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Interview with Therese Pearce Laanela (International IDEA): The out of country voting is not just a technical issue, but a societal discussion

Therese Pearce Laanela is the head of elections department at International Idea.  She has a long experience in the electoral field for more than 20 years and is a founding staff member of IDEA. She also worked for UNDP or IFES, was Deputy Director for the Democratization Program at the Carter Center, and was involved in the development of publications, databases, networks and training curricula for election administration, including the Electoral Knowledge Network (ACE) or the BRIDGE courses. 

You have a vast experience in working in many countries and for many years on elections. How does a country find the right solution for out of country voting? Let’s say you have the Romanian case, when people cannot vote properly and have to stay in huge queues. How do you make sure that sure that all the stakeholders are involved in the discussions?

There are different aspects involved. There is the technical aspect on how to get peoples’ votes. And there is how to get consensus on what is the right way. Those are two different questions. Let’s start with the options that are available and their advantages and disadvantages.

The advantage of embassies or other types of temporary polling stations organized abroad is the secure environment in which you can organize basically the same type of procedures that you normally have in a polling station; and these are particularly important to secure the vote. Of course, the problem, is that ‘abroad’ is very big. There is a whole world out there and travel times may differ and therefore there may an unevenness in access. That is often solved through other means, by mail or through the Internet.

The advantage is that it takes away the problem of distance. The disadvantage is the secrecy of the vote or the ability to know who is who. Neither of these options are prescribed by international standards and countries make different options, for different reasons. When it comes to deciding what type, other considerations come in. And this is why the worries have to precede the decisions that you make.

Can money be a reason to choose one or another strategy?

Of course it is. It is a trend worldwide that we are moving to more flexible options to reach people where they are. This is because identities are shifting. The idea that a person votes close to the place where it lives it is disappearing. Part of it is that people are going abroad, are on duty or students are in different places. So there are many reasons why people aren’t where they are registered, where their residence is. And election authorities need to update their methodologies according to the population.

But there are some considerations. One of them is the cost. The more kinds of options you provide, abroad, including voting by mail, in advance and others, mean additional costs. And when you open that up, those costs are difficult to be closed again. And in each case you have to assume a full group voting in polling stations, but perhaps a full group also using these other methods. I don’t think we can dismiss costs as part of the societal conversation. It is not that you should not pay for that, but you must be aware of it.

This means that you have to be very strategic on the long term, not just for the next elections

You are right. And this is why this is not just a technical issue, this is a societal issue. Let me give you an example. In Cape Verde, the cost per voter is estimated at 16 dollars per voter, which is very high if we compare with India, where the cost is one dollar or even less. But in the first case they have decided that their boundaries are not the geographical ones, they see themselves as people beyond the boundaries. So that way of identifying themselves means that this is a priority and that’s why it can cost so much. This illustrates the point that there has to be a conversation about who we are. People paying taxes should have a word and should be part of this. It’s the idea of no taxation without representation. This issue of national identity is part of that discussion of who should be allowed to vote.

And there is the political dimension. You cannot exclude that. Any kind of inclusion or exclusion has political implications. And that’s why these discussions can become very heated. Parliaments should take these decisions, as they create the law in the end.  But what we have noticed is that when these decisions are taken on the short term political reasons – for example including or excluding someone for voting for diaspora – the dynamics can change over time. It is very important to encourage politicians to think not only on the short term, for the next elections, but what is best for the society on the long term.

In terms of technical aspects, apart from the costs, any extension of the vote to people outside the polling stations does introduce certain vulnerabilities and we must be aware of them. The staff may not have the training or the experience of the counterparts in the country. Also the voters’ register tends to be a huge complication in the diaspora.

I think it’s important to also take into consideration the political, social and economic reasons, not just the purely technical ones. So it’s not just about the technical part of the registration, but also about allowing as many people to vote

I would say that being concerned by the registration does not exclude the political involvement of the people. The first step is to set the legal criteria, who is the electorate. And this is a conversation that should include all the aspects that you referred to: the people who are marginalized and others. And this is a discussion in which many people, political parties, civil society etc. should be involved in.

Once you have established who is legally allowed to vote, then it is important to make sure that all those people are able to cast their vote and know how to do it. This is about the voters’ education, but also about ensuring the technical means to be able to do that, in actual polling station or extending it to other means.

In those cases in which we do extend it – and this includes also the in country voting – it is still important to know that there are vulnerabilities every time we extend. I am not saying not to do that, but to prepare properly to mitigate those risks.

Primarily something can be wrong: the more you involve people who are not normally involved in elections, this can be bring the possibility that something actually goes wrong. Just because of a mistake, for example. Or if you include the post office for the postal voting, you are including an authority who doesn’t know this type of work.

But, equally, there is the perception that something was wrong. And out of country voting can be prone to this. The issue that have been noticed may make or not a difference to the results. But there is the perception that somebody has manipulated.

How do you build trust in institutions?

I was just saying that something could go wrong or something may appear to go wrong. I also said that this is the perception and goes to the issue of trust. There are a number of means to build trust. First, it is by delivery, by just showing again and again and again that you are an election authority that deliver the elections properly. And if people see that things are done competently that helps with the trust. So delivery is the first aspect, of actually doing it well again and again.

The second aspect of building trust is relational. And this can’t be forgotten. It is not only that you have to deliver well, but you have to really communicate and consult with the political parties, vendors and groups that represent especially marginalized people that are outside the society. You have to take that relational work as an elections authority very seriously, continuously, in your process design, in your consideration of things that might be coming, in your evaluations afterwards – how it went – by listening to their voices and showing that you take their concerns seriously by how you adapt things for the next elections.

What is your opinion on introducing advanced voting for out of country elections? Give us your thoughts on why this is a good idea and on what it may go wrong.

I can very much understand why it is necessary to do this over multiple days. Embassies become polling stations, but instead of being a few kilometers away, like a normal polling station in Romania, your constituency is much greater. So something has to stretch.

I would say that an important thing is service mindfulness. But this has to be balanced against security and any kind of extension bring a security issue – securing the materials, keeping an eye on the vulnerabilities that may occur -, the vigilance is important. So service mindfulness and security would be two principles I would take into consideration.

And most importantly, listen to everybody’s voices before introducing something. It takes three electoral cycles to completely introduce a big reform. Small reforms, something that you can tweak can be done from one cycle to another. But a big reform, especially a controversial one, you need to make sure that has a societal acceptance. You don’t want to marginalize anybody. Because the perception problem becomes a bigger problem than the actual delivery.

The first election cycle is about seeing what may be done with the actual problems, discussing, bringing a lot of people on board and reaching some kind of consensus on what the options are. The second cycle is about testing procurement, technical feasibility, getting the legislation right and training packages. And the last cycle is about testing, including backups, because things may go wrong. And I know that politically is not always possible to do this ideally, but if you push things faster than this, they may go wrong.


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