Free and Fair Elections

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)
Erik Nilsson
CPSR Voting Technology Working Group

The process by which the votes of the people are gathered and counted is critical to the government's claims of legitimacy, and to the continued faith of the people in their government. While vote counting sounds straightforward, ensuring the accurate counting of votes in an entire country is quite difficult. Many obstacles can obstruct the democratic process including inadequate access to the voting process, inaccurate counting, late results, and results that are not convincing to the electorate. Some of these obstacles are structural, others are due to human error while others result from intentional manipulation and intimidation. Computers, which seem to offer the promise of increased speed and accuracy of collecting and counting votes accompanied by the possibility of decreased costs, offer new challenges to the legitimacy of the voting process, including high-tech election fraud.


Democratic states offer their inhabitants the important potential for self-governance. Their legitimacy and their effectiveness suffer when the actuality falls too short of the ideal. The responsibility for Free and Fair Elections falls on all citizens although some are in better positions for promoting and maintaining authentic democracy.


In national democracy, essentially the entire population of a nation above a certain age is entitled to vote on one or more questions put to the electorate, usually including what party or individuals will govern the nation. National democracy is the means of generating government for almost all industrialized nations. Furthermore, it is the stated objective of the world's great economic powers to eventually instigate national democracy for all the world's nations. For this and many other reasons, democracy is the most effective approach to producing legitimate government.

Democracies by definition face three major tasks: This pattern is concerned with the second task, determining the "will of the people" while others concern themselves with informing the "will of the people" and implementing the "will of the people." Any deviation in any phase of the process calls into question the entire process. A nomination process that unfairly denies the nomination of certain people poisons the entire process; how can the voting itself then be meaningful when the candidates on the ballot are the product of a corrupt systems?

While the forms that democracies assume vary widely, voting is a key component of each. Thus, the process by which the votes of the people are gathered and counted is critical to the government's claims of legitimacy, and to the continued faith of the people in their government.

Voting is nearly always a critical milestone in the process of determining the people's will. Voting is the critical culmination of an ongoing deliberative process where decisions are actually made: between, for example, candidates vying for a position or for a new proposal to support or limit something. Because voting often determines significant issues it is often subject to immense attention and pressure. While some of this pressure is normal politicking (which varies from place to place), other is unethical, illegal and unfair. The voting process presents an irresistible opportunity for people who want things to go their way regardless of issues of fairness or legality. At the same time the voting process seems to offer innumerable opportunities for unfair interventions at nearly every stage.

Elections vary from place to place, in jurisdiction, in primary or final (general) elections, in selecting officials from candidates or approving or disapproving legislative changes, and most kinds of elections have a whole range of complex activities associated with them. The best recommendation depends on the goals. Beyond that, one can talk about things to avoid. So an "antipattern" is easier than a pattern, if a pattern is a kind of recommendation. In every case we still want "fair elections" however.

The expression "Free and Fair Elections" originated in the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa in 1994. The idea is that the outcome should be generated by a process that gives people free access to their franchise, then fairly calculates the result.

How can Fair Elections be guaranteed? What technology and administration are required to support national democracy? How can elections be trusted? What danger signs of unfair elections can we detect? What recommendations can we make? While vote counting sounds straightforward, ensuring the accurate counting of votes in an entire country is quite difficult. The requirements and constraints associated with Fair Elections introduce numerous challenges. Voters must have adequate access to the voting process, and this access must not be politically biased. The vote counting must be accurate. The results must be produced promptly.

Elections present a special problem, in that it must be ensured that voter person voted at most once, and each voter's votes were accurately counted. However, the votes of any particular voter must remain forever secret. This combination of assured accuracy and secrecy is very unusual outside of voting.

Elections produce results which are just vote totals (plus undervotes if they are permitted and overvotes if they are possible). Results imply outcomes: who (or what) won. Results have two metrics of quality: (1) accuracy (which obviously can't be measured directly) measures how closely reported results match true results; and (2) confidence (which is closely related to "transparency") measures the feeling in the electorate that the reported results are correct.

Total accuracy and no confidence is about as good (or as bad) as the reverse, but they lead to very different kinds of bad. What one wants is an elections process that, for an affordable cost, produces outcomes that are very rarely wrong, even though everybody recognizes that results are seldom perfectly correct.

Also, the results must be worthy of confidence. It's useless to produce a perfectly accurate result, if people are not persuaded that it is accurate. So there must be good reason to believe the election results. The election process must be conducted in public view, and each step of the process, as well as the process as a whole, must be comprehensible to most ordinary voters. Non-partisan officials should monitor the entire process and voting equipment should be based on open specifications and untarnished by partisan and commercial interests. The chain of custody must be carefully maintained and documented for a wide variety of materials including ballots, unvoted ballot stock, poll books, and so on.

Furthermore, this must be accomplished on a limited budget. Elections administration is never a particularly high spending priority.


In democratic societies everybody has the responsibility to help ensure Free and Fair elections. Voters in democratic socities deserve a process that is easy, safe, and private. Voting — and running for office — in democratic socities should be universal and encouraged. All aspects, in other words, should be Free and Fair.

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