Why Low Turnout in Bulgaria’s E-Voting Referendum Is Really Disturbing
Go to any local pub or caf? in Sofia, pick a table, open a book and pretend to read while eavesdropping on tables next to you. "Electronic voting..." "It was clear from the start." "Yeah. Right. How do they come to think THEY [that's another subject] would allow it?" I happened to try this regularly in the days after Sunday, when Bulgaria held a referendum on e-voting alongside slocal elections. At least one conversation bore resemblance to the abovementioned each time I did.
Then go online. The Internet, home to all new versions of pubs, downtown markets and cafeterias, is full of advocates, opponents, and people who simply aren’t sure how good an idea e-voting is. All of these are united around one particular view that is never spoken out loud: the idea that there is some kind of conspiracy about the referendum – namely, attempts at preventing any change in the status quo – and that anyone ruling it out is na?ve.
For people who dislike conspiracy theories, however, it would be a normal reaction to check out how na?ve they are. Especially if they know how little information Bulgarians were offered in the run-up to the referendum about what they would vote for or against. The campaign leading to the national poll, unlike the one for local elections held the same day, was suspiciously low-profile.
A Referendum that Fell Short but Not Completely
“Do you support that remote electronic voting is enabled when elections and referendums are held?”
Bulgarians were asked this question – and those who voted overwhelmingly said “yes”. The nearly three-quarters majority (72.5 percent) who voted in favour did not make the result binding because it was combined with low voter turnout. However, with last information about voter activity suggesting at least 31.50% of eligible voters took part, the referendum exceeds the threshold of 20% needed to submit the question to Parliament.
Lawmakers will now have three months to discuss online voting, but different opinions have emerged about how the proposal should be added to MPs' agenda. (Add to this the number of people who suspect lawmakers are bent on voting it down). In case e-voting is approved as a legitimate means to take part in elections, it is not clear whether it might be applied to the forthcoming presidential vote next year. A quick look at vote statistics also debunks the myth of “huge interest” in the referendum that eligible voters among the 2 million Bulgarians abroad would show: the Foreign Ministry said only 27 000 had cast a ballot. That expats are eager to help usher in e-voting is not self-evident anymore – a blow to activists who maintained the online method would boost participation, bring back to politics those discouraged people who voted with their feet, and make democracy more legitimate.
Neither is it clear how the method’s efficiency and safety will be guaranteed, having in mind the habit of saying “we” tend to “Bulgarize” any good concept introduced from abroad, be it in technical or socio-cultural terms. Admittedly “we”, whoever this includes, sometimes do. Critics of e-voting add the risk of security breaches and manipulation of both the results and the voting process. Issues such as vote secrecy (called into question by the need to confirm identity), misuse of personal data for corporate voting are yet to be addressed.
Thence, neither the event of passing a motion on e-voting nor its putting into practice and its real effect are quite predictable or have clear implications. But a mandatory introduction of online voting that would have followed a high voter turnout would have made Bulgaria’s political life even less certain in the long-term.
Actors who have long dominated the political scene are aware of this.
“You Want a Ballot?”
A sunny Sunday morning, sometime before 10:00. A man enters a polling station, with a recording device hidden in his pocket and switched on. Like every other voter that day, he is given the opportunity to have a say in both local elections and the referendum. Reaching out for a ballot he notices there are only two ballots “on offer” on the desk in front of him: one for mayor and one for municipal councilors. “Do you also want a ballot for the referendum?” an official asks him. “You don’t have to ask me,” he is heard replying. “That’s what I have been instructed to do,” the official retorts. If true, he was instructed to go against the rules. In reality, what contravened the rules was the act of offering only local election ballots, or asking if one would like to vote in the referendum as well, instead of simply leaving the “full pack” of ballots on the table.
Elsewhere, in the impoverished, remote (meaning “hard to access for infrastructural reasons”) municipality of Sarnitsa in Southern Bulgaria, a local election official said turnout at the referendum was low because people didn’t have enough information about online voting and “didn’t understand” the implications of it. Sarnitsa was also the municipality with the highest turnout in local elections and the lowest participation rate for the national poll.
Leaving “partisan” reasons for this result aside – how could these people have known what they were voting for? Very little, in fact almost no campaigning, with sound pros and cons, took place on traditional media at a national level. Sarnitsa in particular has an administration dominated by a party whose (referendum) campaigning effort was notoriously low in the last month’s run-up. The municipality’s population is not solely made up of elderly generations, so the “young-old” divide does not work. One might say civic groups could have carried out the campaign for themselves; but leaflets and “propaganda” take money – and they also take car tires. “Good roads into Sarnitsa and the vicinity” is a phrase still tantamount to science fiction.
Why the Meagre Campaign?
