The Right to Vote

Copyright © 2003 University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.
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“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedures."

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21


Rights at Stake
International and Regional Instruments of Protection
Protection and Service Agencies
Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials
Other Resources

I. Introduction

One of the most critical ways that individuals can influence governmental decision-making is through voting. Voting is a formal expression of preference for a candidate for office or for a proposed resolution of an issue. Voting generally takes place in the context of a large-scale national or regional election, however, local and small-scale community elections can be just as critical to individual participation in government.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, recognizes the integral role that transparent and open elections play in ensuring the fundamental right to participatory government. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 21 states:
Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his/her country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedures.

The role that periodic, free elections play in ensuring respect for political rights also is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, the Charter of the Organization of American States, the African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and many other international human rights documents.

While the right to vote is widely recognized as a fundamental human right, this right is not fully enforced for millions of individuals around the world. Consistently disenfranchised groups include non-citizens, young people, minorities, those who commit crimes, the homeless, disabled persons, and many others who lack access to the vote for a variety of reasons including poverty, illiteracy, intimidation, or unfair election processes. An important force in combating disenfranchisement is the growth of organizations engaged in election monitoring. Around the world, governments struggle to meet the challenge of the Universal Declaration related to free and fair elections. Election monitoring groups, ranging from local or party monitors to United Nations teams, assist governments and local groups to hold free and fair elections by observing the process from the beginning (voter education, candidate campaigns, planning for the ballot) to the end vote count. By declaring an election ‘free and fair’ monitors can legitimize the outcome of that election. Conversely, by not doing so, legitimacy is withheld. The question of whether or not to grant legitimacy to election results is complicated by political considerations, as the results of declaring elections ‘not free nor fair’ can be serious. Riots and even civil war can break out.

Key terms

Ballot – action or system of secret voting

Candidate - A person who seeks or is nominated for a political office

Citizen - Connotes membership in a political society to which a duty of permanent allegiance is implied.

Constituency – a body of individuals entitled to elect a representative to a legislative or other representative body

Democracy – a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation

Disenfranchise – to take away the power or opportunity to vote

Election – a systematic process by which voters cast ballots for candidates or positions on issues

Proportional representation – an electoral system in which political parties are represented according to the number of people who voted for them

II. Rights at Stake

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is the key international guarantee of voting rights and free elections, but its provisions are strongly related to other articles, specifically Article 2 (see below). The ICCPR also includes guarantees of freedom of expression (Article 19), assembly (Article 21), association (Article 22), and non-discrimination (Article 26).

ICCPR, Article 25: Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in Article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:
(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;
(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.

ICCPR, Article 2, paragraph 1: Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

While Article 2 of the ICCPR specifies that voting and participation in elections is a universal right not to be denied because of any “status” individuals around the world are systematically or inadvertently disenfranchised based on their status as a member of a certain group. For example, many nations deal with a gender gap in voting, a phenomenon where one gender is more likely to vote in elections than the other. “Traditional theories in participation pointed to a 'gender gap' between men and women, where typically more men than women were interested in politics, and would turn out to vote on polling day. However, recent research seems to point to an 'inverting' of the gender gap, where women are demonstrating increasing interest in political and electoral processes.” (From IDEA.) Many nations have attempted to deal with gender gaps in voting and political participation through legislative quotas. Quota systems operate in different ways, but in general they reserve a certain number or percentage of candidacy spots or actual seats in a legislative body for women. While quotas can be a very quick and effective way to address the problem of under-representation of women in government, they are controversial and often raise as many issues about the right to vote as they solve. Legislated quota systems of various forms currently are in effect in France, Argentina, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, and India.

Another example is the disenfranchisement of those who have been convicted of certain crimes. The following example is an excerpt from a 1998 report by Human Rights Watch’s Sentencing Project.

Today, [in the United States] all mentally competent adults have the right to vote with only one exception: convicted criminal offenders. In forty-six states and the District of Columbia, criminal disenfranchisement laws deny the vote to all convicted adults in prison. Thirty-two states also disenfranchise felons on parole; twenty-nine disenfranchise those on probation. And, due to laws that may be unique in the world, in fourteen states even ex-offenders who have fully served their sentences remain barred for life from voting.

[T]he scale of [disenfranchisement laws] in the United States is unparalleled: an estimated 3.9 million U.S. citizens are disenfranchised, including over one million who have fully completed their sentences. The racial impact of disenfranchisement laws is particularly egregious. Thirteen percent of African American men—1.4 million—are disenfranchised, representing just over one-third (36 percent) of the total disenfranchised population.
Individuals around the world continue to struggle for full enforcement of the ICCPR’s Article 25. Central to this struggle are the many international human rights documents that mirror the principles of Article 25.

