What Observers look for: Family Voting

Family voting, also referred to as group voting, is one of the most common issues that observers encounter in polling stations. For example, during two recent Democracy Volunteers observations in Northern Ireland and The Netherlands the violation was witnessed in 44% and 11% of polling stations monitored respectively (Democracy Volunteers, 2019a & b). But what is family voting and why does it matter?

What Is it?

Family voting is defined by the OSCE as ‘Where more than one voter is present in a polling booth or behind a voting screen at the same time. The term “family voting” is sometimes used even though it is not always the case that a group of voters are members of one family’ (OSCE/ODIHR,2010). It can take a variety of forms such as two voters entering a single polling booth to cast their ballot, to talking in a queue whilst waiting to vote. During observations it is not extremely rare to witness a (literal) whole family of four or five voters deciding on a candidate at the polling booth together or for a parent to physically mark a ballot belonging to their adult children or partner. Many participants do not know what they are doing is against electoral law and polling staff are often too busy, distracted or intimidated to intervene. In order to dissuade the practice voters are often presented with a poster as can be seen in the photo below although these are not a necessity in many elections.

A poster used to prevent family voting in the Netherlands

Why is it important?

The main issue surrounding family voting is that it prevents the right for a voter to cast a secret ballot in line with paragraph 5.1 of the Copenhagen Document’s commitments (CSCE, 1990). This is a fundamental right for voters as it protects their political privacy reducing the chances of intimidation and blackmail, ensuring their free expression of opinion increasing the validity of the vote.

The practice is seen to disproportionately effect certain groups of voters, such as first-time voters, non-native speakers and women. As described by a National Democratic Institute and iKNOW report (2009), women’s voting rights are especially at risk in communities where social and cultural voting norms are dictated by a history of male family heads deciding which political candidate will gain a group/family’s support. First-time voters are also often witnessed family voting as they are unsure about the voting system and often seek assistance from those accompanying them, as may be voters who experience a language barrier. For this reason, it is especially important that these voters are helped to understand the process of voting by election officials, outside of the polling booth, with no chance for coercion.

CSCE (1990) Document of the Copenhagen meeting of the conference on the human dimension of the CSCE. https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/14304?download=true

Democracy Volunteers (2019a) The Netherlands Final Report. https://democracyvolunteers.org/2019/05/16/final-report-netherlands-provincial-and-water-board-elections-20-03-19/amp/?__twitter_impression=true

Democracy Volunteers (2019b) Preliminary Statement- Northern Ireland local elections 02/05/2019. https://democracyvolunteers.org/2019/05/04/preliminary-statement-northern-ireland-local-elections-02-05-19/

NDI & iKNOW (2009) Consolidated response on the prevention of family voting. https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/Consolidated%20Response_Prevention%20of%20Family%20Voting.pdf

OSCE/ODIHR (2010) Election Observation Handbook 6th edn. https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/68439?download=true

Harry Busz is editor of The Election Observer

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