Key aspects related to the voting process in the diaspora
Elections in the Republic of Moldova have never been an easy exercise. Their organization by the authorities, the correctness of the electoral campaigns and the actual voting exercise were often contested by the electoral contestants. Much of the criticism focused on the interference of the political forces in charge of the government in the process of manipulating the vote in the pre-electoral or electoral period or even on the day of the voting day. Signs of protest against the relevant institutions also came from the diaspora organizations, especially after the presidential elections taking place in autumn 2016. Then, more than 1,400 appeals were filed at polling stations abroad and collective petitions with over 2,500 signatures were sent to the electoral authorities after the ballots were exhausted in 15 polling stations.
In both the 2016 presidential elections and 2019 parliamentary scrutiny, there were multiple voices criticizing the geographical distribution of polling stations in the diaspora, even though their number increased from 100 in 2016 to 125 in 2019. At the last national scrutiny, these critics were related to Decision No. 30 from 18th January 2019 of the Government of the Republic of Moldova, which approved the list of polling stations abroad. The Information Note attached to this decision lacks explanations regarding the indicators and statistical data used for locating the polling stations that are not based within the diplomatic missions and consular sections (83 in number).
Therefore, for 2/3 of the polling stations opened in diaspora, whose location may vary from one election to another, the authorities did not publish the calculation formula for opening the polling stations in countries such as Italy, France or United States of America. Moreover, the lack of a statistical observations and detailed arguments on the geography of polling stations have questioned the relevance and weight of the pre-registration mechanism for elections in the diaspora.
For the presidential elections planned in November 2020, 150 polling stations have been budgeted. The final number, as well as their location, are yet to be decided by the Central Electoral Commission, with the prior approval of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration (limited to technical procedures). The major novelty compared to the last presidential and parliamentary elections is that the Central Electoral Commission will decide over the establishment of polling stations abroad. During the previous elections, this prerogative belonged to the Government and was fulfilled with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration (MFAEI).
Although there are some reasonable proofs of the independence of the Central Electoral Commission in its new composition, which is a more "balanced" one, some legal, logistical or financial issues may still affect CEC's decision-making process regarding the organization of presidential elections in the diaspora. The first constraint is the limited number of staff within the system the diplomatic missions and consular service of the MFAEI, which can be involved in the process of organizing the elections and coordination of the activity of the Electoral Bureaus. Secondly, the budget allocations allow the opening of no more than 150 polling stations, which could be less than enough in the second round of the presidential elections. The record number of 138,000 voters, registered four years ago, could easily be surpassed. Thirdly, in some polling stations, ballots are likely to be exhausted before the polling stations will be closed. One solution that could at least partially solve these problems and encourage the participation of Moldovan emigrants from anywhere in the world in the voting process is the introduction of the postal voting.
Pro and counter arguments for the postal voting
Voting by post is a method of exercising electoral preferences that involves less time and money for voters in the diaspora. Currently, if a citizen of the Republic of Moldova abroad is located 500 kilometers from the nearest polling station, then his or her costs of transportation, accommodation and time for voting could be equal with tens or even hundreds of euros. The 2016 experience of the “Adopta un Vot” community, which tried to minimize the voting costs for thousands of citizens in the diaspora, speaks for itself.
Voting by mail could also reduce the congestion and queues at polling stations. The exhaustion of ballots during the previous presidential elections in 15% of the polling stations was caused by the participation of an unexpectedly large number of Moldovans at the polling stations. In capitals such as London, Paris or Rome, crowds could be partially avoided by introducing this method.
Under the conditions of a new wave of diseases caused by the COVID-19 virus, participation at the elections may be restricted or banned in some states in Europe and North America, where most Moldovan emigrants are based. In this case, the most viable alternative would be the postal voting.
Last but not least, the postal vote could complement the information obtained by the MFAEI from the competent authorities in the resident countries of the Moldovan migrants regarding their number and location. This indicator is used by the Moldovan electoral authorities when deciding about the geographical distribution of polling stations outside the country.
When it comes to the challenges related to the introduction of voting by mail, we could mention the risk that voters will not use this option due to the lack of trust in the Moldovan Post, which should provide the necessary logistical support for the voting procedures. This argument is based upon the recent smuggling scandals in which employees of the Moldovan Post were allegedly involved. In order to increase citizens' trust, the number of national and international observers who will oversee the process of receiving envelopes / counting votes sent by post could be supplemented.
Another challenge is to explain to the citizens the procedures related to postal voting. This process requires an extensive preparation of an online information campaign regarding the related steps to be taken in order to ensure a transparent exercise of postal voting.
The allocation by CEC of the necessary budgetary resources for this mechanism is another exercise that requires a detailed analysis. The costs of postal vote will be larger due to the involvement of more institutions / staff responsible for ensuring its functionality.
How we could implement the postal voting?
The postal voting could become a reality in Moldova through the amendment of the Electoral Code by the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova. In order to introduce the postal voting, the institution of early voting must be regulated in the Electoral Code. Voting by mail is not held on election day, but for more than one day in advance. The procedure, conditions and limits for the organization of early voting must be expressly mentioned in the Electoral Code.
Voting on these changes should take place only after consulting the Venice Commission for completing the legislative gaps and capitalize on the CoE’s experience in the field of electoral legislation.
Furthermore, a few preliminary steps are needed to facilitate the introduction of postal voting. First of all, it is imperative to develop a working format between the electoral authority, the Moldovan Post, the Bureau for Relations with Diaspora and the MFAEI. Nowadays, with the exception of the Moldova Post, all the other structures are already working together for organizing the voting process in the diaspora. Secondly, the Central Electoral Commission should draw up a Regulation on the establishment of postal voting, setting out all related procedures and delimiting the tasks of the institutions involved in the process of managing postal voting. As a last resort, the pre-registration procedure for voting by post should be launched and, based on the number of registered citizens, an Electoral Constituency Council for diaspora and postal voting should be created.
During this period, the electoral authorities from Chisinau could carry out an active campaign to popularize postal voting among the diaspora, with the support of diplomatic and consular missions. In particular, efforts should be directed towards the “problematic” regions in terms of MFAEI’s organizational resources and with an uneven distribution of Moldovan citizens (e.g. North America).
Instead of conclusions
Undoubtedly, the postal vote will not solve all the problems mentioned in the first part of this analysis. However, this mechanism could ensure over the years the development of the pre-registration procedure for Moldovan citizens abroad, a quasi-important aspect for the organization of parliamentary and presidential elections, but also for the accountability of the electorate. Moreover, it will allow the gradual increase of turnout in the diaspora and reduce the voting costs. A fair and transparent implementation of the postal voting system will strengthen the degree of trust of the citizens in the Moldovan authorities.
The short period of time until the 2020 presidential elections will not allow the implementation of the postal vote for this scrutiny. However, the relevant authorities could pilot the postal vote in one of the states where a polling station is expected to be open, respectively where a diplomatic mission or consular office of Moldova is active. The piloting mechanism would allow to observe citizens’ attitude towards the postal voting, but also how the whole procedure for receiving and registering the votes works.
This op-ed was published in the framework of the project ”We and Europe: Assessing EU –Moldova relations through innovative media and analytical products”, implemented by the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE), in cooperation with IPN and Radio Chisinau and with the support of Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Views expressed in this op-ed do not necessarily correspond with the position of the donor.
IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.