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October 24, 2022 HUMAN RIGHTS

The Price of Democracy in International Elections

by Elizabeth M. Yang

As we consider the economics of voting as it relates to international elections, perhaps the first question might be: What is the cost of international elections? This naturally leads to the second query: What does the cost of an election entail? After all, the process of voting encompasses more than just Election Day—there is voter registration, safeguards to ensure the integrity of the system, voter education, voter outreach, ballots, advertising, polling locations and machinery, mail-in ballots, and staff costs, to name more than a few. The list really does become endless. Yet, one might think that the answers should still be easy to ascertain—everything has a cost. We live in a world where all matter of information is at our fingertips, either in a paper file or at the touch of a button, on a hard drive or a server or in the cloud. The answer, though, is not that easy and certainly not due to a lack of tremendous effort by domestic and international think tanks, academic institutions, foundations, and nonprofits. 

It goes without saying that determining election costs on an international level is complicated for the same reasons as in the United States.

It goes without saying that determining election costs on an international level is complicated for the same reasons as in the United States.


Let’s use the United States as an example. As in many other countries, the cost of elections in the United States is an elusive figure. Why is that? The short answer is because elections in the United States are administered at the state and local government levels with a multitude of federal mandates. These mandates are necessary, as they form the bulk of voting rights protections for historically marginalized and underrepresented communities in the electoral process. Funding of elections comes from these three sources of government funding, and expenses will depend on the type of election—will the election be solely a local or state election, a federal election, or a combination of the three—that is being run. There is no uniform system of voting or election administration in the United States. Each state and its localities administer elections differently, and its electoral processes are tailored to best fit the needs of its citizenry. As an example, in a state with contiguous neighboring counties, there is no guarantee that voting machinery or ballots will look the same or that polling places will be the same size or type of building. It can be a bit like comparing apples to oranges in comparing the costs of elections across states and localities in the United States.

It goes without saying that determining election costs on an international level is complicated for the same reasons as in the United States and for many more. International elections also consider many different factors. Examples include multi-party participation, involving more than two major political parties; proportional representation versus a single member, winner-take-all method, or a combination of the two; election management bodies that operate under the direction of the government, an independent body, or a combination of both; electoral quotas for national ethnic minorities and others; and funding from foreign governmental and non-governmental entities as part of global democracy building. The main body of work on this topic is Getting to the CORE: A Global Survey on the Cost of Registration and Elections, published in 2015 by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and the United Nations Development Programme.

As lawyers, committed to equal justice and the rule of law, we understand the importance of democracy. The ability to express one’s voice through representative government ensures that we have a voice in debate and decision-making that affect us as individuals and as a greater society. Elections, in any country, that are conducted in a free and fair manner, without fear of reprisal, embody the promise of democracy.

While it can be difficult to quantify the actual costs of administering international elections, there are some general assumptions about costs that can be considered. Typically, the general cost of elections will vary depending on the type of democratic status in each individual state—stable, transitional, or emerging from conflict—as there will be different priorities for funding various elements of the voting process. This is best seen by breaking down election administration costs (voter registration, boundary delimitation, voting, counting of votes and transmission of results, dispute adjudication, voter education, and vigilance through monitors and observers) into two categories of core and integrity. Core costs are generally fixed and fundamental to the administration of an election. Integrity costs can fluctuate depending on a political climate and are related to tasks that support or promote the integrity of the electoral process to the public or even in some instances provide for physical security at the polling places.

In stable democracies, such as the United States, Australia, and Sweden, there is a general trend of relatively high core costs and minimal integrity costs, except for those related to voting (e.g., operation materials, logistics, and training). In transitional democracies, such as Mexico and Guatemala, there are slightly higher core costs for dispute adjudication, voter education, and monitors and observers, and slightly higher integrity costs, in such areas as voting, ballot counting, voter education, and monitors and observers. And finally, in countries emerging from conflict, such as Iraq and Haiti, there are generally very high core and integrity costs. Id. at 18.