III. International and Regional Instruments of Protection

International legal instruments take the form of a treaty (such as agreement, convention, protocol) that may be binding on Contracting States. When negotiations are completed, the text of a treaty is established as authentic and definitive and is “signed” by the representatives of states. There are various means by which a state expresses its consent to be bound by a treaty. The most common are ratification or accession. A new treaty is “ratified” by those states that have negotiated the instrument. A state that has not participated in the negotiations may, at a later stage, “accede” to the treaty.

When a state ratifies or accedes to a treaty, the state may make reservations to one or more articles of the treaty, unless the treaty prohibits reservations. Reservations may normally be withdrawn at any time. In some countries, international treaties take precedence over national law; in others, a specific law may be required to give an international treaty effect. Practically all states that have ratified or acceded to an international treaty must issue decrees, amend existing laws or introduce new legislation in order for the treaty to be fully effective on the national territory.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
Article 21 - see section I of this document

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976)
Article 25 - see section II of this document

Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (entered into force 1953)

This document is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights ( ) and pursuant to Article 3 of Protocol I of the Convention Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot “under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.” Articles 9, 10, and 11 of this Convention also ensure the right to freedom of thought, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

International Standards of Elections (1990)
The final document issued by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe Meeting on the Human Dimension in Copenhagen states that free elections held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot are essential to the full expression of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings.

Council Regulations 975/99 and 976/99 (1999)
These regulations provide a legal basis for EU operations that “contribute to the general objective of developing and consolidating democracy and the rule of law and to that of respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms”. They state that the EU shall provide technical and financial aid for operations aimed at supporting the process of democratization, in particular in support for electoral processes. These regulations are mentioned in a Communication from the Council on EU Election Assistance and Observation.

American Convention on Human Rights (entered into force 1978)
See for all OAS documents.

Inter-American Convention on the Granting of Political Rights to Women (entered into force 1954)

Article 23 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article 20 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man guarantee the right of citizens to vote and be elected in genuine periodic elections. The Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) establishes in its preamble, ”representative democracy is an indispensable condition for the stability, peace and development of the region," and establishes that one of its purposes is "to promote and consolidate representative democracy, with due respect for the principle of non-intervention.” In 1991 the General Assembly of the Organization of American States established a process by which the OAS will take action if the democratic order is interrupted in any member country. In 1992 the Protocol of Washington, (in ratification), strengthened the mechanisms for defending democracy.

AFRICAN UNION (Formerly Organization of African Unity)
African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981)
Article 13(1) of the African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides that every citizen shall have the right to participate freely in their government.

IV. Protection and Service Agencies

Free and fair elections play a critical role in ensuring voting rights. International and regional governmental groups, along with non-governmental organizations, work around the world to observe and monitor human rights related to elections processes. Several international and regional documents have outlined international standards for elections.

United Nations – The Committee on Human Rights, a UN appointed body of human rights experts, outlined international elections standards in 1996 in a General Comment on ICCPR Article 25. According to the committee, Article 25’s mandates should be considered in light of the following:
Protecting the right of every citizen to take part in the conduct of public affairs, the right to vote and to be elected.
The right of peoples to self-determination.
Protecting the rights of every citizen.
Any restrictions on voting should be based on objective and reasonable criteria
The constitution and other laws should establish the allocation of powers and the means by which individual citizens exercise the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs.
Political participation is supported by ensuring freedom of expression, assembly and association.
The right to vote in elections and referenda must be established by law.
Positive measures should be taken by the government to overcome specific difficulties, such as illiteracy, language barriers, poverty, or impediments to freedom of movement that prevent persons entitled to vote from exercising their rights effectively.
Persons entitled to vote have a free choice of candidates.
Conditions relating to nomination dates, fees or deposits should be reasonable and not discriminatory.
Elections must be conducted fairly and freely on a periodic basis within a framework of laws guaranteeing the effective exercise of voting rights.

The United Nations conducts election monitoring activities around the world, primarily in fragile democracies of in post-war and nation-building contexts. For example, the UN and OSCE were heavily involved in election monitoring in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they provided training for election monitors and provided police support on election day. UN monitoring activities depend on the needs evident in the particular national context, but can include all of the following:
the pre-election preparations and campaign period
the electoral administration
the registration
voter education and information
the media
the vote
the count
the results and follow-up.

Organization of American States – The OAS, including its Unit for the Promotion of Democracy (UPD), promotes political participation, voting, and democracy in the Americas. The OAS carries out its election monitoring through Election Observation Missions (EOMs). EOMs often are invited in by national governments because the UPD has acquired unique experience and prestige in election monitoring.

