A democracy is more than just the right to vote once every four years. In a democracy, the government exists first and foremost for the people and by the people. The practice of free and fair elections gives us the power to decide our futures and change our countries for the better.
What are free and fair elections?
A free and fair electoral process guarantees that all eligible voters are able to exercise their right to vote without fearing for their safety or integrity. Free and fair elections are secure, easy to audit, and totally inclusive.
The American political theorist Robert Dahl describes a free and fair democratic process as a system in which “coercion is comparably uncommon”. Dahl stated that the most basic democratic principle is “the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals” (source). In a truly fair democratic process, the voice of every voter is taken into account and no one has to be afraid of speaking their mind.
What makes elections free and fair?
Elections are free and fair when all participants can vote for the candidates or political parties of their choice without any fear of fraud or personal repercussions. Election administrators must keep vigilant before, during, and after the electoral process to guarantee free, fair, and secure elections.
When the democratic process is respected, rules are put in place to organize voter registration, political campaigning, the ease of voting, and the autonomy of electoral commissions. A solid and streamlined voting system gives the electorate access to information, allowing people to freely make their choices prior to a future election.
There are certain strategies an organization or electoral body can take to ensure the best democratic standards are achieved. A digital system can be put in place to keep elections organized and efficient. An online voting system can optimize and hasten the electoral process while also safeguarding the identity and physical integrity of all eligible voters.
1. An open voter registration process
A citizen’s right to vote is the backbone of a healthy democracy. The first step towards guaranteeing free and fair elections is to give all eligible voters the opportunity and the right tools to register to vote. The protection and encouragement of voter registration are fundamental for the even-handed practice of democracy.
After all, taking away voter registration rights is one of the main tactics used by autocrats to take power away from the people. For example, when the Nazis rose to power in 1930s Germany, one of the first actions they took was to censor all individuals and political parties who stood in opposition to their ideology (source).
Naturally, a democracy must put specific restrictions on who is able to vote. It is required for voters to reach the age majority in their country before they can participate in presidential elections. Likewise, people with a criminal history are barred from voting under several countries’ election laws. Besides those particular cases, any citizen who meets the eligibility requirements to vote must be able to register.
2. Reliable information is freely available to voters
Prof. Joseph Stiglitz, the author of The Price of Inequality, states that “a well-informed citizenry is important for a well-functioning democracy, and that in turn requires an active and diverse media” (source). Even if 100% of the electorate is allowed to freely cast their ballot, an election can’t be considered fair if voters make their choices based on disinformation and hearsay.
Many oppressive regimes around the world claim they are democratic because they practice some form of election process. However, by mandating unbalanced media coverage and limiting the opposition’s chances to campaign, they handicap political parties. Even in this day and age, restricting the population’s right to be informed and similar human rights violations are a commonplace occurrence in countries such as Hungary and Chechnya.
3. Citizens are allowed to run for office
Every citizen of a country who is eligible to vote must also be permitted to run for office. Just as a government can’t prevent the general population from participating in a federal election, it can’t disallow any eligible individual from becoming the next president.
While this principle takes center stage in the political activities of the EU, it is seldom seen in states like Russia, where it is completely absent. When a potential candidate is prevented from running for office, a whole sector of the electorate is negatively impacted, as they are deprived of having another valid option to vote for.
4. An all-inclusive voting process
Simply put, every citizen who is eligible to vote and has registered to vote must be able to freely practice that right. Any government or organization that administers an election must make strides to make voting a reasonable possibility for the citizenry.
Even if there is no intention to harm the integrity of the elections, these can still see themselves compromised due to unforeseen issues. For instance, access to polling stations can be severely limited to people with a disability or a health condition that impairs their movement in some way. Likewise, people who live too far from polling stations rely on having the means to get there to vote.
Both of these problems can be easily circumvented with the use of a digital voting platform. Online voting brings those who face challenges when voting closer to the ballot boxes. Users of state-of-the-art online voting solutions can vote over the distance from their phone, tablet, or computer if they wish.
5. Everyone can vote without fearing for their safety
If an election is not safe, then it is not free. When voters are threatened with violence, legal repercussions, or a similar form of punishment, their rights are directly attacked. Any government or organization that doesn’t crack down on intimidation tactics is an accomplice via inaction. Ideally, election day should be celebrated peacefully and wholeheartedly by all parties.
It is important to note that violence during elections is not always observed explicitly. A government with ill intentions may be prone to staffing polling stations with intentionally intimidating poll workers or placing armed bystanders in an effort to intimidate the population. To account for these potential issues, election law dictates that every voter has the right to ballot secrecy.
The implementation of secret ballots guarantees that no one will face prosecution or discrimination because of their political opinion. Of the several methods used to achieve ballot secrecy, the most effective is data encryption. When people vote on a digital voting platform, secure system architecture and encryption solutions keep all voter data away from malicious third parties.
6. A transparent and easily-auditable political process
Transparency is fundamental to certifying the integrity of election results. Failure to practice a fully transparent electoral process, even if unintentional, can be seen by a losing party as a sign of fraud. On this ground, it might be possible to nullify the entire election, which would mean that a substantial amount of time and money has been wasted.
During the voting process, election observations by neutral third parties must always be respected. If elections are not observed, the will of the voters can be compromised by someone adding illegal ballots or performing other unlawful practices. Not only should the presence of election monitors be expected during the electoral process, but it should also be motivated and even demanded by the electorate.
7. The accurate counting of ballots
Ballots contain very valuable and sensitive information, and must therefore always be handled with utmost care. To have free and fair elections, all ballots must be accurately counted and their results reported accordingly. If ballots are altered, thrown out, or destroyed, the whole electoral process is jeopardized.
Online voting solutions drastically facilitate the counting of votes regardless of the size of an election. Because every digital vote exists as data, the artificial intelligence that powers digital voting platforms can automatically take ballot box information and count votes precisely. Thanks to avant-garde reporting tools, election organizers can have access to the full results of an election at the exact moment the polls close.
8. The election results are respected by all parties
In a free and fair democracy, the loser of an election accepts the results. Even if this concept might seem logical, the current political landscape has seen disagreements of all types of harshness and validity. For instance, the US Capitol Attack of January 6, 2021, which ended with over a hundred wounded and the passing of a participant, began due to the fearmongering tactics employed by the losing candidate (source).
The task of safeguarding democracy lies in the hands of all of those who believe in it. Unfortunately, we live in an era where the democratic processes of many countries are at risk. Due to this, it is indispensable to protect and exercise our right to vote whenever the opportunity presents itself to us.
What actions can we take to protect the integrity of elections?
The most immediate action one can take to protect the integrity of elections is to register to vote and go to the polls. Additionally, encouraging the people in one’s district or locality to participate in elections helps strengthen the practice of democracy.
Digital voting platforms guarantee widespread access to voting. Online voting is fast, safe, convenient, and available from any mobile device capable of connecting to the Internet. Elections held online respect the anonymity of every voter while still providing election officials with all the information they and auditors need to guarantee the integrity of the democratic process.