Chapter 4


Voter Registration


Basic elements of voter registration


In almost all countries, voters must be registered in order to be eligible to participate in an election. Voter registration is intended to ensure that everyone entitled to vote can do so, to prevent ineligible persons from voting, and to guard against multiple voting by the same individual. The accuracy of the voter register is a key element in ensuring that all qualified constituents can enjoy the right to vote. Registration systems should be designed to ensure that women are not indirectly disadvantaged or disenfranchised, as can easily happen in post-conflict countries and elsewhere if procedures are not carefully planned and implemented. 


Voter registration should begin with the premise that all citizens who have reached the required age have the right to vote. According to United Nations standards, people should not be denied registration as voters on the basis of such factors as race, sex, language or religion. It is widely accepted that citizens should not have to pay a poll tax or meet literacy, income or education requirements in order to vote. Voting can legitimately be restricted, however, on the basis of citizenship, mental capacity, or a criminal record.


Voter registers are the consolidated, official lists of all persons eligible to vote. The term “voter list”, in contrast, is often used to refer to a list of persons registered to vote in a particular constituency for a particular election. Voter registers and voter lists may be assembled and maintained in a variety of ways by a range of State and local authorities (see box 4.1). Some countries maintain national voter registers; in others, voter registers or lists are created and maintained only at the local level. Some countries have established computerized national registers; others have not.



Box 4.1.  Methods used to compile voter registers


Countries use many sources and methods to compile and update voter registers. A number of countries use more than one source or method. Some examples are as follows:


§         Links to national population records: Albania, Belgium, Botswana, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Mexico, Moldova, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Poland, Seychelles, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine;

§         Links to police records of residence: Armenia, Austria, Belarus, Croatia, Czech Republic, Lithuania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Slovakia, Switzerland;

§         Links to applications for government services: Australia, Canada, Cape Verde, Chile, Japan, Panama, Seychelles, Slovakia;

§         Registration by voters at registration offices: Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Dominica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, France, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Ireland, Lesotho, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Mexico, Moldova, Mozambique, Namibia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines;

§         Door-to-door registration campaign: Albania, Australia, Barbados, Belarus, Costa Rica, India, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, Panama, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Seychelles, South Africa, Turkey, United Kingdom;

§         Registration by mail: Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Germany, Ireland, United Kingdom;

§         Mobile election registrar: Australia, Mozambique, Namibia, Panama, Uganda;

§         Internet registration: Australia, Canada, Denmark.


     Source: The Election Process Information Collection, a joint project of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, United Nations Development Programme, and International Foundation for Election Systems (



In many countries the voter registration list is drawn from a civil register that may also be used for other purposes, such as issuing national identity cards or distributing social benefits. In other countries voter registers are compiled strictly for elections and may not be used for other purposes. Any system a country uses to create and maintain voter registers should be clear, transparent and accurate. Voters should have an easy way to check for mistakes and have corrections made. When lists are prepared for each polling station, they should be posted publicly well before an election so eligible citizens can easily check whether they are properly registered. Ideally, political parties should also be given an opportunity to check the accuracy of the voter lists.


There are various systems of voter registration, each of which has advantages and disadvantages. All systems have elements that, if not carefully implemented, may work to the detriment of some women voters. Post-conflict situations may present a number of additional obstacles to successful voter registration, as described below.


Types of registration


The two main systems of voter registration are known as “self-initiated” and “State-initiated”. As indicated in the following, each can have an impact on women’s participation in elections.


In self-initiated systems (also known as “active” or “affirmative” systems), electors must take the initiative and register themselves to vote. Depending on the country, voters may or may not have to re-register for each election. An advantage of self-initiated systems is that the registers created are designed specifically for electoral purposes. As such, they need not include as much information as other types of civil registers and can therefore be more protective of personal data, which may offer voters an extra measure of security. For example, a person’s ethnicity may be identified in some civil registers, but any indication of ethnicity on voter registers in post-conflict countries could lead to intimidation. Registers created through self-initiated systems can usually be more easily controlled by electoral authorities, and therefore more accurately integrated into other aspects of the electoral process such as the issuance of voter cards or the distribution of voter education material. Systems of this type are somewhat more likely to exclude ineligible persons, such as those who have died or those who have permanently emigrated from the country.


