Voter Identification Requirements and Public International Law: An Examination of Africa and Latin America

Published: 1/Jan/2013
Source: Carter Center

Voter registration is widely recognized as one important means of ensuring that only eligible voters are able to participate in the electoral process. Indeed, most democratic countries have some sort of voter registration process that precedes the casting of a ballot. Systems vary widely, but typically as part of the registration process an individual who wishes to participate in an election must somehow prove their identity, essentially demonstrating that they are who they say they are. They must also affirm their citizenship and age, and officials must ensure that the applicant is not already included in the registry. Just as voter registration systems vary throughout the world, so too do the ways in which voters are allowed to demonstrate who they are both during registration and during voting. Additionally, the ability of individuals to secure basic prerequisite documents allowing them to register to vote is inconsistent.

International law provides some limited guidance on the role and process of voter registration (and, implicitly, identification practices) in the enjoyment of electoral rights.

Notwithstanding these guidelines states are still afforded wide discretion in the implementation of voter identification practices. This guidance can be distilled down to the following points:

  1. Any conditions which apply to voter registration and other electoral processes should be based on objective and reasonable criteria, and only reasonable restrictions may be applied;
  2. Obstacles to registration should not be imposed;
  3. There should be no discrimination in the law or the process on the basis of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, sexual orientation, physical ability, birth, or other status;
  4. There should be no “abusive interference” in the process;
  5. Governments must take measures to ensure that displaced persons can replace lost or destroyed identity documents that prove their citizenship;
  6. States must take active measures to ensure citizens are able to vote and to facilitate the process of registration, including the identification process;
  7. Potential voters should have the ability to verify the accuracy of their personal data; and
  8. An effective remedy for a violation of electoral rights should be available.

Recognizing that there exists a gap between international legal principles for voter identification and practice in many states in which The Carter Center works, the Center commissioned this research report. The purposes of this research were three-fold. First, we hoped to better understand voter identification processes in Africa and Latin America and determine whether there were global or regional commonalities of practice that might help election observers and assistance providers better understand voter identification, broadly speaking. Second, we hoped to begin discussions of how these commonalities of practice can bridge gaps in international law and inform observation methodologies. Finally, we hoped to contribute to a field of research which focuses heavily on the role of voter identification in fraud prevention and gives less consideration to the potential for voter identification practices to undermine electoral rights and disenfranchise population groups.

The report provides an overview of the laws and procedures for verifying an individual’s identity for the purposes of registering and voting in a selection of African and Latin American countries. It compares the two regions and considers, in broad brush strokes, whether the laws and procedures fulfill international obligations and electoral rights. This study represents an initial effort to explore this issue and to offer some analysis of the relative value of voter identification requirements vis-à-vis the delicate balance between fraud prevention needs and facilitating greater participation among potential voters.

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Themes: Voter Registration
Regions: Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Algeria, Pan Africa, Malawi, Ghana, Liberia
Year: 2013