How does the electoral system in Estonia work?
With two elections happening in Estonia next spring, at the national level in March followed by European elections in May, questions about how the system works and who can vote are inevitable. The electoral system in Estonia is not especially complicated, and similar to those of many other European nations. However it is radically different from those in the UK or US for instance, so let's take an overview, focusing primarily on the general election to the Riigikogu.
Who can vote?
Estonian citizens aged 18 and over at March 2019 can vote (those aged 21 and over can stand). The usual restrictions on the incarcerated or those who have lost the right to vote for some other reason applies as in other countries, as do requirements to be registered in a specific voting district. Non-Estonian citizens cannot vote regardless of how long they have lived in the country; long-term residents and EU citizens can however vote in the local and EU elections.
How is Estonia divided up electorally?
For general elections, Estonia is divided into 12 electoral districts reflecting population distribution, in turn subdivided into voting districts (see below). Tallinn has three districts; Tartu is the only other city with its own electoral district. The rest of the districts roughly follow county lines, so Harjumaa (excl. Tallinn) is one district; the sparsely populated southeast of the country consists of one district made up of three counties, namely Valga, Võru and Põlvamaa.
Each electoral district carries a set number of mandates up for grabs, which combined equate to 101 seats at the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu).
The 12 Electoral Districts in Estonia (Riigikogu elections). Source: Ljubinka/Wikimedia Commons
How do people vote?
The 12 electoral districts in Estonia are sub-divided into voting districts where votes are made (excluding online votes) and counted. The various methods reflect both the realities of those living in more remote parts of Estonia and the large number of Estonian citizens living overseas.
Voting takes place either in person on the day at the polling station in the voter's district, or in advance in their voting district or, if the voter has so applied, in another district (when the ballot paper gets posted to the home district). Expat Estonians can make postal votes, or vote at a foreign mission, or most likely, vote online.
The much-vaunted electronic voting using chip and pin is also available and quite popular, though doesn't seem to have had a large effect on voter turnout. Some Centre Party politicians have questioned its reliability and security.
Voting on election day runs from 09.00 to 20.00 EEST, including an option to vote from home (which must be registered for by 14.00 on election day).
Advance voting, depending on method and location, starts around 10 days before election day and ends around three days beforehand. Online voting is effectively a type of advanced voting, and can be done between 10 days and 4 days before election day.
Proxy voting is not allowed for under the current system.
Voters vote for a specific candidate, rather than party as a whole or range of candidates, though these votes are subsequently distributed amongst the party's list to an extent (see below).
Who oversees voting?
Voting districts are policed by committees of five to nine members. Votes are counted after 20.00 on election day and results and all ballot papers etc. sent to the electoral committee of the relevant electoral district.
How do parties run lists?
A political party is a registered legal entity which requires a minimum of 500 members nationwide. This may sound small, but it's worth noting that the Free Party doesn't have much more than 500 members and yet it has seven seats at parliament at the time of writing. Naturally this anomalous situation won't survive past the March 2019 election.
Parties run lists in each electoral district. A list can equal the number of mandates available in the district plus two (ie if there are 12 mandates, the list can be up to 14-strong).
Individuals can run in an election; the same voting quota would apply to them as to party lists (see below). An independent has not to date been elected to the Riigikogu – the half dozen independents currently sitting there are those who quit a political party whilst sitting.
How are results calculated?
Once all the votes are calculated they are distributed amongst the party lists in three batches: Personal mandates, district mandates and compensation mandates.
Each district has a set number of each of these; nationally there are 13 personal mandates + 66 district mandates + 22 compensation mandates, making a total of 101 mandates.
A threshold of 5% of total votes in a district must be met to get any seats; below 5% and a party comes away empty handed.
A voting quota, ie an absolute number of votes is set; anyone meeting or exceeding that quota gets a personal mandate.
District mandates are settled by dividing the total amount of votes received by the same quota, giving mandates to candidates who did not previously meet the quota. Those who have already clinched a personal mandate are removed from this figure, so if a party gets four district mandates, but has already picked up two personal mandates, it would in fact only get two further district mandates.
The compensation mandates are calculated based on votes received nationally using the d'Hondt method of proportional representation (PR) and go to remaining candidates on party lists who have not already gained a personal or district mandate.
This example may help to explain things, in a very simplified form:
The ''Cool Party'', runs in the Käärikumaa district, which has 12 mandates, and receives 10,000 votes in total (passing the 5% threshold). Bear in mind several other parties are doing the same thing.
Käärikumaa electoral district has 2 personal mandates, 6 district mandates and 4 compensation mandates. The Cool Party runs the maximum of 14 candidates, 2 more than the 12 mandates available as per the rules. The voting quota is 3,000 votes.
The list is, in order of votes received on election day:
Cool Party candidate Votes 1. Stone Cold Steve Austin 5,000 2. Lyndon Baines Johnson 2,000 3. Roberta Francesca Kennedy 1,000 4. Grover Cleveland 600 5. Andrew Jackson 350 6. Jenny Carter 250 7. John Tyler 200 8. Calvin Coolidge 150 9. Millicent Fillmore 130 10. Harriet S. Truman 100 11. Benjamin Harrison 100 12. Georgina Bush 70 13. Zachary Taylor 50 14. James Monroe 0
Straight off the bat, the bottom two candidates, Taylor and Monroe, are out. Stone Cold Steve Austin was the only candidate to receive a personal mandate by passing the voting quota of 3,000 votes.
