Democracy is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor—and neither is its essential mechanism, the free and fair election. Read on to learn more about how people around the world—and how some people who are currently out of this world—vote when Election Day rolls around.
1. In most places, elections are held on Sundays.
Voters in the U.S. may head to the polls on Tuesdays, but the rest of the world prefers to save its votes for Sunday. Interestingly, countries in which English is the primary language tend to be the exception to this rule; in Canada, citizens vote on Mondays, while British citizens vote on Thursdays, and Australians and New Zealanders on Saturdays.
The American vote wasn’t always limited to Tuesdays by law; instead, it’s a holdover from the 19th century, when farmers often had to travel long distances to their polling stations, and needed enough time to make it back home for market day on Wednesday.
2. India is so vast, its elections can take weeks.
India is home to nearly 100 million eligible voters, which makes it the world’s largest democracy. In order to accommodate an electorate of that size, the government holds elections over the course of weeks or even months. The last major general election in 2019, in which Indians voted for the 543 members of its parliament, took place seven phases over five weeks.
3. Swedish and French voters are automatically registered.
People in France and Sweden don’t need to worry about making time to register ahead of Election Day. The government automatically registers voters when they’re eligible—in France, that’s as soon as people turn 18. Sweden relies on tax registries to create lists of eligible citizens.
4. Voting is compulsory in Australia.
Every Australian over 18 is required by law to register to vote and to participate in federal elections [PDF]. Anyone who doesn’t show up on Election Day is fined AU$20 ($13 in U.S. dollars). Failure to pay that fine results in even steeper penalties and can result in civil charges.
5. Kids as young as 16 can vote in Brazil.
Since 1988, Brazilian citizens have had the right to vote at age 16. (Voting is required for almost everyone between the ages of 18 and 69, and anyone who doesn’t vote is subject to a fine.) Those who are 16 and 17 are also eligible to vote in Austria, Nicaragua, and Argentina, and 17-year-olds can cast votes in Indonesia and Sudan. Select states in Germany have given 16-year-olds the vote in local and statewide elections, and in 2014, for the first time ever, Scottish teens aged 16 and 17 were allowed to vote on a referendum (16-year-olds can now vote in all Scottish Parliament elections).
Studies of elections in which 16- and 17-year-olds can participate have shown that giving young people the ability to vote may translate into a more engaged citizenry as those voters grow older. What’s more, teens who choose to participate in elections are often as well informed about the candidates and the issues as their older counterparts.
6. In Estonia, you can cast your vote online.
Since 2005, Estonians have had the ability to vote online instead of waiting in line at their local polling stations. Although in-person voting is still more popular, in the 2023 parliamentary election, more than half of those voting took advantage of the online voting system. The Estonian system is workable because every citizen receives a scannable ID card and PIN, which he or she can use to fulfill a number of civic responsibilities, from filing taxes to paying library fines. (Although an Estonian’s ID card and PIN are used to confirm his or her identity on Election Day, the vote itself is encrypted, rendering it anonymous.)
7. Voter turnout in the U.S. has increased, but it’s lower than in other developed countries.
According to the Pew Research Center, 62.8 percent of eligible voters (and 94.1 percent of registered voters) performed their civic duty during United States’s 2020 election cycle. That’s an improvement from 57.2 percent of eligible people voting in the 2012 election, but recent turnout still ranks lower than in other developed nations, including Sweden (80.3 percent), South Korea (76.7 percent), and Iceland (75.8).
8. In Chile, men and women voted separately until 2012.
Beginning in 1930, when women were given the right to vote in local elections, men and women in Chile headed to separate polling locations. That year, a separate registry was created to accommodate newly registered female voters, who were still prohibited from voting in national elections. The custom of separating men and women on election day persisted even after suffrage was granted in nationwide elections (and the country’s voting registries were combined) in 1949. Sixty-three years later, the government decided that voting doesn’t have to be segregated by gender; however, separate voting is still widely practiced.
9. North Korea does hold elections.
But they’re far from democratic. Although 99.7 percent of the electorate participated in the 2015 local elections, citizens didn’t have much of a choice when it came to choosing whom they wanted to endorse. Everyone on the ballot was selected ahead of time by North Korea’s ruling party; to vote, North Koreans simply had to drop a printout of the names in a box to indicate their support. A separate box was present at polling locations, which voters could use to register their rejection of the given candidates. However, all of the candidates chosen received 100 percent of the vote—which means either no one opted to dissent, or if they did, their votes weren’t counted.
10. The British monarch is eligible to vote.
There’s no law in the United Kingdom barring King Charles III from participating in elections. But his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth II, rarely voted so as to appear as objective as possible. During Britain’s contentious and controversial Brexit referendum in 2016, a Buckingham Palace spokesman told reporters, “It’s very clearly the convention here, that the queen is above politics … it’s a convention that the royal family do not vote in general elections, and this is very much an extension of that convention.”
11. Where literacy is an issue during elections, governments get creative.
In Gambia, citizens cast their votes by dropping marbles into color-coded metal drums with pictures of the candidates. Each drum is rigged with a bell, which the marble dings after it’s dropped in. (If the bell rings more than once, poll workers know someone has broken the rules.)
12. Pundits in New Zealand keep mum on Election Day.
That’s because media (or social media) coverage of anything that could influence the outcome is illegal before 7 p.m. on Election Day. According to one report, “Talking heads on television can’t mention something as mundane as a candidate’s attire, much less who might win. Political parties are even directed by authorities to ‘unpublish their [social media] pages.’” Anyone in violation of the restriction on Election Day chatter faces a fine of up to NZ$20,000 (nearly $12,000 in U.S. dollars).
13. Astronauts can vote.
American astronauts aboard the International Space Station have had the ability to vote since 1997, when Texas lawmakers passed a measure that allowed secure ballots to be sent to space by Mission Control in Houston, Texas. Once astronauts make their selections, their ballots—PDFs of the paper ballots they’d receive in the mail—are beamed back down to Earth, where clerks open the encoded documents and submit a hard copy of the astronaut’s ballot to be counted.
14. Liechtenstein voters weigh in on citizenship.
In the tiny European country of Liechtenstein (population: 40,000) citizens vote for politicians, referenda, and whether to grant citizenship to those who have applied after residing in the principality for 10 or more years.
15. One Ecuadorian election got off on the wrong foot.
In the days leading up to a 1967 mayoral election in Ecuador, a company ran election-themed ads, suggesting consumers vote for its popular brand of foot powder “if they want well-being and hygiene.” The foot powder won, thanks to the large volume of write-in votes it received.
A version of this story was published in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.