South Korea made the headlines when it held parliamentary elections in April 2020 as COVID-19 was ravaging the world.
Observers everywhere quickly praised South Korean authorities for managing a successful nationwide election with record turnout when most countries were struggling to implement social distancing protocols or going into lockdown.
Despite the remarkable feat, however, the Korean election laid bare one of the harsh realities that bedevils election management bodies the world over – expatriate voter participation. A good 51% of eligible Koreans overseas (some 87,000 voters) were unable to exercise their voting rights last year. Even a diligent, capable, and well-organized election commission was not able to enfranchise voters abroad.
The right of expatriates to participate in elections is enshrined in international and regional treaties, yet, effectively guaranteeing this right has proven difficult for nations big and small, rich and poor. Regular logistical challenges that election commissions face when organizing elections are magnified when voting needs to be done from abroad, far from oversight.
According to the United Nations, the number of international migrants has been growing faster than the world’s population for years. There were nearly 174 million international migrants in 2000, 221 million in 2010 and 272 million worldwide in 2020. This growing trend will, sooner or later, force election management bodies to dedicate more effort on out-of-country voting.
In 2007, IDEA International published a handbook titled “Voting from Abroad.” They recently followed it up with a study that dives deeper into this increasingly relevant topic. The comprehensive new report is packed with insights. The five main takeaways are as follows:
- Global Outlook. According to IDEA International, 125 states and territories allow people living abroad to participate in legislative elections, and 88 allow participation in presidential elections. Only 24 countries open subnational elections up to participation beyond their borders. In addition, 73 countries and territories allow citizens overseas to participate in referendums.
- Voting methods. Four main methods are applied across the world. In-person voting is offered in 109 states and territories, while a postal vote is offered in 50, and proxy voting in 21. Online voting, allowed in 12 countries, is slowly but surely gaining momentum.
- Cost. The cost of implementing voting abroad will vary considerably depending on the system used. In-person voting is the most expensive as it requires the transportation of materials, hiring of facilities and polling staff salaries. Citing the Estonian experience, the report states, “the experience of Estonia demonstrates that this method can pay off in the long run.” Beside the cost of the system, other costs include electoral material, voter information, polling staff training, technologies, and security.
- Operational matters. Decisions about voting locations, voter eligibility and registration, voter education and information, timelines, and other crucial matters become much more complicated when voting takes place outside the state holding the election. Close coordination with the host country and relevant institutions is simply crucial.
- Country experiences. The report focuses its attention on Mexico, Australia and the Philippines to illustrate how countries take different approaches to manage out-of-county voting. With 10% of its population living abroad, Mexico has made great strides to enfranchise expats. Between 2006 and 2012 expats had the opportunity to vote abroad in Presidential elections. Changes in the legal framework expanded that right to governors and parliamentarians at the state level in 2014. Starting in, 2021, Mexico will premiere an online voting system to let all expats participate.
For over 100 years, Australia has enabled its citizens living abroad to participate in elections with postal voting and in-person voting at select Australian foreign missions. Although the use of online voting is not allowed for federal legislative elections, different rules apply at the subnational level. New South Wales, for example, has experimented with online voting with considerable success.
Even though 10% of the Philippine population lives abroad, expatriate participation has been traditionally low. Filipinos abroad are entitled to vote in national elections for the president, the vice president, senators and party-list representatives. However, in 2013, only 17% of registered expats cast their ballot. The Philippine Commission on Elections is hopeful that an increasing number of registered expats will lead to higher participation.