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April 01, 2005

X Marks the Choice: Voting Methods Around the World

by Charles Lasham

Seria, a seventy-year-old woman, had never voted before and was, to say the least, a little apprehensive as she prepared to vote in Namibia’s first elections since independence from South Africa. But she had participated in good voter education and knew what to expect. She would enter the polling station and place her right hand into a black metal box where an ultraviolet light would reveal whether her finger had already been stained with indelible ink. Once she had proven that she had not voted, she would receive a ballot, one of the fingers of her right hand would be marked with the ink, and she would proceed to the polling booth. She could then vote in secret by marking an X in the box for the political party of her choice. In the end, Namibia’s November 1989 election produced very few spoiled ballots, which seems to indicate that—despite the country’s illiteracy rate of roughly 80 percent and the fact that many first-time voters had never used pencils or pens before—Seria and her fellow citizens ensured that their votes would be counted.

In Bulgarian elections, a citizen preparing to vote shows identification and polling officials check his or her name against the official voters list. The citizen then proceeds to the large polling booth, closes the curtains, and casts a vote. Bulgarians vote by choosing a ballot associated with the political party of their choice. The name of the party, its colors, and its logo are printed on 5” by 3” pieces of paper. If there are 1,500 registered voters at a precinct and ten parties contesting the election, there will be ten separate piles of 1,500 ballots, or 15,000 pieces of paper! After making a choice, the voter places his or her ballot in an envelope, seals it, and places it in the ballot box.

In other countries, voters mark their choices on the ballot by placing their inked thumb in the space next to the candidate or party of their choice. In the Republic of Ireland, voters use the “single transferable vote” method of proportional representation: they designate their top three candidates by numbering them 1, 2, and 3. In India, all voters use electronic voting machines, whereas in the 2004 U.S. presidential elections only 30 percent could vote using the machines.

Indeed, in the United States, citizens voting in different counties use different systems, and they may be mechanical, paper-based, or computerized, depending on the decision made by the County Board of Elections. Outside of the United States, often all voters in a given country use a single voting system. Worldwide, marking an X is the most commonly accepted method of casting a vote, but a check mark is an acceptable substitute, or even a smiley face, as determined by a United Kingdom court!

What is the best method? Each has its advantages and disadvantages. What works well for one country may not translate well to another, and officials should aim to use the most appropriate system for a location’s particular situation. Most importantly, whatever the method, voters should be secure in the knowledge that their votes will remain secret and will be counted in a free and fair system.

Charles Lasham

Charles Lasham is the Nigerian country director for IFES, which was created as the International Federation of Elections Systems in 1987. Among other senior level international postings with IFES, he served as a former regional returning officer in the United Kingdom and has observed elections in thirty countries.