For All the Marbles: Voting Around the World

With reports that some new electronic voting machines can be hacked, along with the computers that store the results, modern voting techniques have been getting an increasingly bad rap.

And who could ever forget the hanging chad debacle from Florida's 2000 presidential election?

Yes, the year is 2006, but while countries like Britain and the United States experiment with hypertechnical methods of voting -- from text messaging to touch screens -- some countries employ systems closer to those used by the original purveyor of democracy, ancient Greece -- and with greater success.

The small African country of Gambia held elections on Sept. 22 that bore more of a resemblance to the Greek tradition of placing pebbles in a basket, than the modern-day ballot boxes and voting machines.

In the Gambian balloting method, each person places one marble in a bucket marked with his or her candidate's color.

The simple system is designed to facilitate voting for the country's many illiterate citizens.

Similar "traditional" voting methods exist for many countries in which literacy is a problem.

In Indonesia, voters use a nail to pierce a picture of the candidate's face or a symbol for the party.

The graphic method of voting was successful until 2004, when many votes were invalidated when improper folding caused many ballots to be punched twice.

Likewise, Afghanistan pastes postage-stamp size symbols, usually farm equipment or animals, next to the names of candidates and parties to make them easy to decipher.

Forgoing props or pictures, the small sovereign city of Appenzell in Switzerland gathers in the town square on the last Sunday in April every year to appoint authorities and vote on resolutions.

Believed to have first convened in 1378, the Appenzell voting assembly is made up of Swiss citizens over 18, with voting cards used as identification to enter the square.

Men, however, can leave their voting cards at home if they wear their rapier, a long sword that is traditionally worn to the event.

New, but Not Necessarily Better

Local cultural twists on the democratic process of voting are becoming increasingly rare.

Scott Lansell, senior director for programs at IFES (formally the International Foundation for Election Security), believes that as elections become increasingly globally oriented, more countries will look to standardize their voting procedures.

"People are still holding on to traditions," Lansell said, "but more and more countries are looking to follow international standards and looking to follow the world as a whole."

"Most of the reasons to move away from these traditions is they don't meet key standards," he said, "for example [when] there's no secrecy of the vote."

The end of cultural voting traditions doesn't mean that new ones aren't created.

"You see new traditions coming around as much as you see old ones going by the wayside," Lansell said. "Many countries are creating new voting methods to accommodate people with disabilities."

Braille ballots, audio ballots, and even mobile ballot boxes are new developments to help improve enfranchisement for the disabled and illiterate.

When it comes to changing these cultural practices, however, IFES and other election groups try to remain "culturally sensitive without hurting the election integrity."

While most countries are going the way of universal suffrage, in 1994, Puerto Rican election reforms established new rules for male and female voters: Women were only allowed to vote in the mornings, and men were only allowed to vote at night.

While the reforms were controversial, experts say they still accommodated a citizen's right to vote.

"There's no single blueprint for democracy," Lansell said.

"If men and women vote separately, it doesn't interfere with their say on the process."

While electronic voting and technology is becoming more common in elections, Lansell doesn't believe that it's necessary to ensure the integrity of elections.

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