Riigikogu electoral organization changes intended to make process smoother

A ballot box.
A ballot box. Source: (Hanna Samoson/ERR)

Changes the how Riigikogu elections are organized, since the last election in 2019, are intended to make casting a ballot more convenient for voters, ERR reports. However, moving voter registration on to a broader basis is likely to reduce voter turnout.

Arne Koitmäe State Electoral Office (RVT) chief, said: "I hope that this process will be more convenient for the voters."

Elections run from Monday, February 27, to Sunday, March 5

This time around, the elections start Monday, February 27, with the advance voting period, while votes can be cast until Sunday, March 5, at 8 p.m. Estonian time, when polls closed.

The e-voting environment is open from the Monday, starting 9 a.m., and closes on Saturday, March 4, at 8 p.m., ie. polling day itself consists of voting on paper only.

Advance voting can also be conducted on paper

Advance polling stations open their doors 12.00 p.m. on Monday, February 27 and remain open until 8 p.m., every day. Whereas from the Monday, until Thursday, March 2, only individual central polling divisions are open for advance voting in each of the 12 electoral districts nationwide, on Friday, March 3, and Saturday, March 4, advance voting can be held in all polling divisions, from 12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

An innovation introduced ahead of this election means that members of the electorate who cast an e-vote can then attend a polling station on the Sunday and cast a paper vote. In this case, the e-vote is superseded by the paper vote (e-votes can also be cast and re-cast multiple times, within reason-ed.).

The option to vote from home remains. As before, a ballot paper and box can be ordered to the home, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, between 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

This service needs to be ordered in advance.

Voters can choose their own polling station

Voters can also choose a polling division (Jaosakond – a ward, if you will) from any of those within their own electoral district. This is a new development so far as Riigikogu elections go, though it was in place for the October 2021 local elections.

The option has been facilitated by the fact that voter lists are held electronically.

"This means that all polling stations use the same list, whereby the voter's voting record is made available for when he or she comes to vote," Arne Koitmäe said.

"The voter no longer signs on a paper list of voters, but on a separate signature sheet," he went on.

"Since these are synchronized between polling divisions, a voter can go to any polling station within their electoral district. Until now, the voter was tied to a specific polling station and on election day, he or she could only vote in that one place. Now there is no such restriction and he can go to vote in any division within the entire district. And this applies throughout the entire election week," Koitmäe continued.

In the advance voting period, Monday, February 27, to Thursday, March 2, voters can also cast their ballot outside the electoral district where they reside - as has been the case in the past.  This is then mailed as a postal vote to their "home" electoral district (see schedule below).

"In this case, the voter casts their ballot to be sent in an envelope, so it reaches the right constituency by the time the votes are counted," said Koitmäe.

This practice allows for the fact that, for example, some voters will work in Tallinn during the week, and reside elsewhere at weekends, or conversely, have a second home elsewhere in the country, and may cast their vote there.

Voting schedule, Monday, February 27 to Sunday, March 5, 2023. Source: VVK

E-vote to be announced later

Counting and therefore announcing the e-vote is delayed several hours due to the option to supersede one's e-vote with a paper vote on the day (see above).

"So their results will come somewhere between 10 p.m. and 10.30 p.m., that is, in tandem with the results of the polling stations," Koitmäe said.

Polling place in the 2019 European elections. Source: Sergei Stepanov

At previous elections, the e-vote results were made public on Sunday shortly after 8:00 p.m., soon after the polling stations closed, but now the counting of e-votes will only begin between 8:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., once it is clear that voting with paper ballots has ended in all polling stations and the count has been transmitted.

Fall in voter turnout can be expected

The change in the calculation of voter participation since 2019 will likely mean a lower voter turnout this time, by a few percent, Koitmäe said.

"We have switched to an electronic voter list, and now we have one list. Until now, there were separate lists of voters who lived permanently abroad, alongside [domestic] Estonian lists. This means that, starting from this election, we will be counting the participation of all Estonian voters, and all voters permanently residing abroad," Koitmäe said.

Up to now, voter turnout was calculated based on Estonian voters, and on Estonian citizens resident outside Estonia, who went to vote, as separate lists (only Estonian citizens may vote in a general election – ed.).

"This will now alter the voting percentage, or likely reduce it by three or four percent," Koitmäe said. 

Since there are as many as 80,000 voters living abroad, adding these to the general pool will make the figure of participation in voting significantly lower (presumably voter turnout is lower among expat Estonian citizens – ed.).

Koitmäe added that voter turnout for the 2019 election can be retrospectively recalculated on this new basis, in order to make a better comparison.

Usual procedures for voting overseas

A voter residing outside Estonia must have a domestic electoral district allocated to them on the voter register, in order to vote. This is defined as being their last registered place of residence in Estonia, or, if they were not born or raised in Estonia, then by the last registered place of residence of their parents or even grandparents, Koitmäe said (Estonian citizenship is Jus Sanguinis primarily, meaning those with Estonian antecedents who were citizens of the First Estonian Republic, for instance, have citizenship, regardless of any other citizenship they may hold, and regardless of their Estonian language proficiency-ed.).

Koitmäe argues that the above regulation means Estonian citizens living abroad are fairly evenly distributed across the 12 electoral districts, and not concentrated in some more than others.

