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Voting at embassies and consulates during the 2022 parliamentary elections in Hungary - New problems caused, and long-existing concerns intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic

2022. május 10. 11:44
Takács Judit
joghallgató, ELTE ÁJK

1. Introduction

On 3 April 2022 Hungary organised its first parliamentary elections since the appearance of COVID-19. As the country had not staged any general elections during the pandemic before, this was the first time that it had to face and answer to the new challenges of conducting a general vote under the special conditions entailed by the public health emergency. (Nonetheless, by-elections had been held since the beginning of the pandemic, before the 2022 general elections, like the parliamentary by-elections in October 2020 in Tiszaújváros. Besides, the April elections were not the only ones held in 2022 either, as on 8 May 2022 by-elections of some mayors were conducted in eleven smaller settlements. Those by-elections were originally scheduled to November 2020 but were postponed due to the announcement of the second stage of state of emergency under the pandemic.) The coronavirus related problems practically cover the whole electoral process, including the election campaign, sanitary concerns at the polling stations, the method of ballot counting, exercising the right to vote under quarantine or voting from abroad.

This blogpost examines the issues arisen in connection with voting at embassies and consulates especially in the light of the still lasting world pandemic. Nonetheless, I do not focus exclusively on the difficulties directly generated by the special circumstances of the pandemic. Some long-existing concerns associated with voting from abroad will also be conceptualized, like the difficulties of polling at an embassy or consulate, which is allowed only in case of personal presence. Postal voting for Hungarian citizens with a permanent Hungarian residence is not permitted. Most of the COVID-19 related concerns came about during in-person voting, so this constitutes a due reason for approaching the topic from a broader perspective. Thus, the pandemic has highlighted the unequal treatment of those people who vote from abroad in the legislative elections without a permanent Hungarian residence (possibly also via postal means) or with a domestic Hungarian address (voting in a diplomatic mission of Hungary forcibly in person).

2. The legal background of participating in the elections from abroad

In Hungary the right to vote in the parliamentary elections is granted to all those adults who have Hungarian citizenship, as Article XXIII of the Fundamental Law declares. Thus, the country has to ensure that all Hungarian citizens, regardless of their place of permanent address or current residence on election day, should be able to exercise their right to vote without unnecessary restrictions imposed. By contrast, the same provision of the Fundamental Law stipulates that the completeness of this right shall be subject to residence in Hungary. On this ground, Section 12 of Act CCIII of 2011 on the elections of Members of Parliament provides that voters with a Hungarian residence may vote for one of the 106 individual constituencies and one party list, whereas voters without a residence in Hungary shall vote just for one party list within the proportional path of the mixed Hungarian electoral system.

Residence in Hungary, or the lack of it, also determines whether a Hungarian citizen voting from abroad has to visit a Hungarian embassy or consulate to cast any vote, or is entitled to vote by mail. Section 266 of Act XXXVI of 2013 on Electoral Procedure enables only those with no Hungarian address to be entered into the register of postal voters. So if a citizen with a Hungarian residence intends to vote from abroad instead of participating on Hungarian soil, or is just abroad for any reason on election day, they have to submit a request for entry in the foreign representation electoral register, and then they have to visit the closest Hungarian diplomatic mission to cast their ballots.

These two categories of Hungarians voting from abroad obviously do not differ only in the way they may exercise their right to vote, the reasons for not living in the country and also the prejudiced political preferences are quite different between and quite similar within the two groups. Most citizens with a registered domicile in Hungary have emigrated from the country due to economic or political reasons, whereas the voters without a registered residence are usually transborder Hungarians, born and living in the neighbouring countries as part of the Hungarian ethnic minorities there, with long-term and well-established local history (eg. in Transylvania, Romania; Vojvodina, Serbia; the Southern part of Slovakia; and Subcarpathia, Ukraine). The members of the former category are typically opposition voters, whilst the vast majority of transborder Hungarians support the government, which has opened the possibility of simplified naturalization for this group.

A study published by 21 Research Center in February 2022 estimates the number of emigrated Hungarians at around 415 thousand, whereas the number of Hungarians who have gained Hungarian citizenship via simplified naturalization  since 2011 (mainly transborder Hungarians) was around 1.1 million in 2020, according to the Deputy Prime Minister of Hungary. Based on the slightly slowing dinamics of simplified naturalization, in May 2022 the number of newly naturalized Hungarian  citizens may be estimated somewhere between 1.1 and 1.2 million. The available data also highlights the tendency that the number of people enrolled in the register of postal voters is increasing from election to election.

