We are now 16 years into the 21st century. While major elections will be held in dozens of countries this year — including of course the U.S. — to decide the future of nations, and indeed perhaps the future of the world, sadly millions of voters will continue to be disenfranchised. They will not able to participate in elections in a free and independent manner because election officials will continue to use methods that are centuries old.
Who is being disenfranchised?
Historically, study after study has identified the disabled and out-of-country voters as among the most consistently disfranchised groups in democratic nations. The movement of people from one country to another, often to flee violence and death, has accelerated in recent decades. Their voices are often not heard because they cannot participate in elections held in their own country. The percentage of people identified as disabled has also accelerated in recent years – according to the World Bank, a billion people, 15% of the world’s population, experience some kind of disability(XII). This is occurring as aging populations of baby boomers, particularly in Western democracies, are placing greater demands on governments. Election officials are tasked with finding innovative methods to make the voting process less cumbersome and more accessible.
Aging and disabled voters are often place-bound, and cannot even get to polling stations. They have difficulty using complex voting devices and systems, including paper ballots, especially when the fonts are often so small that only strong eyeglasses or a magnifier will allow voters to see their ballot choices. Indeed, in much of the world blind and/or disabled voters have no privacy and no independence whatsoever when they vote.
Similarly, external voters — voters who are permanently or temporarily outside their home country — face all kind of obstacles in exercising their voting rights. Too many are expected to travel thousands of miles and spend a significant amount of money to have the opportunity to cast a ballot. Technological advances have helped to make life easier for everyone, including for disabled voters and voters away from home. In our mobile phone connected world, except in non-democratic authoritarian nations, people can easily converse, text, pay bills, tweet, email, and use social media to make their opinions known using their own abilities. With such technology, one would think that it would be easy for these same voters to make their voice and vote count in their own country. Unfortunately, election authorities have been much too slow to adopt and adapt to new technologies that can better serve disabled and overseas voters. It is time to bring these advances into the voting process and take serious steps to empower these historically disenfranchised voters.
It should be noted that many countries have made great strides in attempting to make voting easier, introducing such methods as early voting, online voter registration and establishing Vote Centers. However, such methods have not had a great effect on improving the process for historically disenfranchised voters.
What has made it easier for disabled and external voters in some countries is the use of modern voting technology and the internet. Devices that allow voters to cast their ballots independently and privately either at polling places or wherever they may be are increasing participation for disenfranchised and especially younger voters, who are more likely to vote when newer technology is provided. In the U.S., voters with disabilities have been given strong legal rights to demand newer technology to serve their particular needs. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 gave specific rights to U.S. voters that require voting devices at each polling place to allow disabled voters to cast their ballots privately and independently. While a great start, HAVA does not really mandate the same technology for voters who are home-bound, even though such technology is now readily available.
So what can be done to increase participation and serve these voters? Disenfranchised voters and their supporters should demand the use of modern voting technology to serve their particular needs. Election officials should become more aware of such technology, and then advocate its use. They should educate and enlighten public officials who pass election laws and provide funding so that voting can be modernized in their country. Courts should recognize that new technology now exists to empower disenfranchised voters, and mandate the use of such technology when public officials drag their feet in serving such voters. The time for 21st century voting technology and methods is now — and long overdue.