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Home » Elections and Governance

The Electoral Management Game Changer

Submitted by on 25 Nov 2013 – 11:03

By Bruno Kaufmann, Chairman of the Electoral Commission, Falun, Sweden


SEPTEMBER 9th was a very special day in the history of electoral management. It propably even become a milestone. While the Norwegian e-voting trial at the national elections on that Monday were making most headlines, another much more wide-ranging and challenging process entered into a new phase on September 9th, when the first ever European Citizens’ Initiative concluded its signature gathering efforts. Why is this so remarkable? What does it mean for the future of electoral management? And how can we best prepare to handle these new challenges? In answering these questions I will argue that 9/9/2013 is a potential game changer for the understanding of the work of Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) in the 21st century.

Let’s jump straight into the practicalities! “Water and sanitation are a human right” argue the organisers behind the “Right2Water” Initiative, an alliance of civic groups from across Europe supported by the Public Services Trade Unions. Since December 2012 they gathered almost two million signatures for their European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) – the first formal tool of direct democracy at the transnational level. The ECI was established as a constitutional principle in 2009 by the European Union’s most recent basic law, the Lisbon Treaty (Art. 11.4). Two years later, the EU institutions (Parliament, Council and Commission) agreed on an ECI Law (211/2011), which regulates the use of this truly new and innovative participatory tool. In brief, the ECI allows European Union citizens to exercise the same power to propose new EU laws to the EU Commission as the European Parliament and the European Council. It is an agenda-setting power, which in the event that an ECI is successful (i.e. has met all the criteria) obliges the Commission to seriously consider legislative action. As there are no popular votes on substantive issues at the EU level (as yet), the ECI cannot be compared with the fully-fledged citizen-initiated referendums available in many countries, regions and municipalities across the globe.

While there are plenty of informal petition platforms and forums available on the internet (such as Avaaz.org and Change.org), the ECI is the very first element of superdemocracy, as the process is simultaneously direct, digital and transnational. This has huge consequences for the future work of EMBs, as we see from the example of the “Right2Water” ECI this autumn. Formally, the deadline for the one year signature gathering phase would have ended on November 1. But the “Right2Water” ECI had already fullfilled all the formal requirements for a valid initiative. Validation began with the registration of the proposal with the EU Commission. In order to clear this first hurdle – which eight of the 31 ECIs submitted since the launch failed to do – the proposed ECI must cover a policy that is within the EU competencies. The second set of hurdles includes the signature requirements set by the ECI Law – basically the need to gather the “statements of support” of at least one million registered EU citizens in sufficient numbers (prescribed minimum numbers calculated as the number of MEPs for each country x 750) in at least seven different EU countries. This territorial distribution scheme was introduced to safeguard the transnational character of a proposed issue. By closing the gathering the initiative had managed to clear this hurdle in at twelve member states. It is worth noting that all this work and activity has so far been handled by organisers, supporters, network partners and the EU Commission – bearing in mind that the EU does not have any electoral management institutions of its own. For this reason, the ECI Law tasks competent national authorities with two roles in the process: 1) to certify the Online Collection System of an initiative, and 2) to verify the statements of support from each authority’s ‘home’ country. In the case of the “Right2Water” initiative, the first task was carried out by a German authority, while very soon all the national EMBs will receive their first packages of both paper and electronic signatures which they must verify within three months.

Here we go! Many national EMBs in Europe have never before had such a role – to verify statements of support for a citizens’ initiative. In addition, no national EMB has ever been tasked with verifying electronic statements of support. On the other hand, in many countries where there are direct- democratic procedures, local and regional entities do often handle voters’ registers and signature verification. Making this challenge even tougher is the fact that not all countries and EMBs have a continuously updated register of voters which would ensure that all EU citizens are able to exercise their transnational constitutional right to influence EU policies. In this sense, the newly launched electoral management tasks for the first ECI offer interesting insights into how prepared EMBs across Europe are for the new times in the making. Trial and error is a well-known and often accepted method for handling novel tasks. However, when it comes to electoral management affairs, legitimacy and trust are such important elements that there should be little or no room for error.

This brings me to some concluding remarks and prospects. EMBs across Europe and the world are facing at least new three key challenges: (1) the Direct Democracy Challenge; (2) the Digital Democracy Challenge; (3) the Public Relations Challenge.

Together, they constitute a major game changer for the dynamics of EMB affairs as traditional, clearly delimited election periods using mostly analogue methods within specific national administrative cultures are being – if not entirely replaced – then at least supplemented by potentially continuous tasks involving novel electronic features within a transnational setting. While the options and limits for these “super-democratic” electoral dimensions may differ hugely from polity to polity, the global trend towards more direct, more digital and more transnational forms of electoral management is clear. This requires – as in the case of the EU and the ECI – not only new regulatory frameworks (constitutions, laws, and regulations), but also a host of new and strong competencies within EMBs at all levels in order to ensure free, fair and peaceful popular vote processes.

Electoral Management Bodies are critical parts of a supportive infrastructure for making democracies work (such as we are trying to set up in my Swedish hometown of Falun, for example), with each vote counted and every voice heard. For this reason we need to take the September 9th game changer seriously by preparing information materials, educational curriculums and training kits for all electoral stakeholders. This must include both internal (within the public services) and external (vis-a-vis the media) communicative capacities, which will play critical roles in contributing to a better informed debate, a comprehensive understanding and an appropriate handling of our new direct, digital and transnational voting processes.