From our News Team: How did the Elections Go in One Covid Section in the Capital of Bulgaria
Bulgaria is at the bottom in COVID-19 related statistics for several months now. The small Balkan country is often mentioned in discussions on low vaccination rates, high mortality, and a high number of infected per capita. Amid this dire situation, the state also had to deal with political instability. Since the beginning of the year, elections were held two times but a government was never established. Instead, for the most part, a caretaker government ruled the country and had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. It introduced the “green certificate”, partial lockdowns, and several other measures to try and deal with the covid waves sweeping the country. As a constitutional right, a Bulgarian citizen has to be provided with the opportunity to vote, no matter the circumstances. Thus the government had to ensure a democratic and convenient way for Bulgarians to be able to choose their leaders. As a result, mobile voting units were established all over the country in each election this year. Novinite.com provides its readers with an eye-witness account of how these units worked during the elections.
On 14.11.2021 the third consecutive elections were held in Bulgaria in conditions of an extraordinary epidemic situation. These elections were special not only because they were the third for the year but because they were combined 2 in 1. Not only did Bulgarians had the option to vote for parliamentary representatives but also for president and vice-president of the country. Already at the beginning of the year, debates took place between the state institutions on the topic of how the right to vote of the quarantined will be ensured. The Institute for the Development of the Public Environment (IDPE) presented the possibility of introducing voting through a mobile ballot box, an option used in many European countries that held elections in 2020. Ultimately, the rules for voting with a mobile sectional election commission (MSEC) were regulated in Article 28 of the Law on Measures and Actions during a State of Emergency (LMADSE). We feel the need to emphasize that the main advantage of this approach is the non-violation of quarantine by covid-infected voters, as they do not have to go out and make contact with other people. Also, patients are required to make minimal efforts to exercise their right to vote - submit an application electronically or by telephone to the municipal or district administration, and this administration is obliged to provide a way for quarantined persons to vote in their own home. In addition, according to the latest changes in the Law on LMADSE, voters could now vote with the MSEC at the place where they were quarantined.
The active cases of Bulgarians infected with COVID-19 in the period 13-15 November were around 113,200. More than 8,000 of them were hospitalized and housed in covid areas during the elections, where they had the opportunity to exercise their right to vote in specially created sections. A part of the remaining 105,200 infected was also under the age of 18 and therefore were not allowed to vote. As the country's voter turnout is usually around 50%, at least half of those 105,200 would not exercise their right to vote anyway. This leaves around 50,000 potential voters, infected with the virus. This is where the role of the Mobile Sectional Election Commissions (MSEC) comes. For reference, there were 64 mobile voting units in the April elections. For these reasons, about 170 mobile units were set up for the elections on 14 and 21 November. Novinite.com managed to join one of them and follow how the election process transpires in Bulgaria during a pandemic.
On November 13, the day of reflection, the members of the sectional election commissions had to gather and accept the ballot papers at the school where they were stationed. Usually, each section is separated into a classroom of the school and commission members must prepare the room for Election Day - this includes arranging the ballot papers, pasting instructions and signing documents. At the end of this preparation, the rooms are sealed and people disperse from the school. The situation in the mobile sections was similar. It was initially thought that they would be two, but later a third was added. All mobile sections were separated, into the school gym, far away from the other polling stations. Each covid section was supposed to consist of three members, but on this preparatory day, people barely gathered to form one section. Despite this obstacle, the process of arranging the ballot papers went smoothly. Unlike the sectional election commissions, where the vote had to be exercised by machine, in the MSEC the voters could only vote with a paper ballot. For this reason, two types of paper ballots were included in the ballot papers: for parties and parliamentary representatives, respectively, as well as for presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The members of the covid sections also had protective suits and helmets, obligatory for the implementation of the activities of a MSEC.
