Voting across six different countries


I voted this week. If you were able to, I hope you did too.

There was a time when I would see Rock The Vote ads on TV and I would wonder if it was really worth it to campaign that hard to get people to vote. I thought it was just what you do as a member of society.

Then I saw the stats. The United States has some of the lowest numbers when it comes to voter turnout among developed countries. 

Especially concerning? When it came to voting, people 18-30 were outnumbered 2-to-1 by people over 60. The majority of people making decisions that affect the environment, the economy, and opportunities aren’t the ones who will be most affected by them.

When I was a student in Argentina, a teacher asked if I planned to vote the following year. I did, but I didn’t think much of it.

“No really,” she said. “It’s important. The decisions you guys make over there have an effect on us here too. Your vote is especially powerful. You have to use it.”

Voting certainly isn’t the only way to help improve the world, but it is a pretty consequential one. I used to really underrate it’s importance, but after having met people from other countries where the right to vote was recently fought for, uncertain, or non-existent, I think I see it as a much bigger privilege now. One I can’t squander.

It does make me wonder, sometimes, what does voting look like everywhere else around the world? As it turns out, that’s a really fascinating rabbit hole to go down:


In India, it’s a really long process for a really big country

With almost 900 million voters, India can boast about being the world’s largest democracy. But that also means it takes a ton of effort to make the whole system work.

Technology may change things very soon, but the process takes weeks sometimes. India’s size is one challenge. So is it’s wide range of languages, cultures, and education.

Voters line up at polling centers with their ID cards to use Electronic Voting Machines that look a bit like a complicated office phone system from the 90s. To vote, you just press a big blue button next to the candidates name. But that’s where the machines get more complex. The name will be written in all the languages present in the area, as well as Braille. And for the illiterate, they’ll also be marked with the insignia of that candidate’s party.

The machines store the votes and at the end of the Election Day, poll workers switch them to closed. These machines tally the votes by serial number before being sealed with wax. From there, it’s quite a bit of waiting to see who actually won.


In Estonia, it’s ridiculously convenient

When you think of countries with the most cutting edge tools, Estonia usually flies under the radar. But when it comes to elections, they’re probably out in front. As far as I know, it’s the only election that you can participate in without pants.

Voters can login to an online portal to cast their votes. If they have a last minute change of heart, or if they think they entered something wrong, they can login and fill out another ballot. Only the last one counts.

Of course there’s always the fear of viruses or hackers. But you can also login with your smartphone and check who your vote is currently cast for.

You’d think such a digital process might scare off the older voters, but about half the voters in the elections since this system began have been over 45.


In Gambia, it’s marbles in a bucket

In countries with large rural populations and high illiteracy, election officials often try to use more tactile methods. Ghana and Kenya have tried fingerprints, but Gambia’s use of marbles is especially unique.

Gambian voters prove their identity, then they receive a color coded marble from poll workers. They then walk up to drums with photos of the candidates taped on. To vote, they insert the marble into the appropriate tube. The sound of a bike bell and sand at the bottom confirm that one marble, and only one marble, made its way in.

It reminds me of those really awesome Rube Goldberg machines on Sesame Street. As fun as it sounds, it’s actually a logistical headache for Gambian officials, and next year they’ll be switching to paper ballots. The world will lose one of its quirkiest election processes, but that’ll probably be much better for Gambian democracy.


In Australia, it’s a bit of a party

Australia is one of a couple dozen countries where voting is mandatory. If you don’t participate you could be fined anywhere from $20-$80.

The thing with mandatory voting is that if you institute it, then you’ve got to make voting really accessible. For the most part, polling locations are everywhere. Since everybody votes, the day sometimes has a bit of a festive feel. Like in many countries, Election Day falls on a weekend. 

Election Day barbecues are a thing. It isn’t uncommon for people to throw fundraisers by polling centers. They’ll sell ‘democracy sausages’ to raise money for community centers. 


In rural Mongolia, it’s a really long walk

Some of Mongolia’s provinces have extremely small populations spread out across very large areas.

It isn’t uncommon for voter enthusiasm to be pretty low. There’s the extreme inconvenience of walking for a week. Older Mongolians who grew up with a Soviet system are less accustomed to voting. Plus most rural voters perceive Mongolian politics to be more relevant to the city dwellers in Ulanbataar. 

Sometimes, though, a candidate or issue might capture the interest of rural Mongolians, especially if their way of life is threatened. Herders may walk for a week to get to their polling center.

Some provinces, like Great Hural, get just one representative in Parliament, but since the region has such a low population, it doesn’t take too many votes to change the outcome of an election. Herders might have to walk quite a ways, but their votes carry some pretty serious weight.


In North Korea, there are some sketchy 100%s

If there’s any place that’ll make you grateful for your ability to vote, it’s North Korea. The country has no freedom to elect leaders or participate in democracy- but that doesn’t stop the Kim regime from still having “elections.”

Actually, voter participation is like a lot of things in the country. Mandatory. This results in a 100% voter turnout in North Korea that doesn’t really tell the whole story. In the weeks leading up to an Election, the government is likely to ramp up excitement for the day with patriotic celebration. In reality, these elections really work more like censuses that give the government another opportunity to keep tabs on people.

When North Koreans do get their ballot, they can expect to see one candidate running unopposed for the Supreme People’s Assembly. (Basically, theIr Parliament.) Abstaining to vote, leaving it blank, or writing in anyone else counts as treason, so unsurprisingly, there are a lot of landslide victories.

Getting to know what elections around different parts of the world has helped me further appreciate my own ability to vote at home. I don’t think Election Day is the sole source of creating change around the world, and I don’t want it to make us miss out on all the others. At the same time, it is something we can do that we shouldn’t throw away.