3. The experiences of voting at Hungarian embassies and consulates during the 2022 elections with special regard to the impact of COVID-19

3.1. A brief summary of the statistics

Out of the foreign representations maintained by Hungary  around the globe, there were 146 venues at which Hungarian citizens had registered until 25 March 2022, in order to cast their ballots, according to the data presented by the National Election Office. In total 65 480 citizens had been enrolled in the foreign representation electoral register, and the number of people who actually attended the polling stations was 57 623. In contrast, those out-of-country voters who have been granted the right to vote by mail appeared in the register of postal voters in significantly larger numbers. Specifically 456 129 Hungarian citizens without a Hungarian domicile had been listed in the register, out of whom 268 766 people cast their vote validly.

Regarding the details of foreign representation polling, the voter turnout was above 80 percent at 137 of the diplomatic missions, while at 7 of them (Chicago, Wellington, Sao Paulo, Lviv, Miami, Kampala, Jakarta) it was between 70 and 80 percent. With the exception of Shanghai, the lowest voter turnout was in Dakar with 67 percent, but it is important to mention that only 2 people, out of the 6 who had registered, did not participate in the elections. In Shanghai it became impossible to conduct the elections at the consulate, because of the curfew and other epidemiological restrictions and systematic closures imposed by the municipal government on 29 March, so the 60 Hungarians having had registered could not cast their vote, thus they were virtually disenfranchised by the public health emergency.

3.2. Additional implications caused by the pandemic

The volume of this article is not enough to examine the COVID-19 restrictions in force in the hosting country of each diplomatic mission of the above mentioned 146 during the elections, so it analyses only the coronavirus related measures of those states in which the voter turnout at the polling station of the embassy or consulate was below 80 percent. The purpose of this examination is to discover whether or not the pandemic could affect the voter turnout in a negative way. Nonetheless, it may be assumed beforehand that, except for Shanghai, COVID-19 did not play a dominant role in these trends, since in the 2018 parliamentary elections the average voter turnout was almost exactly the same (89 percent), and there were 4 diplomatic missions (Jakarta, Wellington, Ottawa, Canberra) that year as well, where it did not reach 80 percent.

As previously noted, in the 2022 elections 8 foreign representations remained below 80 percent regarding the rate of those who attended the polling stations. At three of these the number of registered citizens was too small (6 people in Dakar, 7 in Kampala and 8 in Lviv) to draw any conclusions about the potential effects of the coronavirus on voter turnout. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy to remark that in case of Lviv, the on-going war between Russia and Ukraine must have affected the voter turnout. In Jakarta, Sao Paolo and Wellington around 50 voters were listed in the electoral register on average. Since Indonesia, Brazil and New Zealand followed the worldwide tendency of relaxing most of the COVID-19 restrictions as well, it may be assumed that these voters were not severely hindered in exercising their right to vote due to local health measures. Regarding Miami, the webpage of the Consulate General of Hungary New York did not inform about any restrictions among its election-related announcements that could have interfered with attending the polling stations either. In Chicago COVID-19 restrictions had been also mitigated before the elections, and news portals did not report about citizens not being able to cast their ballots due to health measures there either.

Obviously the above considerations do not foreclose that citizens infected by the virus or being under quarantine might not have been able to attend the consulate polling stations, and some cases of refraining from participation shall have such explanations. Nevertheless, those people who were in the same situation but voted in Hungary were expected to stay at home as well, and were supposed to request a mobile ballot box. That opportunity however had not been available at diplomatic missions before the pandemic either, so the fact that hospitalised or ill people could not cast their vote in-person from abroad, is not a new and specifically COVID-related issue.

The place where the coronavirus related regulations had direct and grave consequences for the polling was Shanghai. On 30 March, the Hungarian National Election Office informed the voters on its official webpage that the conduct of the elections at the consulate of Shanghai was made impossible, after the municipal authorities of the Chinese metropolis had decided to lock the city down in two phases due to the rapid rise in the coronavirus cases. Pursuant to the new restrictions, the leaving of buildings and flats was forbidden, and it was also not permitted to come to or leave the city. Thus, the mobility of concerned Hungarian voters was also heavily affected by these measures, and as a consequence, the consulate could not organise the voting. This discrepancy deprived 60 Hungarian citizens, having had registered in the foreign representation electoral register, from exercising their right to cast their ballot at the closest Hungarian diplomatic mission, and it was clearly attributable to COVID-related reasons.

3.3. Concerns originally unrelated to, but highlighted by the pandemic

As previously mentioned, it is worth to examine the topic of the pandemic and voting at diplomatic missions from a broader perspective, thus my assessment addresses some of the anomalies of this polling method that had already existed before COVID-19 as well. Whereas the out-of-country voters with no domicile in Hungary can send back their ballots by postal means, those who still have a registered residence in the country are required to visit the nearest Hungarian foreign representation to exercise their right to vote. However, Hungary has not established diplomatic missions in every country, and even if a state does have a Hungarian embassy or consulate, it may still occur that it takes several hours or days for a voter to access it.

