From districts to voting age – major elections changes in the pipeline

People voting in the 2023 Riigikogu elections at different locations on Sunday.
People voting in the 2023 Riigikogu elections at different locations on Sunday. Source: Rene Kundla/ERR

Sides to the incoming coalition seem willing to shift the borders of Estonia's electoral districts, which have not been changed in the last 20 years. The parties might also change the general elections voting age, but taking away Russian citizens' right to vote might prove problematic despite promises of help from opposition leader EKRE.

Even though the borders of Estonia's electoral districts haven't been moved for the last 20 years, their effect on the final result has changed considerably. While the electoral districts of Harju and Rapla counties and Tallinn were good for 38 mandates back in 2003, this had grown to 47 by the 2023 Riigikogu elections.

Seven districts have lost mandates, while Ida-Viru County and Järva County have both lost two. The distribution of mandates has changed along the lines of people moving to make sure every vote carries the same weight. The National Electoral Committee has been drawing attention to the changes for years.

Committee head Oliver Kask gave the example of Lääne-Viru County's five mandates. "If an independent candidate needs 20 percent there, it's just 7-8 percent in the district made up of Harju and Rapla counties," Kask said.

Lääne-Viru County highlighted another problem with small electoral districts. Out of five total mandates, just two were decided there. The rest of the votes from the district went toward the nationwide compensation mandates pool. In other words, the smaller the district, the more depends on parties' nationwide candidate lists.

"Those have less to do with voters' decisions and more with who parties move up or down their lists," Kask explained.

At the same time, voters in the largest district might no benefit either. For example, many parties set up their most popular politicians in Harju and Rapla counties that yield 16 mandates.

"It may be that much harder for local politicians to make the scene there, with mandates rather ending up in the hands of people of nationwide renown," Kask remarked.

Districts to be reshuffled but specifics unclear

Four years ago, the Center Party proposed a system where Estonia would still have 12 electoral district, while Rapla County would be decoupled from Harju County and linked to the electoral district currently made up of Hiiu, Saare and Lääne counties. Ida-Viru and Lääne-Viru counties would be put together and Tallinn given four electoral districts instead of the current three.

Hanno Pevkur, member of the board of 2023 elections winner the Reform Party, said that Center's proposal could be the bare minimum. "We need to decide whether to pursue a major structural reform or just make necessary changes to make the districts comparable again," he said.

Eduard Odinets (SDE) also said that while changes are in order, no one has a ready solution at this time. He harked back to 2017 when the National Electoral Committee proposed a system of seven electoral districts, with all 15 counties represented in five districts and Tallinn in two. "All districts would basically be equal and yield 12-13 mandates," Odinets said, adding that to the best of his knowledge, no details will be included in the 2023 coalition agreement.

Chairman of opposition leader the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) Martin Helme said that medium-sized districts yielding around 10 mandates would be best, while Center representative Jaanus Karilaid said he hopes all parties will be included in the debate, alongside the Electoral Committee.

"Politicians might go after political gain," Karilaid remarked. "The Electoral Committee could be in charge of the debate. That would make it neutral and ensure honesty."

Pevkur: Own election result not part of revoking Russian citizens' right to vote

This kind of political self-interest is what Center politicians suspect is behind talk of revoking Russian citizens' local elections voting right. Jaanus Karilaid suggested that the plan serves narrow party-political interests, but added: "We see the need for sustained efforts to tie everyone living here to the Estonian state and society. Revoking the rights of a part of the people in this manner would only work to widen the split in society, without any benefit."

Hanno Pevkur said that the initiative follows considerations of security and values and because it would only concern Russian citizens, and not Estonia's stateless persons, it would not have any profound effect on election results.

Estonia had 66,587 stateless persons last year and over 115,000 third country citizens, including 81,691 Russian citizens. Among Tallinn's 438,000 residents both stateless persons and Russian citizens numbered around 32,500.

Pollster Kantar Emor's survey expert Aivar Voog suggested that the Center Party would have the most to lose from the change in Tallinn as citizens of other countries, mostly Russia, have been more active in participating in elections in the capital and have tended to support the Center Party in the past.

"It would not be possible for Center to repeat its past election results of more than 40 percent without the votes of Russian citizens," Voog suggested.

No consensus in the matter among sides to the coalition

Secretary General of the Social Democratic Party (SDE) Eduard Odinets emphasized that the party has not decided where it stands yet. SDE promised not to touch election rights in its election platform. The third partner in the incoming three-way coalition is Eesti 200, which has remained neutral on the issue so far.

Odinets said that should it be decided to revoke Russian citizens' local voting right, he sees no way to achieve it without amending the Constitution.

Pevkur believes the change can be made without a constitutional amendment, adding that changes to the Constitution should be avoided if at all possible.

EKRE pledges to help the coalition amend the Constitution

The coalition would have to move fast to revoke Russian citizens' right to vote in local government council elections in 2025 as amending the Constitution in expedited procedure requires the votes of two-thirds of MPs, while initializing such a vote needs to be backed by four-fifths of the parliament.

Considering that Center is clearly opposed to the plan, the incoming coalition would have to get both EKRE and Isamaa on board.

"Looking at what parties have said in the past, the possibility is there," Jaanus Karilaid suggested. EKRE leader Martin Helme said that his party wanted to strip all non-citizens of their right to vote last year. "Elections are an exclusive privilege of citizens," Helme remarked. Citizens of other countries residing in Estonia can vote in local government council elections but not parliamentary ones.

While Helme also believes a constitutional change is not needed, should it come to that, EKRE is willing to back the coalition in the Riigikogu, he said.

Riigikogu elections voting right could be extended to 16-year-olds

Eesti 200's proposal of lowering the Riigikogu elections voting age to 16 has created much less controversy, and there is no opposition to the plan among the potential coalition partners.

"Local elections have shown that young people want to have a say. And they are increasingly vocal on important topics in the Riigikogu," Pevkur said. "We have given young people a voice in local elections, so why not consider doing the same for Riigikogu elections," he added.

Eduard Odinets said that the Social Democrats' youth wing has been promoting the idea for some time and the party agrees that a debate is in order.

Sides to the coalition have promised to move toward lowering the voting age, while no date for the change will likely be set in the coalition agreement. Lowering the voting age would require a constitutional amendment, while there seems to be no urgency involved here. Rather, this could be done in normal procedure, which requires two consecutive Riigikogus to support it.

"Personally, I support the initiative," Karilaid said.

But Martin Helme believes minors are not mature enough to participate in parliamentary elections. "One needs experience and perspective when deciding matters of the state," he said. "The feeling of responsibility you get when you've received your first paycheck and understand that money doesn't grow on trees and life is not all butterflies and rainbows."

"We saw schools turned into party battlegrounds when the local elections voting age was lowered," Helme pointed out, adding that politics should not be brought to school.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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