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[Summary] RightOn #13: Human rights and the precarious condition of electoral democracy

04 November 2020

It is widely assumed that human rights and electoral democracy are mutually supportive and inextricably linked. There can be little doubt that the regular holding of free and fair democratic elections is essential for citizens’ enjoyment of human rights. Nevertheless, the recent emergence of a range of different issues, including the misuse of digital technologies in voting, brings new challenges to the democratic process within both long-established and transitional electorally democratic countries.

In this context, the Right On initiative held a web chat titled ‘Human rights and the precarious condition of electoral democracy’ gathering panellists from academia and civil society. The speakers for the occasion were Dr Kathleen Cavanaugh (Executive Director of the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, University of Chicago), Peter Wolf (Senior Analyst, Electoral Processes, International IDEA), and Kayleigh Long (Researcher, Amnesty International).

Electoral trends

Speaking on the recent electoral trends, the speakers drew attention to two particular tendencies. The first is the rise of populism where leaders use the public square to appeal to certain social groups on issues such as immigration, resource appropriation, and (dis)trust in institutions. The second refers to democratic erosion that results from a combination of populism and irresponsible use of social media or media in general.

Populism as a correct term?

Referring to the very use of the term populism, the participants note that we use it because it is the nomenclature of the moment. Other terminology, including emotionality, where leaders have the ability to encourage a particular emotion within the electorate so as to ferment a certain kind of behaviour, may also portray some of the current electoral trends which are associated with populism.

Separation of power under threat?

The discussants also brought in the notion of separation of power that helps ensure the checks and balances of a political system. They noted that when separation of power becomes disrupted, the only rescue for constitutional democracies and the erosion of democracy is public action and collective mobilisation. Nevertheless, in order to be able to do so, citizens must have an insight into the work of institutions and should have a strong hold of their voting rights, which is not always the case.

Digital technologies and elections

Touching up on digital technologies and their application in the electoral process, the panellists noted that it is important to distinguish between different types of digital technologies that bring in their own opportunities and challenges. Elections technologies such as voter registration, vote counters, e-voting, for their part, can have a both positive and negative impact on the integrity of voting, and represent an area where the most progress has been made. The legislators have the ability to decide how many of these technologies they want or do not want to use. On the other hand, the influence of digital technologies on the information environment is something that is harder to control and in certain cases includes the right to access the Internet, Internet shutdowns, information flows, and the use of social media. Social media, for its part, has the ability to influence the visibility of messages, audiences, and algorithmic research using emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI). Lastly, political campaigning has moved to the online space, thus raising questions about whether and how we can regulate it.

How to deal with social media platforms?

While the discussants observed that something needs to be done about the role that social media platforms play in the electoral process, the real challenge lies in identifying what can actually be done. Transparency and accessibility to the spending on online advertising are likely to feature as common points, however, there may be disagreement as to whether or not this is sufficient.

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