“Most people in the world can’t vote” – a refutation

April 20, 2015 § 2 Comments

The lazy claim in this Guardian article that “most people in the world can’t vote” stoked my ire.

Actually virtually everyone in the world can vote. The main group of people in the world who cannot vote are children, a term defined variously around the world to mean people under the age of 16, 17, 18, 20 or 21. Virtually the entire global adult population can vote.

I’ve tried to work out how many people there are in the world that cannot actually vote at all:

  • The residents of the only countries in the world that don’t have elections: Brunei (400,000). Qatar (2 million, Qatar does have local elections but only 30,000 people within a specially selected electoral collage are eligible to vote in them), the UAE (9 million, as with Qatar the UAE does have elections, but only 100,000 people are eligible to vote in them), and the Vatican (800)
  • The residents of South Sudan (8 million) which hasn’t had elections yet and Eritrea (6 million) which hasn’t had elections since 1991 and has no plans to do so.
  • The million or so residents of the Non self-governing territories and areas under occupation. More than half of these live in Western Sahara, most of the rest in French Polynesia
  • Women in Saudi Arabia (15 million)
  • Some religious and ethnic groups, for example non Muslims in the Maldives. There are many cases globally of effective disenfranchisement of minorities through separate elections but formal disenfranchisement is rare and is largely linked to mental illness. Also some surprising groups like French Soldiers. I’d guess maybe another million globally.
  • Felons in the USA (5 million)
  • Some prisoners in the UK, China and Portugal (9 million or so, almost all in China)
  • Some non residents. Every country in the world has some sort of residence or nationality requirement placed upon suffrage. Usually everyone will be able to vote at least somewhere but sometimes they cannot. For example if you are a Sri Lankan living in India you cannot vote in Sri Lanka (where the laws require you to be resident) or India (where the laws require you to be a citizen). There are 232 million migrants in the world, let us assume 10%, or 23 million, face this problem. Of course a much higher proportion of migrants will not be able to vote for various practical and political reasons, but most will have at very least the theoretical ability.

This makes a total of around 80 million people, or around 2% of the world’s adult population, who cannot vote.

This may feel like a pedantic point, but I feel it is actually fairly important. Of course many of those people who can vote are voting in elections which are rigged, elections which are a sham, elections for powerless figurehead or fig-leaf bodies, elections at a local level only, or elections in which government heavies and the state manipulated media will guarantee the result. The Democracy Index suggests that 40% of the world’s population live in conditions of dictatorship (still not “most” but a lot). Almost all of them can vote, it’s just that their vote won’t count for anything.

Further, while not a tragedy of the same scale, it is almost as pointless voting in many places within the many countries like the UK where the electoral system means that your vote will have no value.

The point here is there is far more to democracy than voting. Democracy is about the people holding those in power to account through the influence of civil society, through political engagement, through protest, through creating an informed public and engendering a political debate within that public, and – in part – through voting. But voting is just one aspect of democracy, and arguably the least important or effective part. So by all means vote, but don’t fetishise voting. Voting, or not voting, should be the be beginning of your democratic engagement, not the end of it.

§ 2 Responses to “Most people in the world can’t vote” – a refutation

  • jdmussel says:

    I believe the UAE has since broadened the franchise.

    Are you really going to count elections where you only have one choice (Cuba, North Korea) as voting?

    • Yes because this is exactly the point. The obsession with voting is misleading. Voting is not equal to democracy. Virtually everyone can vote, very few people have democracy.

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