From elephant rides to space voters: Five unusual ways of voting around the world

A journey into the polling extravaganzas around the world.

Solid democracies have one goal: ensuring that every citizen will be able to execute their right to vote – regardless of where they live, their gender, social status or ethnicity. Sometimes, however, this is no easy task for the electoral commissions. Geography, population density, conflicts and hundreds of other momentary circumstances represent some of the obstacles governments have to overcome to assure fair elections.

How does India manage voting across its vast and varied regions, ranging from Himalayan peaks to tropical islands? How should Papua New Guinea mobilise remote tribes to cast their ballots? And what if the eligible voter is an astronaut currently orbiting the Earth? 

The way the voting process is structured in different countries is influenced by all sorts of things. For example, U.S. elections are held on Tuesdays because, back in the old days, the United States was essentially an agrarian society. Farmers travelled long distances to get to the polling stations, which had to be taken into account; they could not set off on Sundays, as most Americans were devout Christians, and they had to be back on Wednesday, the market day. So Tuesdays were deemed the most sensible day for the vote.

In other instances, factors shaping a ballot might be a country’s harsh geography or its heterogeneity of languages, traditions and cultures. Conflicts and technology can also influence the way people cast their votes.

India and the world’s biggest and longest-lasting elections

With over 900 million voters, India holds the largest elections on the planet. It is quite a challenge – and not only because of the huge number of balloters involved. India counts 22 official languages and a diverse territory that comprises all sorts of isolated and ill-served areas: from Himalayan peaks to tropical islands and forests. Still, the law says no voter should be more than 2km away from a polling station. 

While in other democratic countries voting is usually condensed into one day, in India it can last for weeks. In 2019, the election round ended after 39 days. Over 10 million government employees travelled for days – on roads, boats and sometimes elephants – across uncertain terrains to install one million polling stations. One polling booth was even set up for a single voter in the middle of the forest. It needed a team of six.

Since 1998, electronic voting has gradually replaced paper ballots in order to prevent fraud and make the mechanism less expensive. However, the machines are not connected to the internet and must be packed in special carry cases once voting is completed, making them a heavy burden on the shoulders of the travelling officials.

Vote or get a fine, in Australia

I hope you had a good reason for not showing up at the polls, Sir! If you’re an Aussie, beware of skipping any election or referendum: you risk a fine of AU$20. Many countries may find this hard to believe, but in Australia voting is compulsory: you miss the ballots, you receive an email or a text message from the Government seeking an explanation. The fine goes up if you fail to pay or if it’s not the first time you’ve received a non-voter notice. 

There are many countries where voting is required by law, yet only a few enforce it. In Argentina, you could get fined as in Australia. In Brazil, proof of voting compliance – or a good justification – is required to obtain your passport or to be admitted to a public university. Failing to cast your ballot in Singapore means you’ll be removed from the electoral roll. 

While it is still debated whether compulsory voting is a meaningful way to engage people in democracies, it’s worth noting that Australia holds the highest electoral turnout rates in the world: 89% in the 2022 elections.

Ballots from outer space

Democratic governments must work hard to eliminate any obstacle that prevents their citizens from casting their vote: distance, transportation, terrain, weather. But what if Election Day happens when some of your citizens are happily orbiting the planet, hundreds of kilometres above the Earth’s surface? 

For US astronauts, the right to vote from space is a relatively recent conquest. The first time a single ballot had been cast from outside planet Earth was in 1997, when NASA astronaut David Wolf voted from the Russian space station Mir. At that time, spaceflights used to last for a few days or, at most, some weeks. Today the chances of participating in elections during a mission are getting higher as astronauts spend up to six months on the International Space Station. Dr. Kate Rubins, for example, has already voted twice aboard the ISS – in 2016 and 2020.Surprisingly, polling in space is quite easy. A secure electronic ballot generated in Texas is uplinked – through Houston – to the voting crew member. The astronauts use specific credentials to cast their votes, then the secure ballot is delivered back to the planet. Still, the crew member should not forget: they have to submit the vote on time according to the clock ticking back on Earth.

Papua New Guinea: combining tribalism and democracy

When, in 1975, the Australians left Papua New Guinea, the newly independent country decided to keep democracy. Competitive national elections have regularly been held since then; something that Papua New Guinea is one of the few post-colonial states to have achieved. Still, the polls – considered the most challenging in the world – have often been marred by irregularities and violence.

Papua New Guinea is probably the most fragmented society in the world. It counts over 800 languages – about one-fifth of all the languages in the world – and thousands of small, competitive ethnic tribes. And the mélange between tribalism and democracy is not always painless. In the most remote lands of the country, clans spend much time and energy on deciding which candidate they will put forward for election. The candidates then don’t hesitate to buy votes with money, pigs or alcohol, while voter registrations frequently include ghost names, and names of infants, animals and plants. 

During the 2002 election, which so far stands out as the most dramatic in the country’s history, people in the province of Enga resorted to violence and ballot burning. Election officials then counted the votes from the charred remains and… gosh: there were still 200,000 more ballots than registered voters.

Internet voting in Estonia

Since 2005, Estonians have been able to vote online from wherever they choose: a train, the office, their sofa, another country. Currently, Estonia is the only country granting this possibility to all its citizens. While initially Estonians preferred to stick to the traditional in-person voting, i-voting has gradually become more and more popular, and during the 2019 European elections nearly half of all ballots cast were i-votes. 

Over the years, Estonia has built a widespread digital public infrastructure, which makes i-voting possible. Every Estonian receives an ID card and PIN which provide digital access to a number of secure governmental e-services such as medical records or tax claims. To participate in the elections, the voters log into the system using their e-ID and cast a ballot. Anonymity is ensured as the voter’s identity is removed from the ballot before it reaches the count. In recent years, the Estonian government has been investigating the possibility of applying biometrics in i-voting, exploring all the involved aspects: from privacy issues to technological possibilities. 

Experts are observing i-voting in Estonia as a bold electoral experiment that can provide good evidence for the potential of technology to transform democracy.

Giovanni Blandino