The six district mandates are distributed by dividing the total number of votes by the quota of 3,000.
10,000 / 3,000 = 3.3, ie. 3, MINUS the 1 mandate clinched by Austin = 2 district mandates.
Thus out of a possible total of 8 personal and district mandates, the Cool Party got 3:
1. Stone Cold Steve Austin
2. Lyndon Baines Johnson
3. Roberta Francesca Kennedy
(By the rules, mandates have to be resolved in order of votes received, though there is scope for trading off seats if a party is in government as we will see).
The 4 compensation mandates are distributed nationally, using the d'Hondt method. Let's say the Cool Party received 300,000 votes nationally, the Dodgy Party received 180,000.
The d'Hondt system distributes seats by dividing them in turn by the number of mandates up for grabs, starting with 1, then 2, 3 etc. and awarding mandates accordingly. For us, it would run this way:
Divisor The Cool Party The Dodgy Party 1 300,000 (1st mandate) 180,000 (2nd mandate) 2 150,000 (3rd mandate) 90,000 3 100,000 (4th mandate) 60,000 4 75,000 45,000
Thus the Cool Party picks up 3 more mandates, the Dodgy Party just the 1, before we even get to the 4th round of dividing.
Naturally there will be more than 2 parties competing for compensation mandates as well as personal and district ones; this is a simplification of a simplification to attempt to explain the principle.
So of the 14 candidates run, the Cool Party gets 6 mandates, and thus the following go to the Riigikogu:
1. Stone Cold Steve Austin
2. Lyndon Baines Johnson
3. Roberta Francesca Kennedy
4. Grover Cleveland
5. Andrew Jackson
6. Jenny Carter
But that's not all. Let's say the Cool Party get 30 seats nationally, and form a coalition with the Dodgy Party (11 mandates) and the Other Party (10 mandates) giving the ''required'' majority of 51 seats at the Riigikogu. Now it is in government, the coalition will choose its Prime minister and 14 other ministers from its ranks (since the Cool Party got the most mandates, its party leader should become prime minister).
Ministers however do not sit in the Riigikogu, unlike say in the UK where government ministers sit in the House of Commons. If an elected MP is made a minister, he or she vacates the seat and it goes to the next person on the list.
Let's say Stone Cold gets made defence minister, and Johnson and Kennedy become health and foreign ministers. This frees up their seats, giving them to the next three on the list:
7. John Tyler
8. Calvin Coolidge
9. Millicent Fillmore
Thus from the 14 runners, 9 end up in government or the Riigikogu, which is not a bad haul.
Note that this vacating of seats works the other way too; if a minister steps down and returns to the Riigikogu, their place-maker must in turn vacate the seat. This happened recently when Urve Palo (formerly of the Social Democratic Party – SDE) resigned as a minister and from SDE as a whole, returning to the Riigikogu as an independent. The SDE member who was keeping her seat warm, Liis Oviir, had to step aside.
Estonia is treated as one single electoral district for the European Parliamentary elections, and mandates are distributed via d'Hondt as per EU rules.* Parties run lists; Estonia has six seats at present, though this is set to increase to seven as some of the UK's European seats are to be redistributed throughout the remaining 27 member states following Brexit and in advance of the European elections in late May 2019.
The local elections have a more complex system of city and municipal districts.
How does the system affect politics?
The consensus nature of Estonian politics as a whole is in part the result of the system generally leading to coalitions – that has been the case so far in an independent Estonia. Thus parties' pre-election promises and ideals are often watered down, or disappear altogether; for instance if the Cool Party is more free-market based, and the Dodgy Party more government intervention-oriented (or vice versa if you prefer).
The lists system also means parties are eager to attract big names as vote attractors, whose popularity can trickle down to those lower on the list in terms of votes in the district and compensation mandates distribution.
Indeed, the Centre Party have brought on board a real former (sumo) wrestler, Kaido Höövelson, whilst the Social Democratic Party (SDE) have brought independent MEP Indrek Tarand into the fold, running for them whilst not actually being a member.
The wisdom of bringing in non-political household names can be questioned of course; recently the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) announced a famous singer was to run for them in the next elections, only to have her change her mind around a day later.
What are the plusses and minuses of the current system?
A greater representation of smaller parties is allowed in this PR system, though this is checked by the 5% threshold, which prevents a plethora of smaller parties picking up seats here and there.
The d'Hondt method in the compensation round, however, is skewed towards the parties which garnered more votes. In our example, the Cool Party got three times as many seats that way as the Weird Party, even though nationally it only got about 67% more of the vote.
This system seems unlikely to be changed any time soon, and electoral reform isn't a burning issue with most parties, with the exception of the occasional call to make the president directly elected by the people.
The one change made in recent years came in 2003 and squeezed the district mandates a bit; before that date, parties could pick up a district mandate with 75% of the voting quota, or if they had 75% of the voting quota remaining after their seats had been distributed.
More detailed information on elections in Estonia is at valimised.ee, and on the organisation of parliament at riigikogu.ee.
We will look in more detail at the actual, real life parties in a future piece.
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Editor: Dario Cavegn