Overall, the core costs of voting in international elections can also be higher than in the United States due to the fundamental differences in voting processes. The primary difference in voting between the United States and many other countries is the use of proportional representation voting, which can also be coupled with electoral quotas. These methods of voting can add to the cost of administering an election, as it is not as simple as a winner-take-all system. One can certainly argue that the cost is worth the extra effort in these countries.

Electoral quotas can be used to create gender and ethnic minority equity within the political process. According to the Center for American Women in Politics, in 2022, in the United States, women account for 24 percent of the Senate and 28 percent of the House of Representatives (Women in the U.S. Congress 2022, CAWP (2022)). In the United States, women make up just over 50 percent of the population. Yet, in Sweden, where women make up just under 50 percent of the population, they now account for 46 percent of the parliament (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Sweden Gender Quota Database, Int. IDEA (2022)). This is because Sweden’s political parties now have voluntarily adopted an effective 50 percent quota of women candidates. In contrast, Taiwan uses a system of semi-proportional representation for its 113-member Legislative Yuan. Each voter is allowed to cast two votes, one for the district of residence and the other vote for a political party. The 73 district seats are elected via a plurality (i.e., winner-take-all), and the remaining 40 seats are chosen via proportional representation (34 are chosen via party lists and 6 are reserved for Indigenous constituencies) (Cedric Sam, Taiwan 2020 Election Results, (2020)).

Single-member, winner-take-all plurality voting awards the contest to the candidate who receives the most votes, which does not necessarily have to be a majority of the votes cast. In contrast, proportional representation voting through a single, transferrable vote awards votes to a particular political party, which then uses a list system to elect representatives. As mentioned above, Sweden has been able to maintain near-perfect gender equity in political representation by utilizing a proportional representation system. In Sweden, voters are given political party ballots to cast for each contest, then the political parties use an open list to determine who are the winning candidates (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance).

These voting systems might seem like an anathema to the average American citizen, but the reality is that there is a trend in the United States to explore alternative methods to the traditional, first-past-the-post, winner-take-all election method of electing representatives. In fact, currently 10 states—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Vermont—require a candidate to win with a majority of the vote. If that does not happen, then a runoff between the top two candidates is required (National Conference of State Legislatures, Primary Runoffs (2022)). The high-profile 2020 U.S. Senate race between now Senator Jon Ossoff and then Georgia incumbent Senator David Perdue resulted in neither candidate receiving a majority of the votes in November 2019, so both competed in a runoff in January 2021. Ranked-choice voting occurs when voters rank the slate of candidates, and the first candidate to receive a majority of the votes wins. If in the first round there is no majority winner, then counting proceeds to the second preference, and so on, until a majority winner is chosen. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies wrote, “[i]t is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country” (New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311 (Brandeis, L., dissenting)). Our states are laboratories of democracy, and we should consider all efforts that will seek to further engage our citizenry and encourage and promote the integrity of our elections.

Benefits of Global Democracy

The presence of democracy, in and of itself, does not create economic growth and stability. It is worth noting that countries with vibrant and nascent democracies tend to provide greater educational and health opportunities and desire to overturn historical inequities. These positive investments in people create and sustain a stronger workforce and a stronger economy, which lead to a more engaged citizenry, all of which engender a greater and more inclusive democracy. Trying to determine the actual cost of elections around the world may be elusive. What is very clear, however, is that the cost of elections is well worth the price of creating global democracy and a more civil society.

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Elizabeth M. Yang

President, WStrong LLC; Member, ABA Standing Committee on Election Law; Chair, ABA Section of State and Local Government Law Election Law & Voting Rights Committee

Elizabeth M. Yang is president of WStrong LLC, a strategic business consulting and coaching firm dedicated to solving problems, meeting challenges, and building teams. She is a national expert in election law and is currently a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Election Law and chair of the Election Law & Voting Rights Committee of the ABA Section of State and Local Government Law.