Preparations for referendum and 2021 elections must begin this summer

Local elections in 2017.
Local elections in 2017. Source: Heleri All/ERR

If a referendum on the Registered Partnership Act is to be held at the same time as the local elections in October 2021 then preparations must begin this summer, the chairman of the National Electoral Committee has told Minister of Finance Martin Helme (EKRE).

Chairman of the National Electoral Committee Oliver Kase has written to Helme about the plans for simultaneously organizing a referendum and election next year. Organization must start soon, additional funding should be set aside and training given.

Politicians from the Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE) have previously said they want to hold a referendum on the Registered Partnership Act, also known as the Cohabitation Act, at the same time as the 2021 local elections.

EKRE want the definition of marriage defined as being between a man and woman added to the constitution. The Registered Partnership Act allows non-married couples to legally register their partnership. The gender-neutral legislation, which was passed in 2015, establishes a legal situation similar to a civil partnership. Same-sex couples cannot get legally married in Estonia but same-sex couples can register their partnerships under the Registered Partnership Act.

In a letter to Helme, Kask wrote: "The additional resources needed to conduct local elections and the referendum at the same time should be forecasted and provided for in the draft state budget during the preparation of the 2021 state budget, ie in the summer and autumn of 2020."

Kask noted the next local government council elections will take place in Estonia on October 17, 2021, and the coalition agreement of the current government also allows for a referendum to be held.

"The decision to hold a referendum is within the competence of the Riigikogu and the Riigikogu has not made such a decision. If the Riigikogu decides to hold a referendum, it will involve time- and resource-intensive organizational work. Consequently, the National Electoral Committee will inform you in advance of the preparation and processing of the draft state budget for 2021 of the legal and organizational circumstances that must be taken into account in the simultaneous organization of local elections and referendum," the letter said.

Kask noted that holding a referendum will inevitably lead to additional costs that require funding from the state budget.

He also pointed out that local government elections and referendums have different voting and voting rights. 

In local elections, the number of people entitled to vote is larger than in a referendum as all residents and EU citizens over the age of 16 legally living in Estonia, not only citizens, can vote. 

But in a referendum, only Estonian citizens can vote. Estonians living abroad can also vote in both.

"In addition to the local elections and the referendum, people must be sufficiently informed in advance about its existence or absence in order to avoid confusion and resentment on voting days. This means more information than in previous elections," Kask emphasized.

Secondly, Kase said, there are significant differences in the organization of voting. 

"The norms under which polling station commissions and ballot counting commissions are formed differ in local elections and referendums. The circle of persons who may belong to these committees and submit proposals for the members of the committees also differs. Therefore, separate polling station commissions must be set up for local elections and referendums, although the membership of the commissions may overlap," Kask said.

He wrote it has previously been difficult to find enough applicants for committees and so more efforts will need to go into the task this time. Additional training will need to be given which must start by spring 2021. Inevitably this will increase costs.

"Along with the need to ensure equal access to voting for voters with reduced mobility, this may mean that some polling stations have to change their usual location during voting," Kask added.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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