Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Bulgarian E-Voting Referendum Opens Overseas Polling Stations

Technology has become an integral part of just about every aspect of contemporary society. Computers are used in nearly every line of work, smartphone adoption is at an all-time high, and a growing number of tasks are being performed over the Internet, including online banking and passport renewals. The use of technology in elections is also growing on a global scale.

In Bulgaria, a referendum was proposed last year that would posit three questions as they related to elections in the Balkan nation. Since that time, the referendum has been further revised to include only one question to be asked of the Bulgarian people: are they in favor of or are they opposed to the adoption of electronic voting technology in future elections? This may also include the possibility of remote e-voting too.

While it may have once been assumed that the people of Bulgaria would only be able to vote in this referendum if they are physically present at a polling station in Bulgaria that was not the case when the referendum was held on October 25. Indeed, 312 polling stations were opened in 45 countries around the world to allow Bulgarians to voice their opinion on the issue from abroad. These included polling stations in such nations as the United States, Germany and Turkey, among dozens of others.

The point here is that the results of this referendum and the profound ramifications that it could have on the electoral process in Bulgaria affect not only the people who live and work in the country itself, but also for expatriates and overseas workers. Expatriate voting has become a hot issue in recent months with dramatic changes in Canada and an increased push for voting for Swiss living abroad. By opening the referendum to Bulgarians in 45 other countries, the government has clearly indicated that expatriate and absentee opinion matters.

The referendum also highlights two other important topics. First, it could serve as a viable experiment for how e-voting and remote voting could be best implemented in actual elections and not only in referendums. Second, it could also help to build popular interest in the advancement of e-voting in the nation of Bulgaria and for Bulgarians living abroad.

The potential was there. The opportunity was there. This referendum could have marked a major milestone for Bulgaria, helping to propel its democracy ahead today and into the future.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of opening overseas polling stations and working to increase public interest in the mechanics of democracy, the referendum ultimately did not live up to its promise. This was attributed to insufficient voter turnout. Even though 69.5 percent of those who participated did vote in favor of remote online voting, only 40 percent of eligible voters responded to the referendum.

The laws are such that the voter turnout must be at least at the same level as that of the last parliamentary elections. In this case, 48.66 percent of voters turned out for the 2014 parliamentary elections and thus the referendum came up nearly 9 percent short of this mark.

President Rosen Plevneliev is undeterred, stating that “voters want to be asked and expect to be heard.” Even though the results of the referendum are not binding, Plevneliev says that it would be a “big political mistake” to ignore them. And so, the saga toward increased e-voting and remote e-voting in Bulgaria continues. If nothing else, this referendum indicates that voter apathy must be addressed and the issues surrounding technology in the democratic process must continue to be pushed to the forefront of the conversation.