The next day, November 14, the members of the covid sections gathered in the school gym at 06:45 in almost full force (only one of the three sections had two members, the rest were with three members as per regulations). Our news team joined one of the sections that would be the first to go to people’s addresses. It consisted of a chairman, a vice-chairman, and a secretary. To our and their surprise, a photographer from Agence France-Presse was also expected to join this covid section. Despite the pressure from two teams of journalists, the members of this MSEC set to work quickly and put on their protective suits along with protective helmets. They added gloves and a mask to this outfit. The ballot papers they had to carry with them were not small either. In addition to the two types of ballots, it was mandatory to take disinfectants, two voting urns, and an official seal. After equipping and packing, the three members headed for the school exit, where they would board their transport. For the purpose of successfully conducting the elections, one taxi car for transport and one police car for security were intended for one covid section. The mobile election commission also had a list of addresses in the respective district in which it was distributed. In our case, these addresses were ten and most of them were close to each other, in a neighborhood north of Sofia’s downtown. Also, a couple of the addresses were duplicated, as some of the quarantined were families living at one address. At 08:00 AM our covid section left for its first address, together with the police and journalists. Upon arrival, at the entrance of the apartment building, however, commission members and police initially failed to enter. As the voter was quarantined, she could not go down to open the front door for them. In addition, vigilant neighbors were reluctant to open their doors to five men in protective suits and helmets. Despite the curious situation, in the end, a conscientious citizen finally let us in. With a slight difficulty due to the equipment and the difficulty in tearing off the bulletin with protective gloves, the first vote of the day was cast. The other nine addresses, plus several addresses received on the same day, were visited without much difficulty. One of the new possibilities for this election was that voters who found out they had covid on the same or the previous day could apply on Election Day and a mobile team was required to visit them. People were pleased to have the opportunity to exercise their vote, despite the pandemic circumstances. The good organization of all commission members, and especially the chairman, gave results and at 12:00 the covid section had finished with its addresses on the list.
Here it is important to specify that the election process in the MSEC was subject to strict rules and routines. Upon arrival at the address, members buttoned their protective suits, put on helmets, masks, and protective gloves. Then, at a distance of 1.5 meters, they handed out blank ballots to voters to vote for MPs and president. Voters were required to wear masks, keep their distance, wear protective gloves, and use their own pen, which they then put away. After the citizen voted, the members of the covid section threw off their gloves and disinfected themselves with detergents before heading to the next address. Taxi drivers, as well as police officers accompanying the covid sections, were also equipped in protective suits, masks, and gloves. After returning the taxi to the school and finishing the addresses, the car was also disinfected. By the end of Election Day, the section that our team had joined visited several more addresses. In any case, upon returning to the school gym, where the covid sections were separated, the MSEC members changed their protective suits and helmets. Although we were not with the other two mobile units, we were left with the impression that they conducted the voting process in a similar fashion. At the end of Election Day, the members of the section commissions started counting the ballots and filling in protocols. Although for most of the day the situation was under control and the process went smoothly, at this last stage there were problems. Some members of the sections refused to perform their duties and other members had to do their job instead. As the three sections were in a single covid area and had to go to Arena Armeec together to hand over the protocols, these obstacles further made people anxious. Finally, at 22:45 PM, the three covid sections headed to their final destination for the day. Yet again they were transported with taxis and a cordon of police cars. At 23:00 PM they arrived at Arena Armeec, where, according to the rules, they had to hand over the election protocols. After about three hours of patient waiting, the MSEC members completed their task successfully. Our team witnessed a different picture regarding covid regulations at Arena Armeec, compared to the one at the school. Commission members from all over Sofia had to enter the building, wait in lines, and wear masks that were not always on people’s faces. Although the arena is big enough to accommodate thousands, in a pandemic situation such as the current one and in a country that clearly has a problem with the virus, it was bizarre that regulations were not tougher regarding the covid measures.
In the presidential run-off on November 21, we rejoined the same mobile section of the election commission. This time the addresses were significantly less, and the passage through Arena Armeec took only half an hour. Despite the low turnout, the sections were again three. The measures, this time as well, were followed just as correctly by the mobile commission members. Voting on both possible election days took about 10 minutes per voter. The difficulties were extremely minimal, no complaints were filed, and the people who voted were well acquainted with the process and wore protective equipment. As a potential issue can be pointed the lack of food and water, which had to be provided by the political parties whose representatives were the members of MSEC. Not all, but some political parties did not provide sandwiches and bottles of water on the grounds that they were not intended for the runoff presidential election. The transport from Arena Armeec back to the district schools was also problematic. There were several cases of people left far from where they live or unable to even leave Arena Armeec due to driver refusals, were just part of the troubles of the commission members.
The mobilization of the Central Election Committee, Regional Election Committee, and Sofia Municipality, as well as the police and taxis, was at a passable level. The covid sections were provided with the necessary protective equipment and transport, the conditions for conducting an election process during a pandemic were met. However, the percentage of voters infected with the coronavirus on Election Day who expressed a desire to vote actually turned out to be quite small. Ensuring the right to vote of the quarantined requires serious organizational and resource provision in order to fully guarantee the voting rights of this group of voters. From an organizational point of view, despite the positives listed above, the question remains about the need for three covid sections for one area in Sofia, serving a total of about 30-40 addresses. It is a constitutional right of every Bulgarian citizen to vote and this right must be protected even in the conditions of a pandemic. In the event of new elections in such a situation, the state administration should emphasize better organization of the Mobile Sectional Election Commissions, taking into account the average turnout, and calculate the resource provision.
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