Last Tuesday, a federal judge in Wisconsin struck a blow in one of America’s most contentious legal battles. Finding that Wisconsin’s new law requiring that citizens show government-issued photo IDs in order to vote was discriminatory and violated the Constitution, Judge Lynn Adelman set off a skirmish that is likely to be fought across nine states that have passed stricter voting rules since the beginning of 2013.
Most of these new rules created tougher ID requirements for casting a ballot, a stricter process for voter registration, or restricted the time period for voting and methods of absentee balloting.
“The disproportionate impact of the photo ID requirement [on racial minorities] results from the interaction of the requirement with the effects of past or present discrimination,” Judge Adelman wrote in her decision on Wisconsin.
The controversy over America’s restrictive voting laws – which supporters describe as necessary to prevent fraud and ensure uniformity among different regions – raised a question that is global in scope. We at ICIJ wanted to know: how restrictive are voting requirements in nations around the world?
To answer the question, ICIJ compared data in three areas that play a key role in the relative ease of voting. We examined the strictness of voting and registration ID requirements, whether voter registration is automatic or must actively be pursued by citizens, and whether certain groups such as felons and citizens with mental disabilities are prohibited from voting. The data covers between 65 and 234 countries, with the number of countries included varying by category.
Voting and registration ID requirements vary by region, with a small number of countries applying the most restrictive approach of requiring specific forms of government ID that voters must actively obtain. There is wide variety within regions, including Europe, Africa and South America, as to whether authorities automatically compile voter registration lists based on existing public records or voters must actively register. Prohibitions on voting related to criminal convictions and mental disability are common throughout the world.
Where does the United States fit in? Although there is no single requirement in the US that is unique, the cumulative constraints in states with tougher ID and registration standards place these states among the most restrictive voting environments in the world.
Here are our main findings, and the sources of our information, across the three areas we examined:
Voting and registration ID requirements
Nearly all countries’ ID requirements for registering or casting a ballot fall into one of three categories: multiple forms of ID are accepted, standard government-issued IDs are required, or particular types of government ID are required that voters must actively obtain.
The acceptance of multiple forms of ID to make voting more inclusive is common in Africa, where accepted identification includes affidavits by tribal elders in countries such as Liberia, Malawi and The Gambia. Most European countries required standard government-issued IDs, which are widely necessary for accessing public services, in order to vote. In the Americas, many countries including the United States require specific types of government ID that voters must apply to obtain.
Tova Wang, an expert on international voting rights for the liberal think tank Demos, said that while narrower ID requirements are often enacted to combat real or alleged voter fraud, such systems tend to be more susceptible to mischief than less restrictive approaches. She cited the example of Nicaragua’s 2011 elections, where members of the ruling Sandinista party controlled the distribution of national ID cards required for voting, and were reported to issue them to political supporters while denying them to opponents. The US National Democratic Institute (no friend of the Sandinistas) reported in 2009 that four in ten Nicaraguans lacked national IDs cards.
“From the research I’ve done, the issue of people being disenfranchised has the potential to skew elections and harm the democratic process in a way that document fraud has not,” Wang said.
Elsewhere in Central America, however, Wang found that Mexico and Belize have voter registration rates of over 95 percent despite their requirement that citizens actively obtain specific forms of ID to register and vote. She said that this was because both countries had devoted major resources to making voter IDs accessible, including for rural, indigenous and other marginalized populations.
“They go through tremendous steps to make sure that people get it,” Wang said.
There are broad differences within regions as to whether voter rolls are compiled automatically based on other public records, or whether voters must actively seek out registration. The former approach results in broad or near-universal voter registration, while the latter requires citizens to take the initiative to become eligible voters.
Not only did the continents of Europe, Africa and South America have varying approaches to this question by country, but large countries such as the India, Russia and the United States have different levels of government involvement or regulation of voter registration in different states.
The voter registration data was drawn from statistics compiled by the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, a collaborative project of nine nonprofit and United Nations organizations that seek to promote transparent and credible elections.
Groups restricted from voting
Most countries in our data prohibit prisoners from voting, although only a small number of them extend the prohibition to those with prior convictions. Voting bans for people with mental disabilities are also common.
Countries including Turkey, Egypt, Venezuela and Colombia also restrict voting by members of the military, policies intended to underscore the military’s independence from politics. These countries have long histories of military coups and political meddling – and the recent military takeover in Egypt shows that such restrictions will accomplish little if elections are disregarded altogether.
Other groups excluded from voting include members of the judiciary in Egypt and Somalia, those with multiple citizenship in Belarus, and women in Saudi Arabia (although women will be allowed to vote in local Saudi elections starting in 2015).
The voter restriction data was drawn from statistics compiled by the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network.
Update (May 8, 2014): Thanks to a couple of sharp-eyed readers who have helped out with some changes to our map, including updating the information for Germany (where residents register their addresses with authorities, who then use that information to actively compile the voters register) and Denmark (where a similar method is used to compile the voters register, and where voters with a physical or mental disability are actually allowed to vote with the assistance of a helper). Keep those emails coming!