission to the precinct election commissions.
Clearly critical to confidence in the efficient transmission of population data to electoral authorities for the purpose of voters’ lists is the effective computerisation of the process. In all jurisdictions citizen databases, whether they are compiled locally or nationally, are networked and continuously updated.
Regardless of where the primary responsibility lies for the gathering of citizen data for the purposes of the voters’ list, the concept of “automatic” registration of eligible voters is misleading because all jurisdictions – not just in ACEEEO member countries but all over the world - face significant practical challenges to their ability to generate accurate and up-to-date lists.
The general effectiveness of the data gathering institutions and co-ordination among them are clearly one issue. The response from Macedonia stated that although the current organisation led to effective voter registration, it nevertheless needed improvement in terms of efficiency. It went on to say that although the respective responsibilities were clear and understood, the network among institutions was sometimes not functioning well. Although this view was not explicitly expressed in other responses, it is likely that problems of communication and co-ordination arise in any jurisdiction where a series of institutions is collectively responsible for the eventual quality of the voter lists.
One noticeable trend across a number of responses was an increasingly explicit responsibility of a separate electoral authority for the accuracy and completeness of voters’ lists. While this does not in itself get around the dependence of the electoral authorities on information generated by others for other purposes, it does encourage a focus on making the lists as accurate as possible and means that an active Central Election Commission can put pressure on responsible authorities if they are not satisfied with the efficiency and effectiveness of the information that they are receiving. However, as the Macedonian response noted and as is likely to be the case in most jurisdictions, there are no sanctions for the institutions which might be responsible for generating inaccurate data.
See Table 9 in Annexes - Automatic registration
3. VOTER INFORMATION, ACCURACY, FRAUD
3.1.1. VOTER INFORMATION
In terms of inclusion of individual voters on the voters’ list, the amount of public information shared with the voters is limited because of the automatic nature of inclusion for voter registration systems that use a centralized civil register. Basically citizens in country need not worry about updating their data. Only in cases such as communicating with citizens living abroad is a more pro-active role required if citizens wish to insure their inclusion on the voter list. In these situations the electoral authorities will need to engage in more extensive public information outreach. The focus of electoral authorities in all jurisdictions in terms of public information is the provision of information about the election process.
There are of course variations in the degree to which the electoral institutions are engaged in compiling as opposed to simply receiving information for the voters’ list. However, in cases where the compilation of the voters’ list is dependent on information that has been gathered by a non-electoral authority for a non-electoral purpose, according to the responses of ACEEEO member, there does not seem to be a problem with accuracy of information. Indeed almost all respondents to the survey report high levels of accuracy in the voters’ lists. The response from Armenia put the error rate for the voter’s list for the last national elections at only 0.0015%.
Two other practical issues were highlighted in the responses which can compromise the accuracy of voters’ lists. One is the record of voters who have died, which is not always communicated in a timely fashion. The Russian survey response rated this “the most important problem”, observing that the system was not well adjusted for removing deceased voters from the list, with the result that the numbers of voters are somewhat inflated and “occasionally leads to malpractices”.
A second is the potential for duplicated registrations. Two measures tend to minimise the danger of duplication. One is that sufficient personal details are provided at the point of registration to ensure that duplications are a rarity – for example the most