Electoral authority head Ana Maria Patru: Compulsory voting should be citizens’, not just political decision-makers’ option

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President of the Permanent Electoral Authority (AEP) Ana Maria Patru said in a recent  interview with Agerpres that an information campaign on compulsory voting should be run in such manner that the potential enforcement of such a measure should “reflect not just the option of political decision makers, but of the citizens as well.”

In the interview, Patru also presents the instruments AEP has at hand to prevent the use of dark money in the election campaign, and also tackles the involvement of the institution in the organization of elections abroad.

 

For the local election you prepared a guide for the parties, regarding the financing of the election campaign. Do you envisage a similar action for the parliamentary election?

 

Yes, definitely the political parties will have a guidebook by AEP experts to refer to for the parliamentary elections too. The general principles and regulations on the financing and control of the campaign financing are the same for these ballots as in local elections. What differs are obviously the calendar and the caps on contributions and electoral spending.

 

A major problem that has constantly emerged in all post-Revolution election campaigns was that of the dark money used in these campaigns. What measures are you considering to limit this phenomenon, if not totally eliminate it?

 

First, you should know that the rules on the financing of political parties and election campaigns set forth in Law No. 334/2006 have radically changed last year and the main change targeted exactly this aspect. We all know that, henceforth, election campaigns will be financed from the state budget and electoral competitors must strictly observe the law requirements in order to qualify for the reimbursement of election expenses. This piece of legislation was first enforced at the local elections on June 5 this year, and next month, when the Permanent Electoral Authority concludes checking the files for the reimbursement of election expenses, the citizens will be able to convince themselves of the usefulness and effectiveness of such an act. A novelty is that the mandates of the candidates declared as winners will not be validated if the political parties they belong to do not submit detailed income and expenditure reports, as per the law requirements.

 

What if suspicions arise regarding possible criminal acts, which are the steps you will follow?

 

According to the law, we have the possibility not to reimburse the election spending made in breach of the legal regulations and of course, if such suspicions arise, we will notify the prosecution.

 

The government announced a set of changes to the Election Law. In 2014 there has been a lot of talk about the responsibility of the AEP in the way voting abroad was carried out. Specifically, what are AEP’s responsibilities in this line and what has been done so far for the 2014 episode not to happen again?

 

I’m glad you brought up the subject of AEP’s responsibility in elections abroad, because a certain confusion persists in the public space in this regard after attempts, in 2014, to place on AEP the responsibility for the crowding at the polling stations abroad. I want to make it clear that the institution that organizes parliamentary elections for Romanians abroad is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Election Authority also has responsibilities in this respect, but they regard the information of voters, validating their applications for registration with the Electoral Roll and the management thereof, the selection and appointment of election experts and computer operators.

The AEP has started the information campaign as early as last year, immediately after the change of the legislation on parliamentary elections. We have exhausted all available communication avenues, namely our website, Facebook page, Twitter network, Youtube channel, we produced audio and video material, prints, we organized direct meetings with citizens abroad, used the existing info kiosks in Romanian communities and international airports in the country to disseminate as much as possible of the information materials. In partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs we initiated the campaign “Dialogue with Diaspora”, we held information sessions with the citizens in – I think – more than 20 European cities and capitals with strong Romanian communities.

 

One of the difficulties that arose in 2014 was the staff shortage for the polling stations abroad. Could this issue re-emerge at the parliamentary elections this year?

 

I don’t know exactly now, but I am convinced those were just isolated cases. I remember that at that time the Foreign Minister singled them out. It was about several polling stations in New York and London where the representatives of the political parties in the electoral bureaus were absent, but this did not stall the voting process because, according to the law, the electoral bureau of a polling station abroad can operate with only three members, but then of course this has slowed down the voting process given the high number of voters who turned out at the stations back then.

Under the new legislative changes, this year the presidents of the polling stations abroad will be proposed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, approved by the Permanent Electoral Authority and assigned in public session by computerized draw. The new law on parliamentary elections also requires party representatives to confirm their presence at the electoral station abroad three days before voting date at the latest. Otherwise, they can be replaced.

 

You advocated the computerization of polling stations as a measure to render the voting process transparent and restore the citizen’s confidence in the voting process. You have already taken steps to this effect in local elections, you introduced this system that checks in real time multiple voting situations. What other such measures are there in the pipeline for the general elections?

 

At the local elections this year, the use as a first of the computerized system for the monitoring of voter turnout and the prevention of illegal voting was an important step to prevent multiple voting and, in the first place, to change the citizen’s perception about electoral processes, because the system immediately tracked and blocked any multiple voting attempts. Every citizen had real-time online access to turnout data. This computerized system will be applied in all future elections, therefore at this year’s parliamentary elections too.

 

Voter absenteeism is a problem every time elections are held. Maybe that AEP responsibilities in this regard are mainly technical, yet the question is whether AEP has any lever at hand to limit this phenomenon.

 

Absenteeism has grown into a worrying phenomenon worldwide. In Europe it is most obvious at the European Parliament elections, but it is frequent in national elections in EU member states too, and Romania is no exception. Even in local elections, where the presence was usually above 50 percent, this year the rate of absenteeism was higher than 50 percent. Since 1990, voter turnout has steadily declined, and only ticked up at the 2014 presidential election, when 62 percent of the voters reported to the polls. The causes are multiple, but I would let the sociologists analyze them.

 

The Authority has solutions and is entitled to run information campaigns for citizens, but I think mass media joining our efforts would greatly help the dissemination of information that should get closer to the citizen.

 

Do you think the introduction of compulsory voting would be a timely measure to counter absenteeism?

 

We should be aware that in several European countries where voting is mandatory under the law the measure delivers results, that is the turnout is always high in Greece, Cyprus, Belgium, Luxemburg. There are also countries like Malta or Sweden, where voting is not compulsory, but the turnout is higher than in states with compulsory voting required under the law.

For our country I believe that an information campaign on this subject should be run in such manner that the prospective adoption of compulsory voting reflects not only the option of political decision makers, but of the citizens as well.