Supreme Court: Municipalities should monitor 'electoral tourism'

Elva town center.
Elva town center. Source: ERR

The Supreme Court has found that while registering residence shortly before a local election in a municipality, specifically for the purpose of running in that municipality, is unconstitutional, the body currently tasked with overseeing the matter, the State Electoral Committee, does not have sufficient powers to monitor candidates' addresses.

The Tartu-based court's Constitutional Review Chamber found Tuesday, less than three weeks before polling day, that this should instead be a matter for local authorities themselves, following a complaint, which the court actually overruled, about candidates running in the South Estonian town of Elva, who did not ordinarily live there.

The Supreme Court's substantive and preexisting position is that, according to the Constitution, issues of local life can be decided only by those people actually living in that local government district.

This means that "election tourism", whereby well-known candidates register to live in local municipalities ahead of local polls, but do not actually normally reside in that district, distorts election results and is unconstitutional, according to the court.

Since only one registered address is permitted, the change of address usually happens shortly before the deadline for registration, and is presumably amended again after the election.

The resolution of local issues must be left to local residents who are sufficiently connected to a particular local government and are fully aware of local life and needs, the Supreme Court finds.

However, the responsibility for monitoring this should be likewise down to the local authority and not the State Electoral Committee (VVK), the Supreme Court finds.

The electoral committee does not have the power to establish individuals' true whereabouts, and is only obliged to cross-refer candidates given addresses with those on the population register – which if a candidate had moved to a district ahead of the deadline, in early August, would tally in any case.

Whether the relevant legislation – the Population Register Act – provides for adequate monitoring of the actual residence of local government election candidates could be put to constitutional review at the Supreme Court, the court's Constitutional Review Chamber noted in its recent judgment.

A recent, high-profile case involved Social Democratic Party (SDE) leader Indrek Saar, who, well within the confines of the current rules, changed his residency this summer to the Nõmme district of Tallinn, where he is running in October's election.

Nonetheless, usually Saar is registered resident in the village of Loobu, in Lääne-Viru County, about an hour's drive east of Tallinn. Saar's wife, noted theater and TV actor Ülle Lichtfeld, is running for SDE in Rakvere city, close by Loobu.

Popular candidates are often used – by all the parties and not just SDE – as a means of attracting votes which can then be distributed to less popular candidates lower down the party list. This is perfectly legal within the electoral rules under Estonia's d'Hondt system of proportional representation, though in some cases, for instance when MEPs or government ministers run, they are not permitted to actually take up the seat if they win one.

All Reform and Center's government ministers are running in October, save for education minister Lina Kersna (Reform), while the only MEP not to be running is SDE's Marina Kaljurand. Isamaa MEP Riho Terras and EKRE MEP Jaak Madison are both running in Tallinn.

As a Riigikogu MP, Indrek Saar may also sit on Tallinn city council; about half of the Riigikogu's MPs sit on a local council, either in Tallinn, where the city council chambers and the Riigikogu are within walking distance of each other, or elsewhere.

Saar said earlier this month that the current rules were not reasonable, given the fact that many people commute to work, have children in school in other districts, or have other interests elsewhere etc. A solution would be to allow multiple addresses to be registered, he said.

Tuesday's Supreme Court decision did agree with the VVK's dismissing a complaint from another municipality, Elva, despite finding it unconstitutional for a candidate to run in a local authority where they are not resident and despite the electoral committee not having the framework to investigate candidates' true place of residency.

With over 10,000 candidates running, the urgency of the electoral process and the committee's lack of powers in monitoring personal details like addresses too closely, the Supreme Court found that it is the local authorities themselves who have the competency to conduct the task.

In the Elva case, a complaint had arisen over three Isamaa candidates running in the Tartu County town, population c. 5,600, but who were not ordinarily resident there. The electoral committee rejected the complaint, noting that the same situation applied to six other candidates, running for Reform, Center and the Sinu Elva electoral alliance.

The current legislation does not permit complainants to request local authorities change or delete the residence of another individual, the complainant cans still submit an application for initiating administrative supervision to the Ministry of the Interior, and can also file an appeal with a first-tier administrative court, to order the municipality to correct the entry, ERR reports.

The Supreme Court also found Tuesday that The Local Government Council Election Act, which prescribes only formal control, is not in conflict with the Constitution

The relevant section of the Constitution itself is section 154, which states that: "All local matters are determined and administered by local authorities, who discharge their duties autonomously in accordance with the law."

The local election polling day is October 17, preceded by a six-day advance voting period, when e-votes can be cast.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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