Self-initiated systems may be particularly appropriate in some post-conflict situations. For example, if a conflict has left a country’s civil records and local administrative structures severely damaged, creating a new voter register through the self-initiated efforts of eligible citizens may be more practical and accurate than relying on pre-conflict records or on administrative bodies that may not have the capacity to undertake a registration process on their own.


Because self-initiated systems require citizen initiative, they tend to leave out many who would otherwise be eligible to vote, especially in countries with high levels of voter apathy or low levels of voter education. Such systems can disadvantage women voters under certain circumstances. The convenience of the process may be an important issue, for example. If access to registration offices is difficult, or if hours of operation are limited, women with small children or those without easy access to transportation may be discouraged from registering. In countries in which women cannot move about freely, visiting a registration station could be a challenge. In general, countries using self-initiated systems should devote considerable effort to voter education to ensure that as many eligible persons as possible register to vote.


State-initiated registration systems (also known as “automatic” or “passive” systems) are those in which electors are automatically registered by national or local authorities. This is often done on the basis of residence records maintained by police or other local government offices; such records may also be used in building national population registers. In some countries, authorities conduct door-to-door registration of voters, often repeating the process before each election.


State-initiated systems, if well administered, are more likely to ensure that all eligible voters are registered, though they do not guarantee that more of these constituents will actually turn out to vote. Since State-initiated systems are more inclusive, they are more likely to ensure that women as well as men are registered to vote. They can facilitate women’s participation in elections both as voters and as candidates, since voter registration is often a prerequisite to running for office. However, State-initiated registration can lead to serious problems or gaps if the lists are not well maintained and regularly updated. This can be an especially grave problem in post-conflict countries in which records have been destroyed or manipulated, or in which significant flows of displaced persons have rendered the lists obsolete.


Box 4.2. The registration of women in Afghanistan

The Bonn process that put an end to the Afghan civil war and Taliban rule called for the United Nations to conduct a voter registration exercise prior to the 2004 elections.

The task of setting up a system to ensure that women in Afghanistan would have the opportunity to register and vote was a particularly difficult one. Not only had popular elections never been held in Afghanistan, but the political role of women had been greatly circumscribed by a socio-political tradition that had changed little over the centuries. In addition, women in Afghanistan had more recently been subjected to extreme repression under the Taliban regime.

It was clear from the beginning that a number of special measures would have to be taken to ensure women were able to register to vote. These measures included:

·         Using women-only registration teams for the registration of women (which eventually posed a problem owing to the fact that, as a result of Taliban policies, there were relatively few literate women);

·         Offering women a choice between a photograph and a fingerprint for identification purposes;

·         Conducting targeted civic education campaigns for women carried out by women;

·         Arranging for women to “train the trainers” for registration teams and civic education teams;

·         Conveying targeted messages to male religious leaders explaining why it was important to allow women to register.

The result has been a comparatively high rate of registration by women—approximately 40 per cent of total registration. The rate is somewhat imbalanced, being below 20 per cent in one of the more conservative regions, but the overall figures are nonetheless encouraging and have exceeded most estimates. For the most part, women who wanted to register were able to register because they were well informed and because the registration procedures were culturally sensitive enough to remove obstacles to their participation.


Despite the inclusiveness of well-maintained State-initiated registration, such systems must be carefully managed, or women may be placed at a disadvantage. For example, a procedure must be in place to ensure that information is automatically updated for women who change their name or place of residence when they marry, or they might be inadvertently disenfranchised. Since State-initiated registration lists are often drawn from residence records that may be based on the male head of household, it is important to be sure that all female members of the household are also included.


