On June 30, 2022, we held an online Roundtable on the impact of the pandemic on the right to vote in Slovakia. During the meeting, many interesting ideas were expressed, in which the participants focused on the elections taking place in Slovakia during the pandemic. The importance and originality of this meeting is due to the uniqueness of the topic, which has affected and will continue to affect Slovakia. Fortunately, Slovakia has only experienced by-elections to local government bodies. However, these have brought restrictions on the right to vote. The right to vote is regulated in detail and systematically at the statutory level, namely in Act No. 180/2014 Coll. on the conditions for exercising the right to vote and Act No. 181/2014 Coll. on the election campaign. In order to avoid the same situation in the next elections, the legislators came up with a solution to create a law on the special way of voting, and thus, on 10 May 2022, the Government Bill No. 185/2022 Coll. was adopted.
The aforementioned law was introduced at the meeting by doc. Daniel Krošlák, who described each of its parts and the way of its creation. Although the law may be described as a “one-time-use law“, there can be no doubt about the effort to be prepared for a possible next wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and to prevent interference with the right to vote. The law regulates the right of persons who have a statutory restriction on their personal liberty to protect public health from COVID-19 to vote in municipal and county elections to be held on the same day and at the same time in 2022. Curiously, the procedure under this Act shall apply if, on 30 September 2022, a decree of the Office of Public Health of the Slovak Republic orders the isolation of persons positive for COVID-19 or the quarantine of persons who have come into close contact with a person positive for COVID-19, for the protection of public health against COVID-19. An eligible voter is a person who has the right to vote in a combined election pursuant to Act No. 180/2014 Coll. on the conditions for exercising the right to vote and on amendments and supplements to certain acts, as amended, and who, on the date of the combined election, has been ordered to be quarantined or isolated for the protection of public health against the COVID-19 disease; an eligible voter is also a person who, on the date of the combined election, is living in the same household as the eligible voter.
A special electoral commission is created for each special electoral district to provide for the special voting method. The territorial area of the special electoral commission is identical to the territorial area of the special electoral district. The special electoral commission consists of at least eight members. In the special election commission, one member may be delegated by a political party or a political movement or coalition that submits a list of candidates for the election to the municipal council of a designated municipality. Voting in the special election box will be carried out by two nominated members of the special election commission at all times. If, on the day of the combined election, due to a substantial increase of the number of eligible voters who have requested a special voting method or for other important reasons, it becomes necessary to provide additional members of the special election commission with a special election box, the mayor of the designated municipality, with the prior consent of the chairman of the district election commission, will decide about the additional members of the special election commission to be delegated, in the order determined by drawing lots in accordance with paragraph 10. If, due to the large number of eligible voters who have requested a special voting method, it is not possible to ensure a special voting method by sending all the members of the special election commission, the mayor of the designated municipality, with the prior consent of the head of the district office, will nominate the additional members of the special election commission in the necessary number.
For the purpose of conducting a special voting method in a combined election pursuant to this Act, a special list of eligible voters is prepared separately for elections to local government bodies and a special list of eligible voters is prepared separately for elections to municipal government bodies, according to the relevant electoral district for the election of members of the municipal council according to the place of permanent residence of the eligible voter who has requested the special voting method. The special lists of voters are prepared by the secretary of the local electoral commission and, in the city, by the secretary of the city electoral commission. An eligible voter shall submit a request for a special method of voting to the registrar of the municipality of his/her permanent residence personally or by another person by telephone during office hours of the municipality of his/her permanent residence; on the last working day before the day of the combined election, he/she may submit the request no later than twelve o'clock noon.
During the discussion, Professor Tomás Gábriš pointed to the polemical issues that arise from the Special Voting Act, such as the verification of the person who has to report their quarantine measure, which could be very easily abused by another (unauthorized) person. There is also the question of what if it is indeed proven that the reporting was done by an unauthorised person and the citizen has been deleted from the electoral register, but still wants to use the right to vote. The representative of the State Election Commission, during the meeting of the Legislative Council of the Government, assured the members of the meeting that in a situation that would indicate a person had been wrongly deleted from the voters' register, the person would still be able to vote.
Doctor Max Steuer, in discussion and in response, pointed out that the Special Voting Method Act will only be used if, by 30 September 2022, the pandemic situation is at a point where quarantine measures have to be implemented again. This date has not been justified and is therefore an arbitrary decision. The panelists agreed that, as currently constituted, the government has no problem adopting laws through an shortened legislative process, and therefore various polemical issues and gaps can be still hypothetically improved.
Dominika Kuchárová (the author of the current blogpost) expressed her concern in the roundtable because of the large financial burden that this law brings with it. Usually, members of the Slovak Electoral Commission are paid an average of €30: by contrast, the special law speaks of a sum increased by €170. The risk of elections during a pandemic is the credibility of the elections. Free and fair elections must be guaranteed at all costs. To provide security for voters and those taking part in elections, countries around the world have adopted various measures, which have been: Social distance, personal protective equipment for staff at voting centres, compulsory veils for voters entering voting centres, compulsory use of hand sanitizers, cleaning of election materials/regular cleaning of voting centres/ventilation of voting centres, temperature control, reduced number of persons in voting centres, compulsory disposable gloves for voters, additional staff at voting centres to ensure compliance with health measures and social distance. Similarly, if a member of the commission will be traveling to see an infected voter, increased safety and security precautions will be required. It will certainly be challenging for both parties - the people and the public treasury.
Based on the Roundtable and the monitoring of the legislative initiative, it seems that the Slovak legislature is unwilling to introduce any permanent measures or amendments to the electoral system and is basically hoping that the pandemic is more or less over. We can just share this optimistic approach, however a due level of carefulness is still necessary even in the short term, since the public health situation might worsen during the following months.
International Visegrad Fund project no. 22120065. (Democracy in the shadow of the pandemic in the V4 countries).
The views expressed above belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for Social Sciences.