The OAS also provides technical assistance to member states trying to resolve problems related to the organization and administration of electoral processes. In this realm, their goal is to assist member states to make national electoral entities more effective, legitimate, respected, and stable. The OAS gives information to interested parties related to governance and democracy, via their website, newsletters, conferences, seminars, and workshops.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – The OSCE includes fifty-five member states from Europe, Central Asia and North America and has an election monitoring unit called the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The ODIHR deploys election monitoring missions to participating member states. To do this the ODIHR field teams of experts to monitor the electoral process from beginning to end – in the year 2000, ODHIR monitored 15 elections in participating countries. After completing its monitoring, ODIHR presents a report on its observations and will provide technical assistance to help implement any recommendations contained in its report.

European Union – In recent years, European Union electoral missions have grown in frequency whether under the auspices of the Common Foreign and Security Policy or within its development cooperation programs. Often, the EU has worked in cooperation with the OSCE or the UN. In the last three years, missions were sent to 15 countries all over the world, ranging from Zimbabwe to Peru to Cambodia.

V. Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials


The Carter Center
The Carter Center, in partnership with Emory University, is guided by a fundamental commitment to human rights and the alleviation of human suffering; it seeks to prevent and resolve conflicts, enhance freedom and democracy, and improve health. This site highlights the Center’s recent work on local community elections in China.

Center for Voting and Democracy
A nonprofit organization that studies how voting systems affect participation, representation and governance. Issues include redistricting alternatives, the range of voting systems for legislative elections, and instant runoff voting, among others issues.

Federal Election Commission (FEC)
The government agency that administers and enforces the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) - the statute that governs the financing of federal elections.

Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA)
Idasa's mission is to promote a sustainable democracy in South Africa by building democratic institutions, educating citizens and advocating social justice. The website contains a wealth of information about South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy.

International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA)
Created in 1995, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) is an intergovernmental organization that seeks to nurture and support sustainable democracy world-wide.

International Foundation for Election Services (IFES)
The International Foundation for Election Systems provides professional advice and technical assistance in promoting democracy and serves as an information clearinghouse on elections, rule of law, governance, and civil society.

League of Women Voters
A nonpartisan political organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and works to increase understanding of major public policy issues.

National Democratic Institute – Election and Political Processes
The National Democratic Institute is a US-based group that works to strengthen and expand democracy worldwide. Elections are a vital part of democracy and NDI devotes attention to activities such as promoting election reform, assisting political parties in protecting their electoral rights, assisting citizen organizations in strengthening watchdog and advocacy activities, and giving electoral assessments.

National Voting Rights Institute
Founded in 1994, the National Voting Rights Institute is a prominent legal center in the campaign finance reform field. Through litigation and public education, the Institute aims to redefine the issue of private money in public elections as the nation's newest voting rights barrier, and to vindicate the constitutional right of all citizens, regardless of their economic status, to participate in the electoral process on an equal and meaningful basis.

Rock the Vote
A United States organization dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and empowering young people in the voting process.

Books and resources

Administration and Cost of Elections Project
The ACE Project is a collection of information on all aspects of organizing elections. Although an extensive database, it has not been updated since October 2002.

Democracy and Human Rights Resources
Links from the University of Minnesota Human Rights Library

Human Rights and Elections, 1994
Subtitled A Handbook on the Legal, Technical and Human Rights Aspects of Elections, published by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The handbook details the United Nations’ involvement in elections, explains United Nations human rights standards and international criteria regarding elections and lists common elements of electoral law and procedure.

ODIHR Election Observation Handbook, Fourth Edition, April 1999
The ODIHR Election Observation Handbook outlines the general methodology of ODIHR election observation in addition to providing a set of practical guidelines for the conduct of an election observation mission.

Project Vote Smart
A non-partisan, United States based group gathering and distributing biographical history, voting records, campaign finances and promises, and performance evaluations about elected officials and candidates.

Case Studies:

Venezuela Case Study – Venezuela battles a strong military power in their government as it tries to give more rights to the people.

Zimbabwe – The ruling president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, won the 2002 elections amidst accusations of pre-election violence.

VI. Other Human Rights Resources

Human Rights – A short history of Human Rights.

Human Rights Education Associates - International non-governmental organization that supports human rights learning; the training of activists and professionals; the development of educational materials and programming; and community-building through on-line technologies.

University of Minnesota Human Rights Center – Has a vast range of documents and links to human rights resources. It includes the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Library.


This guide was developed by Scott Ferguson (University of Minnesota). Laura Young, Kristi Rudelius-Palmer and Ivor Dikkers (University of Minnesota Human Rights Center) revised and edited this document. Special thanks to Sarah Joseph, Guy Charles, Marie-Louise Strom, and Fiounnuala Ni Aolain for expert commentary and input.

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