Electoral office preparing for autumn's elections, e-voting likely a boon

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Ballot box in Estonia. Photo is illustrative. Source: (Hanna Samoson/ERR)

Preparations are in place for both of Estonia's elections, due later this year, given the soaring coronavirus rates. While Finland recently postponed its local elections from April to June, this cannot happen under Estonian electoral law, though experts say the e-voting system will be a big help in conducting polls during a pandemic.

The State Electoral Office (VVK), the body tasked with organizing and supervising all four types of regular Estonian elections – Riigikogu, local, European and presidential – is already working on how both the local elections in October, which are direct, and the presidential elections starting in August, can be organized given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The president of Estonia is not elected directly, but rather via a procession of ballots at the Riigikogu and, if these prove inconclusive, with the regional electoral college.

The VVK says that Estonia's much-vaunted e-voting system gives more scope for conducting elections with all due coronavirus considerations in mind, and without the need to postpone the elections – which under Estonian electoral law cannot be done anyway.

Estonia currently has the second-highest 14-day viral rate per 100,000 inhabitants, at 1361.7.

Finland postponed its local elections by two months

Finland recently postponed its municipal elections to June, from April, over COVID-19 concerns, the English-language portal of public broadcaster Yle reports. Finland's 14-day COVID-19 rate is less than 10 percent that of Estonia's, at 140.2 as of last Friday, when the decision to put back the elections was announced.

However, Estonia's e-voting system and advance voting period in Estonia, which lasts a week, both lend themselves better to social distancing and other coronavirus best practices than having a single voting day, Arne Kotimäe, VVK head, says.

Koitmäe told ERR Tuesday that: "Regular video meetings between representatives of the VVK, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Health Board (Terviseamet) will discuss and coordinate guidelines for conducting elections in the event of a viral spread. The VVK has additionally observed and mapped how elections following the arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020 has been conducted."

Estonian elections cannot be postponed

"From this year, voters will also be able to vote at any polling station within their constituency. For example, in the case of Tallinn, in any polling station in their district. This will also give voters more flexibility to arrange their movement and voting times, Kotimäe added.

E-voting alone is under current Estonian law not possible, however, he added. Election day itself is on October 17 and includes a facility for paper voting. At the last local elections in October 2017, 27.8 percent of voters cast their ballot during the advance period, while 186,034  people cast their vote electronically, a record up to that time. Voters can overrule their e-vote on the day, and also change their e-vote during the advance period. Other advance voting options usually include casting a paper vote at a polling station, voting at an Estonian foreign mission, and postal votes.

E-voting cannot be used at the presidential elections, meaning the three initial rounds of Riigikogu ballots will see the usual precautions put in place, Kotimäe said, and the same will apply if the vote has to go to the electoral college.

In 2016, even this latter round proved indecisive, with Kersti Kaljulaid brought in as a late candidate and voted on by a Riigikogu council of elders, which includes the speaker – who will be former prime minister Jüri Ratas (Center) by that time – and the two deputy speakers.

This process runs between August 10 and September 29. Local elections day is Sunday, October 17, with advance voting starting the Monday before.

Voting age 16 in local elections

Help in facilitiating e-voting and other voting options among those not familiar with the system, as well as those in hospitals, nursing homes and prisons, for instance, will be a must, Kotimäe said.

This year's local elections are the second where the minimum voting age is 16 (down from 18 previously). This demographic, Kotimäe says, is not a major user of e-voting via their ID card of mobile ID, mainly because they have not yet had much real need to communicate with the e-State.

The local elections use the same modified d'Hondt system of proportional representation as used in national and European elections, with parties running lists of candidates in each district, and a minimum of 5 percent of the vote needed to win any seats in that district. The parties are represented both in office and in opposition at most municipal councils large and small, often along with political groups specific to the location, while most local governments are coalitions. The major exception to this is Tallinn, where the Center Party has ruled with an absolute majority for many years.

Going forward, Estonia has much to observe and learn from election experiences of other countries, Kotim'e added, noting that it is near-impossible to forecast the viral situation in the late summer and fall, meaning more discussion will be needed in early summer.

Coronvirus rates last summer were much lower than in spring, new cases being single-digit figures most days, with the long-expected autumn wave not really picking up again until November, when daily figures moved into the triple-digit zone. Typical daily figures since late February have been well over a thousand.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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