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Free and fair elections are the foundation of democracy and allow for the free and just societies we want to live in. We all want to have a voice in determining the future of our country and in shaping the lives we live under. And we want our voice to count exactly the same as everyone else’s.
What are free and fair elections?
For this, we need free and fair elections. In fact, in order for a country to truly be a democracy, its elections must be both free and fair. But this basic facet of democracy is increasingly in doubt, even in places like the European Union. For example, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which carries out election observations, assessed Hungary’s last election as free but not fair. With Poland’s judiciary now almost fully under the control of the government, there is doubt about its impartiality should election cases come before it, as happened last year when it upheld the victory of the ruling party.
What makes elections free and fair?
There are many necessary components of free and fair elections, although all of them are fairly straightforward and to be expected in true democracies. Specifically, there are eight standards that must be met for an election to be free and fair. But it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not only about the elections themselves. There is a system around elections that, in order for them to be free and fair, must be vibrant and free from government meddling.
When speaking about elections directly, it’s things like voter registration, rules on political campaigning, ease of voting, and independence of elections commission, among other things, that ensure free and fair elections. On the system around the elections, we mean things like whether you’ve got room for critical NGOs and critical media, and the quality of (civic) education and quality of media coverage. These things help ensure that the public has access to factual information and can have informed public debate outside the electoral race period.
Here are the eight crucial standards elections must meet in order to be considered free and fair:
1. Voter registration
The first standard that defines free and fair elections is that citizens are able to register to vote. This does not mean that governments cannot place certain limitations on the right to vote. For example, countries limit the right to vote to citizens above a certain age. But in order for an election to be free and fair, all citizens who meet the eligibility requirements need to be able to register to vote.
Limiting the ability of eligible citizens to register vote is one tactic some governments use to remain in power. A prominent example of this is in the United States, when southern states limited the ability of Black citizens to register and cast votes in elections in the decades following the American Civil War.
2. Voters have access to reliable information
In order for citizens to make informed choices at the ballot box, they need accurate information about the candidates and political platforms they're choosing between. This means that governments can’t prevent the media from covering opposition candidates or parties, and it also means that parties don’t intentionally spread misinformation. So access to reliable information is a key requirement for free and fair elections.
It is also one of the standards most under threat today. Governments such as those in Hungary, Slovenia, Poland and others are attacking free media. Wealthy friends of the government buy up independent outlets and turn them into government mouthpieces. And the proliferation of social media allows government misinformation to be amplified.
3. Citizens can run
In a democracy with free and fair elections, governments exist for the people, are empowered by the people, and are made up of the people. A citizen who is eligible to vote should also be eligible to run for office. Governments cannot attack or prevent people who want to run for office, assuming they meet the same eligibility criteria as other politicians and candidates.
This standard is generally secure in the European Union, but in states with sham elections, like Russia, it is non-existent. And the violation is not just to the individual prevented from taking part, but to all voters, because depriving them of a valid option at the polls is to deprive them of their right to choose the leaders they want. Which, of course, is the foundation of democracy.
4. All voters are able to vote
Even if voters are given the right to vote, and are able to register to vote, an election is not free and fair unless they are then able to actually cast their ballot. Governments need to make voting reasonably possible for citizens. They must not be overly burdened to reach polling places, and reasonable accommodation should be made to ensure that citizens with a disability or other health condition, or lack of transportation, are still able to vote.
5. Voters are not intimidated
Nobody should be intimidated or threatened at any point during an election. This includes outside and inside the polling station, but also before election day. The threat of violence can make people afraid to vote their preference.
The threat of violence also does not need to be overt to violate this standard. If the government staffs polling places with poll watchers who are intentionally intimidating looking, or even armed, this can intimidate voters. So too can having people observe the actual process of voting. This is why secret ballots are important to ensure that voters feel safe and secure while voting.
6. Voting is free from fraud
Every eligible voter should be able to cast one ballot, and it should be counted the same as every other ballot. When illegal ballots are counted along with legal ballots, the result does not reflect the will of voters.
7. Ballots are counted accurately and the correct results are reported
Counting all ballots and giving an accurate reporting of that count are essential parts of a free and fair election. Ballots must not be altered or thrown out after they are cast. And when a fair count is done, the government cannot refuse to release it, or release a different result.
Most true democracies have commissions and other bodies that ensure that this standard is respected as part of a free and fair election. Still, there have been troubling reports, for example in Hungary, of this and other standards being violated. And in countries without free and fair elections, this is another standard routinely ignored. In the last election in Belarus, poll workers claimed they were forced to change ballots to the ensure that President Alexander Lukashenko remained in power.
8. The results are respected
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s one standard that’s recently been tested even in the United States. In free and fair elections, the loser accepts the result. Especially if they’re the one already in power. Peaceful transitions of power underpin democracy.
Last year, was saw the sitting US president appear to encourage violence to remain in power and continuously lie about the election result. It didn’t work, but it showed that even the most straightforward standard of free and fair elections can come into doubt.
Free and fair elections around the world
Free and fair elections are fair from a foregone conclusion, even in countries that style themselves as democracies (by holding elections), or consider their democracies strong (because previous elections have been free and fair). In recent years, elections have been held in Russia and Belarus that were far from free and fair. Imprisoning political opponents, voter intimidation, vote fraud, and media partiality were all features of these elections.
But, as mentioned, there are concerns about free and fair elections even in areas, like the European Union, where democracy has traditionally been strong. Hungary is sliding deeper and deeper into authoritarianism, and there is serious concern that it will not hold another fair election under the current government. This is also a concern in other authoritarian-minded EU states, like Poland and Slovenia.
And even in the United States, often considered a beacon of democracy and freedom much like the EU, the last presidential election flirted with not being free and fair. Although the run-up to the election and the election itself were free and fair, the loser did not accept the result. Only the strength and independence of the judiciary and other government bodies ensured the transfer of power from the loser to the winner.
What can we do to make elections more fair?
With the proliferation of disinformation and the ongoing state capture of media, currently ongoing in several EU states, one area to focus on is the media. Making sure that governments don’t spread misinformation, that citizens have access to reliable information, that all candidates and parties are able to get media coverage and have their voices heard – these are things that are currently under threat and must be addressed in order to secure free and fair elections.
We should also support to work of non-governmental organizations and citizen groups. These act as a bridge between citizens and politicians. They allow for dialogue between the two, help inform public debate on important issues and on elections, and can also help citizens, especially those who are elderly or living with a disability, exercise their right to vote.
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