Voter and Civic Education
Why educate voters?
In every election, voter and civic education are necessary to ensure that all constituents—men and women alike—understand their rights, their political system, the contests they are being asked to decide, and how and where to vote. For an election to be successful and democratic, voters must understand their rights and responsibilities, and must be sufficiently knowledgeable and well informed to cast ballots that are legally valid and to participate meaningfully in the voting process. Voter and civic education are even more critical in post-conflict countries, where political situations may be volatile and where elections may have an unprecedented impact on the countries’ future.
The term voter education is generally used to describe the dissemination of information, materials and programmes designed to inform voters about the specifics and mechanics of the voting process for a particular election. Voter education involves providing information on who is eligible to vote; where and how to register; how electors can check the voter lists to ensure they have been duly included; what type of elections are being held; where, when and how to vote; who the candidates are; and how to file complaints.
Civic education—a broader concept—is aimed at conveying knowledge of a country’s political system and context. Civic education might include information on the system of government; the nature and powers of the offices to be filled in an election; the principal economic, social and political issues facing the nation; the value of democracy; the equal rights of women and men; and the importance of peace and national reconciliation.
In post-conflict countries, voter and civic education may be especially important because electoral processes—and even the system of government—may be new or unfamiliar to many voters. Since post-conflict countries are societies in transition, they provide an unparalleled opportunity to educate citizens on the equality of women and men, the importance of including women in all aspects of the political process, and the crucial contribution women can make to building democracy and peace.
The goal of voter education is to make information available and accessible to all constituents. Voter education campaigns should seek to achieve universal coverage of the electorate. To do this effectively requires reaching out to disadvantaged groups as well as mainstream voters. For example, voter education should take into account factors such as high rates of illiteracy or the use of different languages in a country, even if there is only one official language. Minority groups, internally displaced persons and other marginalized segments of society should be specially targeted. Young adults eligible to vote for the first time may need special messages explaining how to register and cast a ballot. Voter education should also include publicity encouraging people to vote.
Voter education should specifically target women as well as men. It should make clear that suffrage is universal and should help create a culture in which women are encouraged to participate and are welcomed into the electoral process. In some countries it is particularly important to launch special educational campaigns aimed at women, highlighting the fact that they have the right to vote. It is often appropriate to craft special messages for women voters and to take generational issues into account when doing so. Meetings especially geared to educating women as voters may be organized as necessary. Arranging childcare so women can attend these sessions may help ensure their success. In post-conflict countries in which security remains a problem, safe resource centres should be established where such gatherings can take place. Carefully targeted voter education can also help alleviate “double discrimination”, which may occur when women are also members of disadvantaged ethnic minorities. Information on the importance of women’s participation should also target men.
Effective voter education campaigns start early and continue throughout the election process. Very early in the process, constituents should be informed about voter registration procedures so they have ample time to register. They should be told how and where to check their respective voter lists to ensure their entries are correct. Voters should be informed of the type of election to be held, the polling date and location, when the polling station will be open, and how to cast their ballots. Voter education should be provided even on election day; there should be posters and other materials inside the polling stations, and even inside the voting booths, explaining the voting process and how to mark the ballot.
Voter education is most effective when linked with a programme of civic education that puts the election into context for voters and provides an explanation of the election’s purpose, the surrounding issues, and their significance. Ideally, civic education will be built into a country’s educational system so that when children reach voting age they will already understand the basis of the national and local political and electoral systems. However, since this is not always the case, and since these systems may change over time, it is vital to have a continuing programme of civic education linked to electoral processes. Moreover, if women are disadvantaged in a country’s educational system, they may not have received the civic education necessary to enable them to participate in elections in a well-informed manner.
In countries emerging from conflict, civic education should begin with an explanation of the nature and importance of the peace agreement, the advantages to be gained from national reconciliation and peace-building, and the manner in which an honest election can contribute to this process. It should communicate the advantages of democracy. It should also focus on the human rights of all citizens, especially their civil and political rights with regard to the upcoming election. Emphasis should be placed on the equal rights of women and men, both in regard to the election and more generally. Both men and women may need civic education to understand the importance of women’s full participation in the political process. In post-conflict societies, civic education can highlight the importance of women’s knowledge and expertise in the areas of reconstruction and national reconciliation, as well as the importance of their equal involvement in the political process. A key objective of civic education is to motivate all voters to participate in the elections.
The governing authorities of a country are primarily responsible for civic education. Given that elections are highly political, it is crucial that government-sponsored civic education be neutral and accurate, and that it not be seen as favouring any party or candidate. Many other groups can make valuable contributions to civic education as well. Women’s associations and other non-governmental organizations can be particularly effective in developing gender-sensitive messages that disseminate a positive image of women as full and equal participants in governance, including as politicians and national leaders. In some post-conflict countries, women’s groups have been particularly effective in educating the public on peace-building in the context of an election and mobilizing public opinion in favour of maintaining the peace. Political parties are often best placed to provide information on specific candidates and issues, including issues of special concern to women. The media can play a key role in breaking down negative stereotypes of women and encouraging their full participation. The international community can also make constructive contributions to civic education, drawing on its substantial experience in promoting women’s participation in elections in post-conflict countries.
Government actors should:
· Develop and disseminate comprehensive programmes of voter and civic education, starting well before each election and continuing throughout the election process, and ensure that the material used is accurate and politically neutral;
· Provide sufficient resources to ensure such programmes reach all citizens, especially women;
· Initiate special voter and civic education programmes for target groups, including women, minorities, displaced persons, youth and others who may be less likely to vote, as well as programmes on women’s participation aimed at men;
· Ensure that election officials and voters understand that family voting is wrong and could be considered a form of fraud;
· Review all materials to ensure they are gender-sensitive;
· Develop gender-sensitization programmes for personnel responsible for civic and voter education.
International actors should:
· Support gender-sensitive voter education programmes and ensure women’s full participation in their design and dissemination;
· Support civic education programmes that include information on the benefits of democracy, reconciliation and peace-building, and on the equality of women and men;
· Provide funding for voter and civic education programmes aimed at increasing women’s participation;
· Develop and support voter and civic education training opportunities for women.
Civil society actors should:
· Develop gender-sensitive voter and civic education messages that highlight the capacities of women as candidates and political leaders, encourage women to run for office, break down negative stereotypes of women, and promote women’s full participation in the electoral process;
· Help ensure that all voters and election officials understand that family voting is not acceptable and could constitute a form of fraud;
· Ensure that all women have access to voter education;
· Design training programmes on women’s participation that are targeted at men;
· Monitor the Government’s voter and civic education programmes to ensure that they are accessible to women and are gender-sensitive.