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What Democracy and Voting Rights Look Like Around the World

All around the world people have had to fight for the right to vote.

And it’s been a long fight, too. But, over the past century, the state of democracy in the world has grown decidedly better.

In more and more countries, elections are increasingly transparent, democratic, and fair.
Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 11.20.32 PM.pngSource: Our World In Data

But that doesn’t excuse the rest of the world, much of which isn’t there yet. Anocracies — governments which act more authoritarian than democratic — have deep political clout in modern global (just look at developed countries like Russia and Turkey). And universal suffrage is, unfortunately, not yet a reality.

So here’s a brief glimpse at voting rights around the world, as well as some odds and ends about the state of democracy up to the year 2016. We’ll also provide each country’s overall grade, as per the Global Citizen’s People’s Report Card. Each grade reflects that country’s progress toward the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as well as criteria like “Personal Freedom and Choice”.

In Saudi Arabia, women got the right to vote … last year.

Some progress for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia was made in 2015: that is, they won the right to vote.

But it’s not clear how much that will mean to democracy in the country. Saudi Arabia has had notoriously few elections — about seven in 80 years, and its government is, in practice, a monarchy. Any legislation passed by the governing body has to also be vetted and approved by the reigning monarch, currently King Abdullah

Reactions to women gaining the right to vote were mixed, with some using the opening to run for political office, while others boycotted the election entirely.

“In my point of view, it's putting backward the women movement for rights. ... This election is just — it's for the West, it's not for us. ... It's good for our picture in the West," Aziza Youssef, a Saudi woman and former university lecturer,told NPR.

Hopefully some awareness can come from their new platform.

Score: B-

In Turkey and Belgium, it’s legally required to vote.

And in 31 other countries. It seems the world hasn’t decided yet whether you’re right not to vote deserves legal protection. But a fair few have taken the liberty of saying it doesn’t. In countries like Turkey and Belgium, you’re mandated to vote on election days.

The result is often higher turnout. By percentage of registered voters, Belgium’s turnout was 87.2%. Turkey’s trailed just behind it at 85.2%. Measuring just developed countries, the two have the highest turnout in the world.

In countries with compulsory voting, the illegality of not showing up to cast your ballot depends upon its enforcement. In Turkey, for instance, the law isn’t really enforced. But in Belgium, not voting could make it harder to get a job in the public sector, and you might lose your right to vote altogether if you don’t do vote in four consecutive elections.

Turkey’s score: B-

Belgium’s score: A-

Voting rights in the United States are complicated (still).

As the US faces a contentious. election, voting has never been more important. But by international standards, voter turnout in the United States is relatively low. In the 2012 presidential election, roughly 54% of Americans turned up at the polls.

A major factor in that poor turnout rate has been ease of access and registration, which has been a divisive issue, especially this past year. It’s even been a strategic move to cry fraud, and probably without merit. As a result we’ve seen political movements to strengthen voter ID laws. Those laws, however, have been criticized for disenfranchising minority voters without adequate identification.

Recent examples in 2016 took place in North Carolina and in Ohio, a major swing state. Both state governments had been trying to reinstitute early voting cutbacks and ID requirements.

In North Carolina, a 4-4 split in the United States Supreme Court struck down the voting restrictions, which North Carolina Gov. Pat McRory had argued were “common-sense” voting laws. Meanwhile, critics of the restrictions decried their ability to target minorities with “surgical precision.”

Read More: Why People in the United States Don’t Vote

In Ohio, the Court left in place restrictions enacted by a Republican-controlled legislature. The restrictions eliminated a week during which voters could both register and vote at the same time, which the state argued to be an unnecessary administrative burden.  

Other U.S. voting rights issues include the disenfranchisement of citizens with criminal records, which are legislated at the state level. While some states, like Maine and Vermont, allow criminals to vote from jail, others swing the opposite direction. In Alabama, for instance, an ex-convict’s right to vote determined based upon the “moral turpitude” of his or her crime.

In this 2016 election, more than 6 million citizens will not have a vote due to a felony conviction on their records. That, too, is a statistic which disproportionately affects minorities:  1 in 13 African-Americans, according to data from The Sentencing Project.

So voting rights in the United States are theoretically good, but voter vulnerability on a state-by-state basis raises questions about their security. Unfortunately, this is especially true if you’re a minority.

Score: A-

Voting rights in Russia are much worse.

In early November seven Russian officials were removed from polling stations where “irregularities” were reported by Reuters, after their elections were heavily monitored for fraud. Lo and behold, there was fraud, which only added to the longstanding belief that Russian elections are democratic only in name.

Internationally they’ve long been subject to criticism. That’s because rampant cases of ballot-stuffing have been increasingly recorded since 2003, according to one PNAS study. The predictability of a Putin victory is so high that it’s even affected turnout, which has plummeted to a record low in Russia: 47.8%.

Democratic? Fair? Scholars and critics have claimed that “[o]nly Kremlin apologists and Putin sycophants argue that Russian elections meet the standards of good democratic practice”

Of course, the Kremlin responded to the contrary, insisting that the election was fair and demonstrated Russia’s “political stability.”

And while that response is unsurprising, what is strange is the current 80% approval rating enjoyed by the Russian government. You’d never think Putin would be that popular, considering half that many people showed up the ballot box at all.

Score: C-

Switzerland ended suffrage pretty late, but New Zealand took care of business in 1893.

Amazingly it’s only been 35 years since women got the vote in Switzerland. Reason-being? Switzerland’s government is modeled on what's called “direct-democracy,” a system in which citizens, via national referendums, directly control constitutional change.

Which meant that Swiss men had the power to vote down instituting women’s voting rights.

So, in 1958, a national referendum on women’s voting was struck down by a 67% majority. It took over 12 years for the next referendum, held in 1971, to pass.

New Zealand, on the other hand, was the first country to bring the vote to women. It happened in 1893, after a long period of political activism by the suffragette movement. At the time, pro-women’s rights activists could be identified by white camellias worn to the House of Representatives. Their opposition, the “anti-suffragettes” wore red.

Switzerland’s Score: A

New Zealand’s Score: A-

Read More: These Are the People who Fought Like Hell for Your Right To Vote

97.5% of Rwandans #ShowedUp for their 2010 election.

Yes, it’s an extremely high number.

Although it wasn’t a very competitive election — incumbent Paul Kagame won with 93% of the vote — it was, nonetheless, a highly lauded moment of celebration for the country. The 2010 elections were the second to be held since the end of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.

A gripping analysis of president Kagame in The Guardian, however, tells a different story. It suggests that a tight grip over the country’s journalists, in tandem with a steady stream of propaganda, were involved in manipulating the result. One source states that, a month before the election, its outcome had already been decided.

So while the turnout was commendable, it’s unclear whether voting rights really exist when voters exist in a state of disinformation. A good and fair democracy is the sum of many civil liberties, like freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest. All those parts need to be in order for Rwanda’s high turnout rate to affect political progress.

Score: C-