In some elections, voter registers may not be used at all; citizens may vote simply by presenting the required proof of citizenship. This may be necessary in countries holding an election for the first time, or in post-conflict societies in which many public records have been destroyed and there has not been enough time to compile a new voter register before election day. In such cases, voters’ fingers may be inked as a precaution against double voting. Holding an election without a voter register, however, means that all the protections and safeguards built into a registration system do not operate for the election in question. There is also the option of combining registration and polling; the gender issue would be the need for effective civic education so women would know that if they went to the polling place and were eligible to vote, they would be registered and able to vote.


Obstacles to registration


Because voter registration entails compiling and maintaining accurate lists of virtually all adult citizens in a country and their places of residence, it can be an extremely complicated, time-consuming and expensive process involving a variety of local and national authorities. If a continuous system of voter registration is used (rather than a procedure established for a single election), effective procedures must be in place to ensure the inclusion of constituents who have recently attained voting age, and especially those who will reach voting age between the time of registration and polling day. Such a system must also ensure that people who change their residence can easily or automatically have their voter registration updated, and that the names of deceased persons are removed from the register. Voter registration systems need to take into account language differences within a country, regional or ethnic differences that may affect registration, and difficulties faced by illiterate and disabled citizens. Countries issuing photo registration cards to voters need to consider ways to ensure that veiled women are not disenfranchised, possibly by giving them the option of fingerprinting or photographs, and by having women-only registration teams for the women. Voter registration systems should also ensure that citizens residing abroad do not lose their right to vote.


Another problem in many countries is that different people are eligible to vote in different types of elections. For example, many countries allow non-citizen permanent residents to vote in local but not national elections. Some countries allow their citizens who are temporarily living abroad to participate in national but not local elections. In such cases, the relevant authority must produce specific voter lists for different types of elections.


Voter registration in post-conflict countries can be particularly problematic. If a conflict has produced large numbers of internally displaced persons or refugees, this can play havoc with the voter registers. Since women usually make up the large majority of those displaced by a conflict, they are most at risk of losing their right to vote unless means are established to ensure displaced persons are registered. Conflicts may also have resulted in the destruction of voter lists in some localities. To further complicate the issue, many displaced persons may have lost their personal documents and may therefore be unable to verify their citizenship or residency. Displaced women may fear that registering in the communities in which they once lived could jeopardize their ability to receive assistance for themselves and their children in their new communities. In a volatile post-conflict atmosphere, people may be reluctant to re-register as voters, fearing intimidation; women may be particularly vulnerable in this regard.




The factors mentioned above underscore the importance of authorities in post-conflict countries giving careful attention to voter registration. Inaccurate voter registers can disenfranchise voters, undermine public confidence in election results, and create opportunities for manipulation or fraud. Various actors in election processes can take steps to address these problems, thereby enhancing the quality of post-conflict elections and helping to ensure that women can enjoy their right to full political participation.


Government actors should:


·         Develop voter registration procedures that are transparent, inclusive and do not indirectly disadvantage women;

·         Ensure that in post-conflict situations internally displaced and refugee women and women who have lost their documents are given the opportunity to register and vote;

·         Establish a simple and transparent procedure allowing citizens to make corrections to the voter lists, as well as an effective procedure to redress complaints;

·         Consider the establishment of a national computerized voter register to help ensure the accurate, universal registration of voters, if national resources and capabilities make this a practical option;

·         Collect registration and turnout data disaggregated by gender;

·         Ensure adequate security during the voter registration process.


International actors should:


·         Provide advice and assistance on effective voter registration methods;

·         Help evaluate voter registration procedures with a view to ensuring they do not disadvantage women;

·         Facilitate the registration and voting of refugees and displaced persons.


Civil society actors should:


·         Encourage citizens, particularly women, to register and to vote;

·         Design public information campaigns aimed at women to explain the registration process and how citizens can check their entries on the voter register;

·         Monitor the voter registration process to assess its accuracy and inclusiveness.