An unfair election is a concept used by national and international election monitoring groups to identify when the vote of a people for a government is not free and fair. Unfairness in elections encompasses all varieties of electoral fraud, voter suppression or intimidation, unbalanced campaign finance rules, and imbalanced access to the media. Unfair elections violate the right to vote, which is generally recognised as an essential element to a Deliberative democracy and representative democracy.
Although some form of elections have been held since antiquity, in every society until 1893 large numbers of people were excluded based on their status, particularly slaves, poor, women, people with different skin colour, and people without formal education. The first democratic election in the modern sense was the 1893 general election when women won the vote at the age of 21 like men, property qualifications were scrapped, and restrictions on Maori people voting were discarded. In the United Kingdom, some form of representation in government had been guaranteed since the Magna Carta 1215, but only for a tiny elite, and potentially vetoed by the Monarch. The Monarch's power was eliminated following the Glorious Revolution 1688, and then elections became progressively more democratic. As property qualifications were slowly phased out from 1832 to in 1918, women's suffrage became non-discriminatory in 1928, and the last vestiges of double voting were abolished in 1948. In the United States, elections for the Federal government were administered in each of the states. Around half of all successful constitutional amendments since the Revolution of 1776 concerned elections and the franchise. Slavery was abolished in 1865, universal suffrage for men in the United States House of Representatives was achieved over 1868 and 1870, direct elections to the Senate secured in 1913, women won the vote in 1920, and poll taxes levied by the states were banned in 1964. Around continental Europe, there were different speeds of progress. France had granted universal suffrage for men after the Revolutions of 1848, but did not extend the vote to women until 1944. After the First World War in Germany, the new Weimar Republic's constitution of 1919 guaranteed universal suffrage, overhauling the German Empire's system of three voting classes that depended on wealth, and its exclusion of women. However, democracy was abolished again in 1933 by the Nazi regime until the victory of the Allies in World War II.
In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights exhorted that "everyone has the right to take part in the government", that "the will of the people is the basis of the authority of government" and that "this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections." In the post war process of decolonialisation, more and more countries became independent from the crumbling European Empires, and many introduced elections of some form, though many countries' transition slid abruptly back into authoritarian regimes. The Soviet Union and countries behind the Iron Curtain had no free elections, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. After that a majority of countries around the world have moved toward democratic electoral systems, at least on paper.
Aside from simply denying the vote by outright discrimination, or by curtailing the power of the democratically elected body, interest groups or governments seeking to usurp or hold onto power employed a variety of methods. An early case of electoral fraud was in an election to the county of Northamptonshire in England in 1768, when three earls spent more than £100,000 each to buy votes from voters to win their seats. Voter intimidation was widespread in the German federal election, March 1933, immediately before the Nazi party abolished Parliament's powers. Hitler had become Chancellor at the start of 1933 in a coalition agreement, and with control over the police, opposition party members and campaigners were beaten up and imprisoned throughout the voting process. As electoral systems became more mature, the focus of unfairness turned toward campaign finance and media bias. Almost every country in the developed world introduced limits on the amount that could be spent by any particular candidate in an election. The large exception was the United States, because a majority of judges on the US Supreme Court who were appointed by the Republican Party continued to strike down campaign finance limits as unconstitutional from 1976. A majority of countries also have some form of media regulation, so that news coverage has to be impartial and accurate in its treatment of political issues. Regulation may also extend to who owns news and television organisations, so that the power to grant access information channels is not unduly limited.
Free and fair elections
- Equal voting rights, without reasonable restrictions
- Freedom of association for political groups
- Parity of resources among political groups to persuade
- An informed debate, with equal opportunity to express a view
- The government's power is not unduly curtailed by the constitution or international agreements
- The elected government can take legislative action to enact its promises
- Electoral Commission
- First past the post, proportional representation, preferential voting
Intimidation and suppression
- Bowman v United Kingdom (1998) 26 EHRR 1, distributing vast quantities of anti-abortion material in contravention to election spending laws
- Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and Political Parties and Elections Act 2009
- Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976)
- Randall v. Sorrell, 548 U.S. 230 (2006)
- Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)
- A minority must have an equal opportunity to become the majority
- See also Ashby v White (1703) 1 Sm LC (13th Edn) 253 right to vote cannot be interfered with by a public official.
- It was even asserted (wrongly) by one judge that it was a principle of the English constitution that women would not vote Nairn v The University Court of the University of St Andrews (1907) 15 SLT 471, 473, per Lord McLaren, it is "a principle of the unwritten constitutional law of this country that men only were entitled to take part in the election of representatives to Parliament."
- See also Second Reform Act 1867 and Representation of the People Act 1883.
- J Grego, A history of parliamentary elections and electioneering in the old days (1886) 226-28
- Buckley v Valeo
- OSCE, Election Observation Handbook (6th edn 2010)