Whilst Hungary maintains diplomatic missions in almost all European countries, on other continents Hungarian citizens are more likely to face the challenge of having to leave the country they currently reside in, in order to cast their vote. For example, out of the 54 countries of Africa, there are only around 10, out of the 48 Asian countries less than 30, and out of the 35 countries of the Americas not much more than 10 countries with a Hungarian embassy or consulate.

Nevertheless, Hungarians living in Europe are provided quite a poor range of alternatives as well, when it comes to deciding at which diplomatic mission to register to vote. To illustrate, the more than 150 thousand Hungarians living in the territory of the United Kingdom may only attend the embassy in London, or the consulates in Manchester and Edinburgh. According to a recent article published by Telex, for some people in the country that trip amounts to long hours of travelling and additional expenses approaching 50 pounds (circa 58 euros, subject to the rapidly changing actual exchange rates). Hungarians in Germany may choose from five places to cast their ballots: Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf and Nuremberg. Thus, some voters face around 150 kilometres of travelling to attend the polling stations. In Sweden everyone has to appear at the Hungarian embassy in Stockholm to vote, so for some people, especially from the northern provinces of Sweden with poor transport infrastructure and huge distances from the capital city, it may take eight to nine hours on a train and around 40 thousand Hungarian forints (circa 105 euros, subject to the rapidly changing actual exchange rates) travel expenses to submit their vote validly, the same article highlights.

The situation is quite similar in the United States of America too, where Hungarians could either visit the Hungarian embassy in Washington, the general consulates in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York, or the vice consulates in Miami, Houston or San Francisco to exercise their right to vote. The range of options is broader there, however one must not forget, that the USA is one of the largest countries in the world, consisting of 50 member states, many of which bigger than the whole area of Hungary. As reported by the Society for Freedom Rights (TASZ), a Hungarian citizen living in Boston had to travel for eight hours and pay around 150 thousand Hungarian forints (circa 393 euros, subject to the rapidly changing actual exchange rates) for a train ticket, in order to vote in the 2019 European Parliamentary election in New York.

Even though these disadvantageous consequences of the current way of abroad voting are obviously not caused by the special circumstances of the pandemic, it is still worthy of note to address them in this context for multiple reasons. Firstly, because travelling regulations have become stricter due to the pandemic, and even if most countries have lifted their COVID-19 restrictions, there may be still such places where the protocols of entering or leaving the country require mandatory quarantine time or a PCR test, and as previously highlighted, Hungarians staying in a country with no Hungarian foreign representation need to travel to a third country or back to Hungary to vote. Furthermore, it is also not unlikely that in a few countries some kind of inner-country travelling restrictions were still in place during the elections.

Moreover, even if this year only a small number of voters, mostly residing in China, were hindered in casting their ballots due to travelling restrictions, the experiences of the two preceding years alert that such a situation may occur when someone would be not able to exercise their right to vote, regardless of them willing to devote the time and money to travel even thousands of kilometres.  If the elections had taken place only a few months earlier, this would have definitely been the case. Just owing to the decreasing number of new infections, less restrictions were ordered globally and also in Hungary at the time of the elections. But one cannot foresee the severity of potential forthcoming waves of the COVID-19 pandemic or other challenging epidemies, therefore the rational probability of similar circumstances should be taken into account, when establishing the regulatory framework.

The other connection between voting at a distant foreign representation and the pandemic is that some people might not have found it a responsible decision to travel a whole day on a train or a plane, and thus expose themselves to the risk of catching COVID-19. Of course everyone voting in person has to face that possibility, however there is a difference between someone walking or travelling for 20 minutes on a bus to approach the polling station, and someone sitting on a plane or a train for four or five hours to do that.

4. Has the pandemic drawn back attention to a previously discussed issue?

The above detailed constitutional concerns tightly or vaguely connected to COVID-19 raise the question why the country expects some of its out-of-country citizens to travel hundreds of kilometres to cast their ballots, whilst enabling others to vote by mail. This way of differentiation between voters living abroad was introduced in Act XXXVI of 2013 on Electoral Procedure, excluding citizens with a residence in Hungary from postal voting.

