Why we should be concerned about ‘family voting’.

two cases of family voting
Two cases of ‘family voting’ in a polling station in Sweden in 2018

Western democracies face some surprising challenges both internally and externally. Many countries are concerned about international interference and online measures that can affect elections. People are also concerned about the integrity of online and electronic voting but our election observations over the past few years have thrown up a less technological challenge to the democratic process.

It is much less obvious and less coordinated, but just as challenging to the democratic process. It is something that undermines the chance for individuals to cast their vote the way they wish, without interference, challenge or even the knowledge of another voter.

However, all too often, irrespective of geography or community, we see voters entering polling booths together, discussing how they vote, seeing how each other votes and then leaving. This is family voting. It is, at its most simple, a breach of a fundamental right – the secret ballot.

I’ve been told it’s not the challenge to democracy that we think it is. But we see it repeatedly in polling stations in the UK and abroad. It is illegal in all those countries where we see it as it is a breach of the secret ballot. I have even been told, by a female TV journalist in Sweden, ‘they don’t seem to mind.’ However, how do we know they don’t mind? How do we know that a woman being helped by her husband is happy to be helped?

Readers may think that this is something that is isolated and rare, but we observed this in:

  • 44% of polling stations we observed in the Swedish General Election in Sept 2018
  • 22% of polling stations we observed in the Irish Abortion Referendum in May 2018
  • 14% of polling stations we observed in the Dutch local elections in March 2018

However, this is not just something we see in other countries we see it as much, if not more, in the UK:

  • 58% of polling stations we observed in Tower Hamlets in May 2018
  • 18% of polling stations we observed across the UK in the June 2017 General Election
  • 43% of polling stations we observed across Northern Ireland in March 2017

Family voting most affects young voters, older voters and women. These are the groups that receive most interference from other voters and have the secrecy of their ballot compromised.

However, what concerns me most, isn’t simply that voters do not know not to indulge in family voting, it is that electoral officials rarely interrupt the practice to try to prevent it.

‘Family voting’ will continue to be a focus for election observation whether in the West or other democracies.

John Ault is Director of Democracy Volunteers

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