Focus on Voter Identification

The ACE Focus On Voter Identification is based on research initially conducted for The Carter Center publication "Voter Identification Requirements and Public International Law: An Examination of Africa and Latin America"

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage…” According to these terms, all persons in a country who meet the qualifications to be a voter must be afforded access to the voting process and on equal terms with all other eligible persons.

Suffrage fails to be universal or equal in many ways all across the world. One way that countries often fall short of this internationally accepted standard for democracy is through the process that is required to prove one’s identity. In most countries, an individual who wishes to participate in an election must somehow prove their identity, essentially demonstrating that they are who they say they are. They must also affirm their citizenship and age, and officials must ensure that the applicant is not already included in the registry. The ways in which voters are allowed to demonstrate who they are both during registration and during voting vary.

The rationale for this of course is to prevent ineligible voters from registering to vote and make sure no voter registers more than once.

However, while it is critical to the legitimacy of elections that such types of fraud be prevented, there is another side to the voter identification process that has rarely been examined: the disenfranchising effect some voter identification processes have when the resources are not committed to making them work; groups this disproportionately impacts; and whether under a cost-benefit analysis, certain types of ID regimes, particularly those making use of expensive biometric technology, make sense. Many countries exclude groups of voters from the elections process by virtue of unmanageably strict or poorly administered voter identification requirements. Yet international and domestic democracy advocates rarely examine this aspect of the process when evaluating elections. In short, we have a serious global challenge to broad enfranchisement that must be addressed and has not been to date in most international or national domestic democracy circles.

In addition, no one has to date stopped to look at whether voter identification procedures de jure or de facto violate internationally accepted norms regarding universal and equal suffrage. Evaluations and reports on election practices typically indicate where a country is or is not in compliance with established international law, but have not done so consistently with respect to this issue.
International public law does provide some limited guidance on the role and process of voter registration and identification practices. An analysis of major international documents indicates this guidance can be distilled down to the following six points:

1. Any conditions which apply to voter registration and other electoral processes should be based on objective and reasonable criteria, and only reasonable restrictions may be established;[i]
2. Obstacles to registration should not be imposed;[ii]
3. There should be no discrimination in the law or the process with respect to a number of identified groups including women and ethnic and racial minorities;[iii]
4. There should be no “abusive interference” in the process;[iv]
5. Steps should be taken to ensure that displaced persons can replace lost or destroyed identity documents that prove their citizenship; [v] and
6. States must take active measures to ensure citizens are able to vote, and must truly facilitate the process of registration, including the identification process.[vi]

Looking at identification laws and procedures in Africa and Latin America, it is clear most countries violate one or more of these standards.

In this brief, I will explore the major ways in which certain types of voter identification systems in Africa and Latin America disenfranchise some voters and who the most affected populations are. I will also describe a sampling of systems in which voter verification is effective and disenfranchisement is kept to a minimum, and how this is achieved. The increasing use of biometrics will be presented, posing the question whether they solve problems of vote fraud and the extent to which they may exacerbate the problems of voter exclusion.

I will also analyze the ways in which these different procedures may not be in keeping with international public law. Finally, I will present the possibility of establishing some principles or at a minimum some suggested guidelines to assist international organizations, governments, and citizens when assessing their voter identification procedures and whether they are sufficient to pass established norms of suffrage.

The issue of voter identification procedures and their potential to exclude certain groups from the democratic process has been little examined let alone critiqued by those in the business of encouraging greater democracy, nor have solutions to these problems that also provide fraud prevention been explored. This paper seeks to instigate that discussion and that process.

[i] See for example UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Comment 25
4. Any conditions which apply to the exercise of the rights protected by article 25 should be based on objective and reasonable criteria…
10. The right to vote at elections and referenda must be established by law and may be subject only to reasonable restrictions…

[ii] See for example UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Comment 25, “11. Where registration of voters is required, it should be facilitated and obstacles to such registration should not be imposed.”

[iii] See for example International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Article 5
“In compliance with the fundamental obligations laid down in article 2 of this Convention, States Parties undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment of the following rights:
… (c) Political rights, in particular the right to participate in elections-to vote and to stand for election-on the basis of universal and equal suffrage, to take part in the Government as well as in the conduct of public affairs at any level and to have equal access to public service.”

[iv] See for example UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Comment 25, “11. Any abusive interference with registration or voting as well as intimidation or coercion of voters should be prohibited by penal laws and those laws should be strictly enforced.”

[v] The African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance for Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (the “Kampala Convention”) requires states to take measures to ensure that displaced persons can acquire or replace any documentation that proves their citizenship. Principle 22 of the UN Commission on Human Rights Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Persons states that “internally displaced persons, whether or not they are living in camps, shall not be discriminated against as a result of their displacement in the enjoyment of the following rights… (d) The right to vote and to participate in governmental and public affairs, including the right to have access to the means necessary to exercise this right…”[v]

[vi] The U.N. Comment to Article 25 declares, “States must take effective measures to ensure that all persons entitled to vote are able to exercise that right. Where registration of voters is required, it should be facilitated…” This obligation requires states to take active measures to ensure that eligible citizens have the identification they need to register and to vote. The comment also states, “Voter education and registration campaigns are necessary to ensure the effective exercise of article 25 rights by an informed community.”