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Public deposition: How do we ensure the best mechanisms for voting abroad?

 The Presidential elections in November 2014 have demonstrated that the Parliament cannot stall any further a debate regarding the new legislation on remote voting. Even though there have been several attempts at elaborating remote voting legislation, both from politicians and from the civil society, so far there has been no serious debate or genuine consultation with the relevant public (i.e. Romanians living abroad) on the topic.

Given the already existing issues that surged as a consequence of poor organization of elections at embassies and consulates, especially in the countries which have large Romanian communities (Italy, Spain, France, Germany, United Kingdom and others) one can easily claim that the need for at least one new piece of legislation regarding remote voting is required. The organization of voting in the polling stations must remain a priority, but both OSCE/ODIHR and the Romanian Constitutional Court (Decision 61/2010) have made recommendations for the introduction of an alternative voting method.

Considering the Romanian status quo that is currently characterized by a low level of public trust in political parties, the Parliament and electoral process, it is safe to conclude that the best options lie in postal voting and voting in advance at the polling stations. On the other hand, electronic or Internet voting may be the future, but one should also consider the trial and implementation period, public trust and security mechanism required when dealing with such a major project. Hence, this constitutes a solution exclusively for the following electoral cycles.

According to statistics, on an international level, citizens from states which allow abroad voting, 103 would opt for personal voting, 49 for postal voting, 18 for proxy voting and 7 for internet voting. In the case of electronic voting (be it through machines or the Internet), it was perceived as too risky by states such as Germany, the Netherlands or Norway. In the case of France, the practice of postal voting was dropped ever since 1975, due to electoral fraud allegations.  The UK is also having issues with the postal voting, as public reports show concerns regarding potential frauds. On the other hand, the German Constitutional Court ruled that postal voting is entirely constitutional and that the right to vote must be ensured to everyone, excluding the risks of vote security and secrecy.

The advantages of remote voting consist of: the voter’s option to exercise the rights without having to travel long distances, less crowded polling stations, universality, lack of special technical requirements, the ability to vote although one is away from home and the establishment of a longer period of time to decide on the voting options. Nonetheless, there are also disadvantages to distance voting, such as the inability to ensure vote secrecy, a greater predisposition to the voter being influenced or pressured towards voting for a certain candidate or party, high costs for voting material transportation, increased unpredictability due to postal services which are often unreliable, the inability to observe the process, high implementation costs, high efforts in order to manage the lists of voters. The increase in participation in the elections represents a debatable variable, which can be influenced by many factors.

From our point of view, postal voting should be first of all (but not only) applied to citizen that reside outside Romania (this needs to be clearly defined), as well as for those who are outside Romania during Election Day, for a shorter period of time. EFOR calls for a public consultation with the civil society and citizens from countries with large Romanian communities, in order to establish what problems the authorities could be confronted with and how should the ‘architecture’ of the new postal voting system should look like. In an ideal case, we believe that a trial project is necessary, given that Romania does not have any prior experience in postal voting. The only experience regarding remote voting was the electronic vote from 2003, when Romanian soldiers from several operation theatres were able to express their vote. This was possible as a consequence of modifying of the Constitution which allowed Interned voting for army members. This experience, however, is not relevant to the discussed issue.

 

Recommendations regarding the implementation of postal voting

 

Organizing an efficient campaign aimed to raise awareness among citizens regarding the necessary conditions needed to opt for postal voting. This process may be difficult, given that Romanian public institutions do not have enough information regarding Romanians living abroad, especially because very few of them register at the Embassies. Therefore, the Embassies must act as partners in order to identify the Romanian communities and to communicate properly with them.

Ensuring practical and accessible registration procedures. The citizens should apply to the Permanent Electoral Authority, in writing or on-line (electronic signature), and the authorities should require identification details and confirmation of the will to vote by post.  There is no need for legalized documents or any other documents that may transform the postal voting process into an even more bureaucratic one. A declaration signed by the voter stating the domicile or residence should suffice. This process might be difficult in the case of Romanian citizens living abroad, given that it is not homogenous and does includes significant categories who avoid this type of bureaucratic procedures. The fraudulent request for voting documents must be sanctioned.

Creating an efficient method to check the identification and confirmation of identity of the voter. There are many options to ensure vote security: declarations, voters’ cards, bar codes, security questions, etc. On the other hand, a person’s personal details must be kept separate from the vote, in order to ensure vote secrecy.

The creation of an dedicated electoral bureau for postal voting which will manage other several electoral bureaux, according to the number of voters. This Bureau should centralize the activity of the other bureaus and of postal voting procedures and results. The Bureau will also send and receive voting documents; it will count the votes and ultimately centralize the results.

The difficulty to ensure vote secrecy represents a negative aspect, which can be found in any form of distance, postal or electronic voting. Given that there are no viable solutions to completely eradicate electoral fraud or influencing mechanisms, EFOR believes there is a need for strong sanctions provided in the legislation which should cover crimes such as electoral bribe, influencing of the voter or electoral fraud. Vulnerabilities can also be defined related to the transportation of voting materials and poor management in the electoral bureaus. In this case, there is a need for increased number of personnel to monitor the elections, as well as training session for the members of the electoral bureaus, regarding aspects such as the integrity of electoral processes, especially the correct distribution of materials and the activity of the electoral bureaus that deal with the correspondence. [More details about the topic here]

The establishment of very clear regulations for the annulment of ballot papers and for recounting the votes in case of appeal. Moreover, very clear stipulations concerning appeals settlements and electoral fraud must be specified.                                                                                                                                                                              

Multiple voting may be prevented by marking the permanent electoral list of those who chose to use postal voting, or though real-time vote tracking. Advance voting must also be introduced parallel to postal voting. In countries such a Finland or Estonia, advance voting is used both in diplomatic representations and other polling stations. One of the decisions that need to be taken in order to set-up a more efficient voting process is the extension of the voting period with 2-3 days.

There also exists a high need for an increase in efficiency within abroad polling stations, including publishing the documents and procedures regarding the requests of the Romanian diplomatic representations. The authorities must establish new polling sections following valid request on part of large Romanian communities.

In conclusion, on the medium term, the introduction of postal and advance voting represents alternative methods to traditional voting. These may resolve the voting problem for the citizens voting abroad, but also in the country. Even so, this must be thoroughly debated with the civil society, given that, on the long term, Internet voting might prove to be a more efficient and attractive solution.

 


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