Acton Institute Powerblog

4 freedoms that affect your right to vote (and 1 that doesn’t)

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This week marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the UK. Just before the centenary, the Foundation for the Advancement of Liberty evaluated each nation’s electoral system in its first-ever World Electoral Freedom Index. It found that four separate freedoms correlate with a nation having free and honest elections.

The report analyzed 50 components of electoral laws, broken down into four categories: a nation’s political development, freedom to vote, ability to run for office, and the extent voters could hold elected officials accountable. Its findings are as follows:

The 10 nations with the most electoral freedom:

  1. Ireland
  2. Iceland
  3. Switzerland
  4. Finland
  5. Australia
  6. Denmark
  7. Portugal
  8. Dominican Republic
  9. United Kingdom
  10. Lithuania

The 10 nations with the least electoral freedom:

  1. United Arab Emirates
  2. North Korea
  3. Oman
  4. China
  5. South Sudan
  6. Eritrea
  7. Qatar
  8. Thailand
  9. Saudi Arabia
  10. Brunei

In all, it ranks the electoral freedom in 104 of the 198 countries “insufficient” or lower. (The United States ranks a disappointing 44th place for its “convoluted” election system – but in the top 10 for ease of voting, a feat so unrestricted the dead sometimes exercise it.)

“The existence of effective electoral freedom is of the essence for a governance system’s credibility and legitimacy,” wrote Roxana Nicula, the foundation’s chair.

The ability to participate in a free election correlated with four other freedoms – and had no relationship with another.

What did NOT improve electoral freedom?

Social libertinism: A more socially “progressive” regime did not necessarily coincide with electoral freedom. The organization compared electoral freedom with the results of its World Index of Moral Freedom, which measures how free citizens are from government constraints on moral issues like abortion, euthanasia, marijuana legalization, pornography, legalized prostitution, same-sex marriage, and limitations on transgender expression.

“Only Portugal coincides in the top ten of both indices,” it reports.

Ultimately, it found, “there is no direct correlation” between socially permissive policies and a free electorate.

What mattered?

Freedom of the press: The report found a high correlation between its rankings and those of the World Press Freedom Index, produced by Reporters Without Borders.

Economic liberty: “Overall, it may be said that countries with greater economic freedom tend to have a high level of electoral freedom, and vice-versa,” the report says. “The greatest coincidence is recorded at the bottom of the tables. … North Korea and Eritrea coincide in one of the worst scores in both indices.” The study is yet more evidence that economic liberty acts as a guarantor of other freedoms.

Religious liberty: After reviewing the Pew Research Center’s most recent study on religious restrictions, the report concluded, “The countries in the first spots in electoral freedom tend to be among those who enjoy ‘low’ or ‘moderate’ state restrictions on religious freedom.”

However, “the countries with a state religion or with a communist system” – in which the state religion is atheism – coincide near the bottom of both indices.

Culture: While the nations with the most electoral freedom also had a predominance of Christians, the report notes that many Christian nations rate poorly. Meanwhile nations with a Hindu (India), Jewish (Israel), and Buddhist (Japan) predominance score well.

What made the difference, the report found, was the nation’s culture.

“Twelve of the thirty countries of the world with greater electoral freedom belong to the Anglo-Saxon cultural area,” it stated. “The legal tradition of origin affects electoral freedom to a considerable extent. Specifically, there seems to be a more favourable trend toward electoral freedom in the field of Anglo-Saxon law or Common Law, than in the areas of continental law, composite law (with elements of Common Law and continental law), or Islamic law (fiqh).”

Overall, “the better positioned nations tend to be European ones that experienced the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, either directly or indirectly, and were able to terminate the old regime of absolute monarchies, replacing them by parliamentary monarchies or republics,” wrote Carlos Alberto Montaner, the foundation’s honorary president, in his foreword.

The report notes how the West influenced the development of North and Latin American nations and the Japanese and South Korean democracies in the postwar era.

“Among the countries with Islamic majorities, only three European ones have a good performance in terms of electoral freedom,” it notes (Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia). “Among those electors and elected with less freedom,” wrote Montaner, “the Islamic religion predominates.”

“Even worse is the spot, overall, of non-European countries that were part of the Soviet bloc,” the report said, including Vietnam and Laos.

Western culture, springing from a Christian root, flowered through a specific historical and philosophical process to produce the world’s most robust respect for individual conscience, freedom of association, and freedom of expression.

The report’s conclusion calls to mind the words of Montesquieu, the Enlightenment philosopher whose theory of the separation of powers so influenced America’s Founding Fathers:

The Christian religion is a stranger to mere despotic power. The mildness so frequently recommended in the Gospel, is incompatible with the despotic rage with which a prince punishes his subjects, and exercises himself in cruelty. … [Its princes] are more disposed to be directed by laws, and more capable of perceiving that they cannot do whatever they please.

While the Mahometan princes incessantly give or receive death, the religion of the Christians render their princes less timid, and consequently less cruel. The prince confides in his subjects, and the subjects in the prince. How admirable the religion, which, while it only seems to have in view the felicity of the other life, continues the happiness of this [life]! (The Spirit of the Laws, Book 24, ch. 3)

“We owe to Christianity,” he concluded, “benefits which human nature can never sufficiently acknowledge.”

The interlaced freedoms documented in these reports underscore the value of the Western, Judeo-Christian cultural inheritance.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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