This measure has been subject to considerable criticism, and even  the Constitutional Court examined its compliance with the constitutional standards in 2016, after an out-of-country voter had submitted a direct constitutional complaint. According to the motion’s reasoning, all those citizens voting from abroad form a homogenous group, since none of them can cast their votes at a polling station in Hungary, and differentiating between them based on having a registered domicile in Hungary or not is unjustifiable, thus discriminatory. However, the Constitutional Court dismissed the constitutional complaint, explaining that the regulation might cause additional hardships to those who have a domicile in Hungary compared to those who do not, nonetheless the differential treatment has a reasonable ground, being that having a residence in the country suggests a stronger relationship with the state. The Constitutional Court also emphasized that the right to vote of these citizens is complete, meaning they may vote for a candidate in a single-member constituency and a party list too, in contrast to voters having no domicile in Hungary. Thus, citizens with a residence in the country may be expected reasonably to vote exclusively in person.

Dissenting opinions attached to the decision stated that differentiating between out-of-country voters based on having a residence in Hungary was unjustified, and highlighted that guaranteeing the completeness of the right to vote for those with a domicile could not be regarded as a compensation for not having the option of postal voting. They also emphasized that having a stronger relationship with the state would require more extensive protection instead of imposing additional requirements.

Even if one accepts the contestable decision of the Constitutional Court, and that it might be supportable that citizens with a Hungarian residence should only vote in person, the question still remains whether the state actually complies with its obligation to guarantee that each citizen may be able to exercise their right to vote if they intend to, without unnecessary restrictions. The pandemic demonstrated that the country has limited options when it comes to ensuring the smooth conduct of the voting at diplomatic missions. Within its territory, the state may modify its COVID-19 regulations or introduce new voting methods (eg. drive-in polling stations or mobile ballot box), so that each voter shall have multiple alternative options to cast their vote. By contrast, in abroad the state could just adapt its electoral policies to the public health or other related regulations of the competent local authorities. If a foreign state imposes travelling restrictions or ordains a lockdown, Hungary will not be able to ensure that the citizens living there can duly participate in the elections. Likewise, if a citizen in a foreign country is infected by the coronavirus, and so is compelled to stay at home, Hungary cannot provide any voting alternative for them under the current regulation and accessible technical facilities, whereas those voting within the country may request a mobile ballot box.

One may argue, that people have to take into account that if they stay abroad at the time of the elections, their electoral participation will be significantly more difficult, however, from a COVID-related approach, not all citizens being abroad on election day shall face the same challenges, depending on the existence of their domestic Hungarian residence. Those who are permitted to vote by mail would be more likely able to exercise their right to vote, even under such severe restrictions like the ones imposed due to COVID-19, or even if they test positive for the virus. Thus, the question is not only whether it is acceptable that out-of-country voters with a domicile in Hungary are expected to travel for days and spend a substantial amount of money in order to vote, but whether it is acceptable that even if they decide to devote the time and money for that purpose, they still might not be able to execute their right to vote because of illness or local regulations, whilst the out-of-country voters with no Hungarian residence can just send their ballots at the local post office.

The problem of out-of-country voting and the concerns of conducting the elections at embassies or consulates with coronavirus restrictions in place, however, has been a challenge for countries other than Hungary as well. In the V4 region for example, during the 2020 presidential election in Poland, voting abroad was not organized in Afghanistan, Chile, Kuwait, North Korea, Peru and Venezuela either, with regard to COVID-19.

5. Conclusion

The above detailed issues in connection with voting at Hungarian diplomatic missions demonstrate well that Hungarian citizens living, working or studying abroad at the time of the elections face numerous challenges if they intend to submit their vote. However, during the 2022 parliamentary elections, the special situation caused by the pandemic made it even more demanding, or at worst, impossible for some of them to attend the polling stations. Thus, COVID-19 stressed again an already known tension: there is a huge difference  in the hardships related to voting between two categories of Hungarian citizens living abroad. Hungarians who possess a domicile in Hungary typically had to face some of the above detailed problems, whereas those without a Hungarian domicile were much less vulnerable vis a vis the effects of the pandemic (eg. strict health measures, COVID-infection).

This conclusion does not obviously suggest that the best and only solution is to simply extend the option of postal voting to all people participating in the elections from abroad, and it may also be understood that the legislator does not wish to list all citizens living in a foreign country into the same category. However, the experiences of the pandemic may remind Hungary that it would be beneficial to re-evaluate the norms in connection with out-of-country voting, in order to elaborate a regulation which reduces the difficulties related to polling at foreign representations, and provides alternatives for those who are hindered in showing up at the polling stations, thus ensuring that fair conditions are provided to each Hungarian citizen to take part in the most important collective decision of the political community.

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International Visegrad Fund project no. 22120065. (Democracy in the shadow of the pandemic in the V4 countries).

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The views expressed above belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for Social Sciences.

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