Democracy in all its forms has been celebrated since it became a core principle of Greek society over 1,500 years ago. Today, whether or not citizens are granted the right to choose their leader or representative is one of the main litmus tests for fair governance.
While voting may not always mean a democratic process, from China, with a population of more than 1.4 billion people, to tiny Montserrat, which numbers 5,215 residents, virtually every nation on Earth votes. It is a right millions have died for, and the very act of voting in many parts of the world is itself an act of bravery. Few images were more moving than those of voters in war-torn Iraq holding up their purple-hued thumbs to indicate they had voted.
To track down the largest voting contests in the world, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed total votes cast in elections and referendums around the world since as early as 1945. Because China and India are the world’s most populous countries, those nations’ elections over the years would by default dominate a significant portion of the largest elections.
To provide a broader perspective on voting contests worldwide, we considered each country only once. Included on our list are the biggest turnouts for presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as for referendums such as the Brexit vote, by country.
The journey to gain universal suffrage has been a long and arduous one. Though many free men could vote in ancient Greece and Rome, that right was not extended to women or slaves. For long stretches of history, power was held by royalty and the aristocracy. That began to change after the Enlightenment and philosophers such as John Locke, who believed the power to govern had to be conferred on rulers by the people.
In colonial America, only white Protestant men who held property could vote. In the 19th century, the vote was extended to men who did not own property, and then to freed slaves by the 15th Amendment. In reality, though, African-Americans were kept away from the ballot box in the South by poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation tactics. They would not be able to truly exercise their right to vote until civil rights legislation was passed after World War II. Women did not get the right to vote until 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
For one-party countries such as China and North Korea, the outcome on election day is not in doubt. Even so, people are compelled to vote in those countries, where the voter turnout is at or near 100%. In many multi-party countries such as Germany and Italy, the voter turnout tops 80% routinely, well above that of the United States.
In 22 countries, voter turnout percentages are boosted by compulsory voting requirements, mostly for those residents 18 years and older. Not voting in certain nations can have punitive consequences. In Australia, for example, citizens who don’t vote can get fined $20.
To identify the biggest elections in the world, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed total votes cast in parliamentary and presidential elections between 1945 and the present, as well as referendums, from the Voter Turnout Database, a program produced by the Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). We also considered vote counts in elections held in nations IDEA does not track, such as North Korea, China, and Vietnam. Only the largest election in each country’s history was considered.
Population figures came from the International Database of the U.S Census Bureau. Population data is adjusted during an election year to calculate the voting age population. In the case of Syrian Arab Republic, this adjustment results in a voting age population that is smaller than the number of total votes.