Feature Article

Voting from Abroad

Who has the right to participate, and how?

Posted: 2007-12-06

By Maria Gratschew

Keboitse Machangana
Maria Gratschew, Programme Officer, International IDEA

As the number of countries holding democratic elections has increased, the ability of people to exercise their right to vote from outside their home country when an election takes place has become an issue of greater interest.

External voting is highly relevant to the many people who are travelling or working around the globe. It also applies to refugees and others who may be forced to live outside their country of origin due to political circumstances and who wish to participate in any democratic transition from authoritarian rule or violent conflict.

The number of countries with external voting provisions has increased in recent years. Currently some 115 countries allow voting from abroad. Yet in 100 countries and related territories, the possibility does not exist.

More and more countries are considering the possibility of introducing external voting as a right for voters residing temporarily or permanently abroad. Mexico, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Iraq, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Singapore, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic are all examples of where external voting has been introduced during the last four years.

A number of countries with provisions for external voting are also extending the right to vote from abroad to more groups of voters. Ghana for example has practised external voting on a restricted basis for several years. It has so far been restricted to people employed by the government or who are in the armed forces abroad; or people studying abroad or working for international organizations. Recent changes widen the scope for Ghanaians to vote from outside the country and the prospect exists that external voting will be further extended.

Some countries have made the possibility of external voting easier by allowing, for example, voting at diplomatic missions as well as postal voting. The number of locations has also been expanded steadily. For example, Iraqis living abroad were able to vote at 19 different polling stations in December 2005, five more than were previously available the same year in January.

In Mexico, external voting was first introduced for the 2006 presidential elections. The Mexican experience has stimulated debate and acted as a catalyst for change in other Latin American countries. Ecuador, for example, implemented external voting for the first time in the 2006 legislative elections in which a large share of the 152,000 registered external voters elected six seats in parliament. Discussions to introduce external voting are also taking place in Bolivia, Costa Rica, Panama and El Salvador. 

Yet, external voting is not always easy to design and implement. In some cases external voting has been abolished or the concept is subject to debate. This is mainly due to political, financial and logistical reasons. Armenia abolished external voting in late 2006 after it was argued strongly that only Armenians living in Armenia should have a say in the governing of the country.

In Botswana discussions have been taking place as to whether the practise of external voting should be kept or not due to the high cost associated with the low voter turnout among external voters. This in turn raises the question whether external voting can be justified if the cost per external voter is substantially higher than the cost per voter residing and voting inside a given country. The main argument against external voting in a case like this would be that voters residing inside the country are the subjects of the elected government while those who reside outside the country are not. Some countries argue that greater priority in terms of financial resources should be given to electoral education within the country instead of providing for external voting.

While it is difficult to measure and compare the cost of external voting between different countries, the evidence shows that in some cases the system is expensive to implement while in others it is relatively low. The typical costs that apply in external voting is the production of material, logistical costs such as shipping, staff cost and in some cases the cost of maintaining a high security for voters and voting material. Mali is a good example of a country that is suffering from the cost of external voting. Sending voting material, often by courier, to Russia, Mongolia, Japan, Australia and Latin American countries can be extremely expensive.

Mexico’s initial experience of external voting involved costs of approximately U$27 million whereas first Iraqi experience of external voting ended up costing about U$92 million (however, some smaller savings were made at the end). While both countries have invested much in this process, the money was spent differently. The Iraqi case involved security costs and cost for translations while the Mexican budget included large amounts spent on information and the raising of awareness about the election.

The increased use of external voting has resulted in a high demand for knowledge on the topic. International IDEA receives an increasing number of requests for more expertise and advice on best practice as well as on the evaluation of external voting processes.

International IDEA’s new Handbook on Voting from Abroad, produced jointly with the Federal Electoral Institute of Mexico (IFE), is designed to meet the demand for additional knowledge on external voting. It includes the theoretical discussions of external voting, as well as case studies and comparative information from around the world. The Handbook can be used by those involved in any part of an external voting process in their work or debate on the issue. It is ideal for discussing the potential for introducing external voting, as well as for those looking into changes to their existing provisions.

Maria Gratschew is a Programme Officer at International IDEA in Stockholm and is one of the lead writers of International IDEA’s Handbook on Voting from Abroad

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