Election Committee: Referendum cannot be held in April

Ballot box. In fact, this will not be present at next spring's planned marriage referendum, where voting will be electronic-only.
Ballot box. In fact, this will not be present at next spring's planned marriage referendum, where voting will be electronic-only. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The vote on the concept of marriage cannot be held in April 2021 as the technical systems are still in the development phase, Chairman of the National Electoral Committee Oliver Kask told the Riigikogu.

Kask sent a letter to Chairman of the Constitutional Committee Alar Laneman (EKRE) which said the vote cannot take place on the day initially proposed, April 25. Discussions about holding a referendum or plebiscite should assume the end of May as a date at the earliest.

Amendments to the Referendum Act and Electoral Acts will enter into force on January 1 next year, which will see the introduction of an electronic voter list. This enables the voter to cast a ballot in any polling station in a constituency and in a referendum throughout Estonia regardless of their place of residence, Kask wrote. The electronic voter list also allows the voter to change the electronically cast vote on election day by voting in the polling station.

In order to implement the changes, the State Information System Board and the State Electoral Service are developing a new election information system (VIS3) with an electronic voter list.

One of the preconditions for a referendum is that the election information system used for this purpose is ready and meets security requirements. 

However, the development of VIS3 was planned on the assumption it would be used for the first time at the local elections in October 2021 and not before. The coalition agreement originally planned to hold the local elections and marriage vote at the same time so this would not have been a problem.

Kask said these updates have not been made earlier as funding has not been allocated in the state budget.

If the referendum takes place in the spring of 2021, the State Information System Board estimates the development can be completed earlier than planned. However, but the security and reliability of the information system is only guaranteed if the information system development lasts until the end of April. 

Following the development of VIS3, the necessary software must be installed on all computers used for voting, training of rural municipality and city electoral committee members and division committees.

This means that the referendum with the new election information system could only take place at the end of May at the earliest assuming everything has gone to plan before the first day of advance voting.

"If the referendum fails to use the information system, voting in polling stations and control of multiple voting is hindered, which is why the credibility of the entire referendum suffers and the referendum may not be in accordance with the referendum principles set out in the Referendum Act," Kask said in his letter.

If the government decides to go ahead and hold the referendum on April 25, the Electoral Committee considers it advisable to postpone the entry into force of the amendments to the Electoral Act and the Referendum Act. 

"In this case, the referendum can be organized with the lists of voters printed on paper, as provided for in the current election order. This also requires further development of the information system (VIS2) used so far, as the existing information system is no longer operational," Kask added.

Developing the VIS2 information system to meet the requirements also requires time and additional resources.

Effects of coronavirus

The coronavirus needs to be taken into consideration when planning next year's vote, the election committee said.

"High rates of infection in early spring have a negative impact on turnout among voters who prefer to vote on the spot at the polling station, as they are at greater health risk. In the context of the spread of the virus, it is more difficult than usual to ensure that voting takes place in care institutions, hospitals and prisons and at home, and additional measures must be taken to protect the health of voters and polling station members, which requires additional resources for voting."

The committee noted the current Referendum Act does not take into account the possibility that several issues will be put to a vote at the same time. The submission of each question must be treated as a separate referendum.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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