In all countries, the days leading up to elections are filled with exceptional tension and stress, as all of the candidates who have made it to the last leg are determined to make it to the final hurdle and win the race. In the second part of February the Lithuanian media reported information, following the controversial changes to the constituency boundaries, concerning the upcoming municipal elections. Journalists became interested in news about mass changes to registration in different areas of the country, which according to the State Election Commission and the head of state may lead to the “distortion of democratic elections.” Before 4pm on February 21, which was the deadline for applying for changing one’s constituency, 13,000 inhabitants of Lithuania made such an application. A high number – about 2,000 people – moved from the Alytus constituency to the Alytus county constituency. In the Vilnius region 1,000 people decided to vote in Vilnius county instead. A similar number of voters joined the electorate of Šalčininkai county, mostly by migrating from surrounding areas.
In order to vote in a different constituency, residents had to prove their connection with the county in which they wanted to vote for local authorities. Lithuanian law does not decribe in detail what kind of connection is required. To prove one’s connection they could deliver either a proof of payment for kindergarten tuition, a certificate from the local government or records of owning an estate in a given constituency – the decision on whether to allow someone to change list was at the discretion of the local election commission.
This is not the first situation in which the issue of voter migration has been discussed in the Lithuanian media. Eight years ago, prior to the local government elections, Vytautas Landsbergis, one of the leaders of the Lithuanian Conservatives, made a speech of especial importance. He appealed to the Lithuanians to immediately register the Vilnius county as their place of residence, because the Conservatives “stand a chance of achieving a historic victory in local government elections in Vilnius county.” Interestingly, such calls were not criticized by the Lithuanian government, which did not take any actions to protect democratic elections from manipulation.
The President’s advisor on internal policy announced that the Lithuanian Sejm will soon obtain draft amendments of electoral rights initiated by the head of state which will prevent the migration of voters to different constituencies and which will limit the electorate in a given constituency solely to people living there on a permanent basis. The aim is to limit the current situation, in which local top officials, who very often are also candidates in local government elections, may use their powers to aid their individual region and supporters.
In cases when voter migration may influence the election results, EFHR supports actions which prevent such situations and at the same time strengthen the foundation of Lithuanian democracy. The government is supposed to manage and oversee each region, and they should have the support and recognition of the inhabitants living in a given constituency. This creates a bond between voter and candidate, which is essential for the country to function. It does not only facilitate real control of local administration actions, but it also guarantees that the government will feel accountable to the people of the region. It also reinforces the significance of an individual’s vote on political issues.
There are a few examples of election solutions implemented all over the world which limit migration of the electorate during the elections. In a small region in northern Italy, Bolzano, which is inhabited by a large German minority, in order to take part in the elections one needs to have lived in the region continuously for at least 4 years. In Trento people are required to live in a constituency for a year, but to vote in the local elections in both regions, a citizen has to present documents proving his or her 4-year long stay in a given region. If a resident changed one’s address during this time, but within the area of Bolzano or Trento, he or she can still vote, but in the area in which they stayed the longest. Such a strict law protects the rights of national minoritiess to decide about issues concerning the region they live in. It also prevents situations in which the result of the elections may be influenced by a small number of votes from people living in a different region.
Latvian law has significantly limited the possibility of voter migration to other constituencies during local elections. In order to become registered on a list one has to register a new place of residence at least 90 days before the elections. This solution is similar to the one used in Norway, where every Norwegian must be registered in a given place before June 30 of the year in which the elections take place in the second half of September. There is also a possibility to vote in a region in which a citizen owns real estate, which has to be documented while changing the constituency. People who do not have a place of residence or whose residence information has expired are assigned to the list in the constituency where they were last registered.
Constituencies set in Åland Islands, inhabited mostly by a Swedish minority, may be an interesting example of limiting electorate migration. The Finnish government provided this autonomic region with many privileges including strong constraints concerning elections to the local parliament. The right to vote on their candidate to the Lagting established by the autonomy government is granted to people born in families which have the right to local voting. One may also obtain such a right by having lived in the Åland Islands for 5 years and by displaying a proficient knowledge of the Swedish language. As it was mentioned above, such privileges are a result of central government actions which strive to both provide appropriate protection to national minorities living on part of their territory and at the same time to protect their own national heritage.
Considering the above mentioned examples, EFHR remains hopeful and awaits changes to Lithuanian election law. The European practice proves that declaring the aims of the Lithuanian government will contribute to the strengthening of local democracy. As an organization which pays special attention to issues concerning the shaping of a just and open civic society, we are hoping that the new changes will soon be a part of the current legal system.