Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Reviewing the results of Bulgaria's e-voting referendum

One of the purist and most direct ways to gauge the popular opinion on an important issue is to hold a referendum. In this way, you are granting voters the same access to expressing their viewpoint as they have during a regular election that would see the selection of new heads of state and legislative representatives. When the referendum ties into the electoral process itself, the cycle is completed.

This is a big reason why the recent referendum held in the country of Bulgaria is so important. The results of the referendum could set a precedent not only in Bulgaria itself, but also in other democracies around the world. It could also expedite, maintain, or diminish any progress made in other countries seeking similar movements and advances in its electoral processes.

The referendum was first proposed last year and consisted of three different questions. After some debate among government officials, the national referendum was eventually narrowed down to a single question. It asked the people of Bulgaria whether or not they would support the use of technology to allow for remote voting through electronic means.

The support for e-voting was largely being gauged in the context of distance voting. More specifically, the referendum question was worded as thus:

“Do you support that remote electronic voting is enabled when elections and referendums are held?”

Despite what some of the opponents may have to say about the adoption of e-voting and i-voting technology in modern elections, the result of the Bulgarian referendum is one of overwhelming support for the use of remote electronic voting.

The exact figures from different sources vary somewhere between 69.5 percent and 72.5 percent, but the Bulgarians who did participate in the referendum have clearly indicated that they support and favor remote electronic voting in future elections and referendums. Compare this to the mere 26 percent who voted against the introduction of electronic distance voting. Even in the district with the least support for the adoption of e-voting, Shoumen, a 57.8 percent majority still marked their ballots with a “yes.” The capital city of Sofia saw the largest support for e-voting at 76.5 percent of the vote.

The referendum question itself was also posed to Bulgarians who are living or working abroad through a number of overseas polling stations. This only makes sense, as this is the demographic that would be affected the most by the implementation of remote e-voting possibilities in the Bulgarian democracy.

Interest in electronic voting technology and interest in participating in nationally-held elections are also growing in Bulgaria. When the country last held a referendum in 2013, voter turnout was a mere 20.22%. With this most recent referendum, that figure nearly doubled to 39.67%. There is still much room to grow and to learn, but the positive trend demonstrates promise.

While this level of voter turnout in the e-voting referendum in Bulgaria is not enough to be legally binding at the governmental level, which requires a turnout of at least 48.7 percent, it is above the 20 percent threshold needed in order to require the National Assembly in Bulgaria to further debate the issue and to keep the conversation moving forward.

Where the Bulgarian democracy goes from here remains to be seen, but given the steadfast determination of President Rosen Plevneliev in pursuing the e-voting agenda, the issue will clearly remain top of mind and a continued topic of hot debate.