Who’s excluded from 2024’s bumper crop of elections?
In 2024 the world will see an unprecedented election year. For the first time, countries home to more than half of the global population will call voters to the polls as more than 70 elections take place in countries that are home to over 4 billion people.
But does that mean more than half the world’s people will freely and equally exercise their right to vote? Not at all – even though the opportunity to vote and to choose our elected representatives is a human right and central to democracy.
The coming year will therefore put a spotlight on both the global state of democracy and how inclusive electoral processes are.
But what makes an electoral process inclusive?
On the one hand, eligibility restrictions determine who has the right to vote or stand as a candidate.
On the other hand, access restrictions determine how those eligible can exercise their right to vote: Do all citizens have access to the political space, for example can they participate in debates online and offline? Do they have access to good information distributed by institutions like an election commission? Can they freely and equally participate in the political process around an election by becoming a candidate, election observer, party official, or voter?
Often, the answer to these questions is no. Those who are disadvantaged structurally – because of limited resources, sexism, ageism, ableism, transphobia, or xenophobia – often encounter barriers to participation in the political and electoral process due. Laws may prevent them from running for office. They may be physically shut out from voting spaces that do not account for different access needs. Or, discrimination, stigmatisation, and the threat of violence may keep them out of online and offline political discussions.
The three biggest election processes help illustrate the problem. In the EU, India, and the US, citizens will face challenges with respect to how inclusive their election processes are.
In the EU, around 400,000 people with learning disabilities from 16 Member States will not have the right to vote nor to stand for election in the upcoming EU parliamentary elections.
In India, meanwhile, the upcoming elections will be marked by a crackdown on civil liberties as well as a restriction of political space for people with disabilities in the world’s largest democracy.
And as the US election campaign picks up speed, hate speech and defamation – especially against LGBT+ people – will hinder the inclusivity of the electoral process.
Elections that are not inclusive are bad for democracy
Meaningful participation for everyone will only be possible where the eligibility to exercise their vote comes with equal access to the political spaces or credible information. Those who are marginalised and excluded are more vulnerable to electoral abuse or even violence from malign influences, which is a threat to the integrity of any electoral and subsequently democratic process.
All this is bad news for democracy. Clearly, democracy cannot be said to be living up to its name if people are barred from its most basic element –voting. It is also important to keep in mind political inclusion is linked to enhanced trust, more stability and better policy outcomes.
Inclusivity will be a core challenge in the 2024 election year. This must be reflected in democratic and governance programming around the globe.
For those concerned with strengthening democracy and electoral integrity, measures such as making political party offices and places of campaign accessible for persons with disabilities; ensuring accessible transport for public programmes and campaigns; and countering online abuse, hate speech, and defamation will be as important as analysing legislation and providing access to polling stations.
Inclusive electoral processes are a fundamental part of any credible democratic process and should be part of every democracy support programme. WFD plays its part by assessing the inclusivity of electoral process throughout the electoral cycle – in election periods and in the years between them – as part of it programmes aimed at enhancing the participation of women, young people, people with disabilities and, LGBT+ people.
Political inclusion and equality go hand in hand
But inclusive electoral processes should not solely be the concern of democracy and governance practitioners. For unequal political participation is both a cause and a consequence of other forms of inequality.
The recent UK Government international development white paper commits the UK to unlocking the full potential and power of women and girls; supporting LGBT+ rights through new programming investments and working with partners to remove discriminatory laws, reduce hate speech and violence, and improve access to services; and ensuring that persons with disabilities are engaged in decisions that affect them, and that their human rights are realised. Anyone invested in realising rights needs to be invested in inclusive elections.
Full and equal participation in political decision-making is essential for sustainable development, equality, and the realisation of human rights – and that includes the most fundamental and basic expression of that right: the right to vote.
Image credit: Commonwealth Secretariat / Flickr