Ever heard of “family voting”? I hadn’t, either, until I came across the term in a translation project on Eastern Europe. It might sound warm and fuzzy at first blush. It’s anything but.
A particular issue that often affects women and merits attention in voter education efforts is the confidentiality of the vote. According to United Nations standards and international human rights law, each ballot must be secret and independent. Most national laws also have provisions to this effect, though such provisions are not always enforced. Men and women must both understand that “family voting”—a practice in which one family member casts ballots on behalf of the entire family, or in which a husband and wife enter the voting booth together—is not an acceptable practice in democratic elections. Family voting is particularly likely to detract from women’s ability to cast individual and secret ballots. In its worst form, family voting constitutes a type of fraud in which women are deliberately deprived of their right to vote. If perpetrated deliberately and on a large scale, family voting can bring into question whether an election outcome reflects the will of the people.
You may be thinking: Okay, we know things are screwed up in Afghanistan. But wait! This is happening in Europe.
I ran across the issue of family voting while researching elections in Macedonia, where it appears to be a particular problem, but it’s not confined to one country. It happens elsewhere in Eastern Europe, too. In Macedonia, though, it seems to occur on such a large scale that it could tilt the outcome of elections.
The various NGOs working to eliminate family voting advocate better voter education, more professionalized training of poll workers, and enforcement of sanctions. Penalties could range from annulling a family’s votes to invalidating the votes from an entire polling station. Experts on the Macedonian situation observe, however, that such drastic measures would likely just be gamed by politicians, further skewing election results and creating new opportunities for fraud.
You won’t hear me say this often, but it seems to me that the root problem here is patriarchy. In Macedonia, the male “heads of households” are evidently powerful enough to dictate their wives’ behavior – and possibly that of other relatives, too). That doesn’t render the problem completely intractable, but it does make me wonder if it might be as deeply rooted as some of the ethnic hatreds in the region.
Update, 10/25/09, 11 a.m.: MM – who posted with a Macedonian IP number – remarks that “It only happens amongst the Muslims in Macedonia (especially the Albanians), not amongst the ethnic Macedonians.” None of the Internet sources have found address ethnic and religious differences. However, I’ve learned that family voting is also a significant problem in Kosovo (according to the UNHCR), so MM’s comment makes sense. Family voting is a rural phenomenon, which further makes sense because urbanization tends to undermine full-scale patriarchy.