Forging their campaign, most parties neglected the referendum. With the exception of junior coalition partner Reformist Bloc and, to some extent, the main ruling GERB party, no-one else took much effort to explain why one should vote “yes”; a “no” campaign, however, was just as absent. Opponents just urged voters and fellow politicians to be wary, given the novelty which e-voting constitutes, and given the lack of experience with it even in older, consolidated democracies – “otherwise they would be using it, wouldn’t they?” Pundits could be heard throughout the campaigning phase saying it had been essentially an initiative of President Rosen Plevneliev which would help him place his bid for next year’s elections, at a time of uncertainty if GERB would endorse him for a second term in office.
Among the bigger parties, it was mostly right-leaning ones (those in the government, namely GERB and the Reformist Bloc) that backed active participation in the referendum and called on their electorate to do so – possibly, with a “yes”. Socialist BSP, the biggest opposition force, was clear about not backing the referendum – and after the vote cited the cyber attacks that hit the election officials’ website to show they were right – but weren’t enthusiastic about calling on their electorate to vote “no”. Its supporters spend their most active years in society either under Communism or in the first years of democratic changes, when the old system was being dismantled in a chaotic fashion; a vast part of them, whose lives have never been Internet-related, would have needed much explanation to know what they would vote for or against. As for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), the second-biggest opposition party, its also refrained from campaigning. The DPS, a liberal party according to its own platform and to its ALDE membership, holds most of the ethnic Turkish vote in rural southern and north-eastern areas of the country and, increasingly in the last years, most of the ethnic Roma vote in a number of neighborhoods and constituencies scattered all around Bulgaria's map. Needless to say, now that we have come to it, they won Sarnitsa's early local elections this year.
Out of these four bigger parties, it was only the smallest, or the Reformist Bloc, that held any interest in a successful referendum. GERB has never objected to the referendum per se, given that many Bulgarians abroad have lately voted for it, and given the confidence that its “campaigning machine” has worked smoothly for nearly a decade now; but it need not embrace it as a life cause, having been an election winner for so much time and having benefited from the status quo. For the Reformist Bloc, much was at stake: it has systematically worked to portray itself as the party of newer generations of educated, thinking and creative people who use the Internet on a daily basis and oppose the status quo – a status quo it says could be overhauled if voter turnout is encouraged. The BSP for its part has counted on a relatively stable, albeit dwindling electorate it has traditionally been able to mobilize for a cause when that was needed (e.g. 2013's referendum on the construction of Belene NPP when a majority, constituted by its voters, said “yes”); whereas a vast part of the DPS's minority electorate, uneducated and impoverished but faithful, is equal to some 15% of all voters. If the BSP and the DPS had called on voters to reject e-voting, it would have been hard to stop them.
However, the sheer fact of increasing referendum turnout could have made it binding and – in a worst-case scenario of a majority still saying yes – could have allowed changes to the electoral map, and diminishing the importance of “stable” opposition voters. Adding (even in theory) people from both the crowds of young and demotivated citizens and expats’ communities from across the globe, however, will inevitably change the status quo. It would impose new rules in the way political elites tend to exploit divisions in society. And if a system leaves everybody satisfied or at least more satisfied compared to the prospect offered by a new model, no-one would bother to change political behaviour. Among the parties whose support stands around or above 10%, only the RB would like to see changes in the electoral landscape to get the lions’ share, by supposedly involving more people in the political process – this is the only chose it have, with the rest of shares already distributed to other parties.
Referendum Results Made Real Social Divide Resurface
Referendums, unlike elections, are about "yes" and "no". Who formed the "Yes" and "No" camps in the national poll Bulgaria held Sunday on whether to introduce online voting was clear. "Young" and "old" would be misleading. Nor does distinguishing the population of parts of big cities and towns, on the one hand, and rural areas, on the other, give a clearer picture. "Communists" vs "anti-communists", "Sorosoids" vs "rouble-lovers", more recently "protesters" and "counterprotesters", "reformers" and "#WHO?" - just several labels both political elite members and some citizens, tempted by comfortable thoughts of aggressive drunken football aficionados, tend to hurl at others, often at each other, for no reason.
All of these have been used about the referendum but are, by far and large, redundant. In a country with a population as ageing as Bulgaria’s, the poll was just an evidence of the cleavage between those who over the years adapted to political, economic and social changes (for reasons not starting and ending with either "age" or “intellect”) and those who didn't have the chance (and it wasn't just their fault). Nowadays some people from previous generations fall into the first group, and some younger ones fall into the second. Results of the referendum only confirmed this, with the first group largely in favour and the second, understandably, against. Instead of exploiting the divide and helping preserve if not foment it, Bulgarian politicians could have at least bothered to explain why it is important to take part. Given the bigger share of the second group, in case of mass mobilization, the “No” camp might have now, who knows?
Actually, they do. They just thought it wasn't worth the risk.
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