A ballot box. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

"Voting overseas actually starts as soon as candidates have been registered (which is complete, as the deadline passed last Thursday-ed.). In order to cast a postal vote, the voter submits a request to an Estonian diplomatic mission, with a copy of their ID document attached. On this basis, they will be sent envelopes, a ballot paper, and the list of candidates for their electoral district," Koitmäe said (only one candidate can be picked; Estonia uses the d'Hondt system of proportional representation, and not the single transferable vote method – ed.).

Estonian diplomatic missions must receive requests for postal votes no later than February 3; the mission will then send the election documents to the voter as soon as possible.

Another option is to physically go into an Estonian embassy.

These will offer at least two days in which Estonian citizens in that country can vote, between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. More detailed information is on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

In any case, Estonian citizens abroad can cast an e-vote.

E-voting can also be used if out of country for school holidays

This year, election week coincides with the schools' half-term break, Koitmäe noted, which means many families may be outside the country.

In this case, they can cast an e-vote, he added.

"Here, it would be worth considering in advance that since you can vote electronically during the election week, you should bring your personal identification method – the Estonian ID card or mobile ID, plus PIN codes. That way, you can also vote in a foreign country, since voting via ballot in a foreign country will have ended by that week," Koitmäe said.

The e-voting environment has been updated

Koitmäe also noted that the e-voting format has been updated. "We have made a new voter app. This is used exactly the same as before - it has to be downloaded, the logic of its use, i.e. what is displayed and where you have to click, remains the same, but the overall design has been updated."

Voters can also check their ballot as cast, via a separate app which can be downloaded to a smartphone, from either the Apple or Google web app store. With this app, the voter can check whether their cast ballor has reached the vote collection server unaltered.

Koitmäe called on e-voters to actively use this app, adding it is also important for election organizers: "The more monitoring there is, the more we can be sure that there is no malware that attempts to interfere with votes," he said.

Editor's note: E-votes can be cast and recast during the advance voting period, the rationale being if a voter is casting their ballot under duress, or for instance following an inducement as in one notorious case from the 2021 local election, they can then recast it when the harasser is safely out of the way.

Campaigning restrictions lifted

Another major change ahead of these Riigikogu elections relates not to the voter side, but to the party side.

A much-panned ban on outdoor electoral advertising which was in place at previous Riigikogu elections for around six weeks before polling day, is no longer in place.

This is the case right down to polling day, Kotimäe noted.

Voters at a polling station in Pärnu (2021 local elections). Source: Kaupo Meiel / ERR

"The only limit is inside the polling station itself - you may not campaign there, in any way," he said.

It is up to that electoral division's committee to ensure this is the case, Koitmäe added, for instance by putting in partitions where larger rooms are used.

Editor's note: In previous elections, the ban on electoral advertising did not apply to social media, where campaigning continued. Other workarounds included one political party's headquarters having a large, glass-fronted facade, at street level and on a busy thoroughfare. The party could thus place electoral posters inside its office, but which were clearly visible from the street, without infringing the regulations.

In 2019, two elections took place, to the Riigikogu in March, and the European Parliament, in May. While the campaigning ban was in place in both cases, the March election campaigning so far as party budgets went in effect covered much of May's election too.

The ban was lifted in time for the 2021 local election, though one other difference between 2021 and 2023 is that Covid restrictions have been removed – meaning, for instance, that voters will not be wearing a face covering while simultaneously having to prove their ID via a photo-based ID card.

Change in the number of mandates in constituencies

Finally, a significant change has come in the distribution of the 101 mandates, and consequently seats at the Riigikogu.

The Harju and Rapla counties constituency (4th electoral district) has gained one mandate to give 16, while the Ida-Viru County (7th district) has lost one, and now has six.

Harju and Raplamaa constituency (4th district) has gained one mandate and now has 16 mandates, and Ida-Virumaa (7th district) lost one mandate and now has six mandates.

Koitmäe said: "The smallest constituency is Lääne-Viru County, which has five mandates. In other words, the difference between the largest and the smallest constituency has again increased, by one mandate."

The redistribution was likely due to demographic changes. While the majority of Riigikogu seats are apportioned via electoral district voting, there are also mandates awarded on a national basis.

State Electoral Office (RVT) director Arne Koitmäe. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Candidates to be registered on Tuesday, January 24

The deadline for registration of candidates, both party lists and independents, was last Thursday, January 19.

Saturday, January 21, at 6 p.m., represented the deadline for the correction of any errors in candidate documentation, while the National Electoral Committee (VVK – note this is a different body from the RVT to which the candidate lists were submitted-ed.), is to register all candidates on Tuesday, January 24.

Candidates have three days from that date, ie. by the end of the week, to withdraw, otherwise their running in the election is set in stone.

Another important administrative task to be carried out on Tuesday is the drawing of lots for registration numbers of parties and independents.

This will determine the order of candidates as presented to voters.

While parties have to run ordered lists in electoral districts, the order is not presented in the same way to the public; the randomized order avoids implying a precedence to one candidate or party over another.

ERR News will be providing an updated electoral explainer with more information on the process, in the form of a Q and A, in due course. Please also visit our 2023 Riigikogu elections page here.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mait Ots

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