Insights from Data: What the Numbers Tell Us About Elections and Future of Democracy
Announcing a new dashboard takes our election cycle data even further to project trends out to 2072
By Katie Harbath and Ana Khizanishvili
UPDATE (October 18, 2023): Tracking global election data is tricky and challenging. One of the reasons for that is the number of variables that go into determining dates and times for each country. Anything from internal politics to conflict and destabilization can affect when each country will hold its elections. Since our initial count in March 2023, much has changed for the 2024 election data. While we were set on 65 elections across 54 countries in March, our recount today shows 83 elections in 78 countries. The increase is mainly due to the addition of European Parliament elections per country, but other things like delayed and snap elections have affected the data. It needs to be underlined that other organizations might have different methodologies for counting global elections, resulting in varying datasets. It is also important to remember that these numbers will change through 2024, and only at the end of the year will we know how many elections actually took place in that year.
Note from Katie: I’m excited to share this joint post about a project I’m working on with Ana Khizanishvili and the Integrity Institute. Ana was on my student strategy team at Georgetown last Fall and helped me build the election cycle tracker. Ana is looking for work, so if anyone is hiring, please take a look at her background! I can absolutely vouch for her.
This post is also cross-posted on the Integrity Institute blog, as this is part of their election integrity program, which the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation generously funds.
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Have you ever paused to ponder how many countries hold elections each year? Perhaps not. Yet one of us - Katie - has devoted much thought to this subject. It all started at Facebook, where Katie coordinated the company’s work on elections all around the globe from 2013 to 2019. She realized that building a list of election dates worldwide is really hard. Just ask IFES - the International Federation of Electoral Systems - which maintains an excellent election guide.
However, the IFES’s guide doesn’t look at the longer-term trends of how often countries go to elections and how many might go to the polls in any given year. This gap inspired Katie: the need for a dependable, streamlined source of election-related data. Many organizations, from tech companies to non-profits, civil society, and others, need time - often at least a year, if not more - to build up the resources and tools needed to protect these elections. It can’t all be done in three to six months. Being able to project longer term allows them to do this preparation.
We started by pulling simple figures, which turned into a complex grid, which then culminated in the creation of the Election Cycle Tracker. The Tracker is a tool that provides comprehensive information on global elections from 2023 to 2029 and breaks down this information from 195 countries by cycle, type of election, and year. The result is a visualization of the ever-shifting landscape of global elections.
Note: One reason it’s hard to create a definitive list of election dates is that while many countries go to the polls at a certain frequency, such as every five years, they may not set the election date until it gets closer; some can even call a snap election. In addition, each country can be a little different regarding how their governments are formed, when different offices go to the polls, etc. We did our best, but we know some things might sound confusing. Our goal is to provide a general idea of direction and be clear that these projections could change.
In addition to the map we released earlier this year, today we are excited to share a supplemental dashboard built with the help of Jeff Allen at the Integrity Institute. This dashboard takes our data even further to 2072 to project trends based on how many countries go to the polls in any given year, the total population that will be affected in those countries (not just those eligible to vote), as well as types of government, Freedom House scores (recently updated for 2023), and many other graphs.
Some trends we’ve identified:
2024 has 65 elections globally across 54 countries. We won’t see that many again until 2048.
What also makes 2024 special is not just the number of countries but the fact that for the first time, you will have a U.S. presidential election in the same year as elections in major countries such as India, Indonesia, Ukraine, Taiwan, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the European Parliament.
You might also be confused why we are saying 65 elections across 54 countries. This is a great example of how hard something like this can be put together and why we try to make clear that these are only projections. We tried to separate elections where a head of state is elected (what we call a “major” election) versus those that don’t have a head-of-state type of race, such as the U.S. midterms (what we call a “secondary” election.) For some countries, these happen on the same day. For others, they might not. We will keep refining this to see if there are better ways to display this data, but we know it can be confusing. If you want to read more about the complexity of building seemingly simple lists, Katie wrote about it here.
Europe leads with 20 elections, and Africa is next with 18.
Nearly 3.65 billion people will be affected by elections next year. (This is the total population, not just those eligible to vote.)
The total population chart also demonstrates how, on average, we see the highest number of people affected by elections every five years. This pattern is usually because some countries with larger populations, such as India and Indonesia, are on 5-year cycles.
Most countries are on four or five-year cycles.
We have also gathered data that give us an outlook on demographics, levels of freedom, and regional aspects of upcoming elections. For instance, 2023 is a much more active year for the Eastern Hemisphere.
Comparing countries, the numbers can also paint a starkly different reality across the 1.6 billion individuals whose lives will be influenced by the outcome of those elections this year.
For instance, a critical dataset we’ve incorporated into the Tracker is the Freedom House's Global Freedom Status, which measures political rights and civil liberties. Including this data enables us to assess if upcoming years will pose particular challenges due to a high number of complicated elections. Casting a ballot in New Zealand in 2023, which boasts an impressive score of 99 out of 100, will offer a vastly different experience from voting in Belarus, which has a total score of eight and where a human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner was recently sentenced to ten years in prison. Or Eswatini, scored at 17 where a pro-democracy activist was targeted and shot just last month. We can also consider how the length of an election cycle may correlate with a country's level of freedom. For instance, we've noticed that all nations with a three-year election cycle are classified as "free," while those on a seven-year cycle tend to be "not free."
Access to free and fair elections can catalyze transformative changes in countries, elevating the quality of life for their citizens. Elections possess an unparalleled ability to shape the trajectory of a transitional democracy and ultimately determine whether a nation will march toward growth or diverge toward regress. While some may dismiss this claim as idealistic, the reality is that many individuals around the world face very real consequences for their voting choices. Alarmingly, this cherished ideal is facing unprecedented threats. Last week, Katie shared concerning data from the V-Dem annual report, revealing a rapid decline in democratic standards across the globe. In the past decade alone, 30 countries have experienced a decline in the quality of their elections, compared to only eight countries in 2012. This trend is not only alarming but a call to action for all those working towards preserving democratic values and improving global standards of development.
In a world that increasingly values democracy and individual freedoms, it is easy to forget the staggering number of people who lack the power to choose their leaders and shape their futures. Our data also highlight a sobering reality: approximately 1.5 billion people around the globe live under regimes that are determined by the decisions of a select few, whether individual leaders or a small, elite minority. Unfortunately, this issue is not static and can grow year over year as a result of social upheaval, regime change, and other factors that autocratic leaders often exploit as an excuse to undermine democratic processes. As a result, many people feel powerless and disenfranchised, unable to have their voices heard in the decisions that shape their lives.
This lack of democratic participation has far-reaching consequences for the affected individuals and the global community. Without the ability to hold power to account, citizens are more vulnerable to corruption, human rights abuses, and the whims of a few individuals who hold an undue amount of control.
Although global freedom continues to decline, Freedom House’s new report shows that the deterioration of rights and freedoms appeared to slow substantially. Only 35 nations declined in this latest version compared to 60 in 2021 and over 70 in 2000. Freedom House projects that the decline could be bottoming out, setting the stage for a turnaround in future years.
So while the state of democracy remains problematic, this projection provides some optimistic hope as we go into 2023 and 2024.
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