On October 19 this year, a draft act to amend the Electoral Code and certain other acts with the number UD457, submitted by the Minister of Digital Affairs, appeared in the list of legislative works of the government. The most important change to be introduced by the bill under discussion is the establishment of the Central Register of Voters. On the basis of the currently binding Electoral Code, Poland has a decentralized voter registration system. Currently, each municipality is obliged (Article 18 § 11 of the Electoral Code) to keep a register of voters, which includes persons entitled to vote permanently residing in a municipality, and to draw up the electoral roll before each election (Article 26 § 10 of the Electoral Code), which contains a list of persons entitled to vote in voting circuit within the municipality. One of the reasons for the fiasco of correspondence voting in the presidential elections in Poland ordered on May 10, 2020 was the failure to submit the election lists to the Polish Post Office, which, according to the Act of April 6, 2020, was to be responsible for organizing the voting. The current voter registration system will be completely changed if the draft act presented by the government enters into force.
2. The current legal regulation in the field of voter registration
As mentioned earlier, the Polish voter registration system is based on two documents – the voter register and the electoral roll. Each of them has different functions. The register of voters confirms the right to vote and the right to be elected (Article 18 § 5 of the Electoral Code) and is used to draw up the roll of voters entitled to participate in elections (and in referendums). The electoral roll indicates who is eligible to vote in elections that have been ordered. (Article 26 § 4 of the Electoral Code).
The electoral register includes – without the necessity to apply – persons permanently residing in a municipality and, upon examination of a relevant application (Article 19 § 1 of the Electoral Code), persons residing in a municipality without permanent residence. The register is divided into two parts – A, which contains the data of Polish citizens, and B, which includes EU citizens permanently residing in the municipality area and entitled to exercise voting rights in Poland. No one may be included in more than one register of voters (Article 18 § 3 of the Electoral Code). Based on Article 22 of the Electoral Code, anyone may submit a complaint to the mayors of the municipality about irregularities in the voter register, which must be considered within 3 days.
The electoral roll is a list of persons who have the right to vote in a circuit election commission in the municipality. The electoral roll is drawn up for specific elections for a particular district commission no later than on the 21st day before the election day (Article 26 § 11 of the Electoral Code). In nationwide elections and referendums (where the right to vote does not depend on the place of residence), anyone may submit an application to be added to the electoral roll no later than 5 days before the election day (Article 28 § 1 of the Electoral Code). The Election Code in Article 32 also provides for the possibility of obtaining a certificate of the right to vote at the place of residence on election day from the municipal office, on the basis of which the electoral commission may add a voter to the electoral roll. Separate lists of voters are drawn up for voters on Polish sea-going ships (Article 34 of the Electoral Code) and for voters staying abroad (Article 35 of the Electoral Code). Between 21st and 8th days before the election, the voter may check whether they have been correctly entered in the electoral roll (Article 36 of the Electoral Code) – irregularities in this respect may be filed with the authority that prepared the electoral roll (Article 37 of the Electoral Code).
3. An attempt to organize a postal voting in 2020
The act of 6 April on the special rules for holding general elections for the President of the Republic of Poland ordered in 2020 did not significantly change the rules for preparing the register of voters and the electoral roll. However, in Article 15 of the Act imposed on municipal and city mayors and consuls the obligation to prepare and submit, on the day the act enters into force, electoral rolls entitled to vote to the Polish Post Office, which was to conduct a full postal voting. This act entered into force on May 9, 2020, the day before the elections were ordered. Therefore, it was impossible to submit the electoral rolls to the Polish Post Office before May 9, as Polish law did not provide for such a procedure – there was no appropriate legal basis. Polish local government officials in the majority, observing the principle of legalism, i.e. acting on the basis and within the limits of the law defined, inter alia, in art. 7 of the Constitution, did not hand over the electoral rolls to the Polish Post Office.
However, some mayors claimed that the basis for such action was set by the decision of the Prime Minister of April 16, 2020, ordering Polish Post Office to carry out activities in the field of preparing and holding elections by correspondence, which in the judgment of the Voivodeship Administrative Court in Warsaw of 15 September 2020 had been canceled. The Voivodeship Administrative Court upheld the complaint of the Polish Ombudsman and annulled the Prime Minister's decision due to gross violation of the law and lack of legal basis. It found that the Prime Minister's decision flagrantly violated the provisions of the Constitution, the Election Code, the Code of Administrative Procedure, the Act on the Council of Ministers and the Act of March 2, 2020, on special solutions related to the prevention and combating of COVID-19. The mayors who submitted voter data to the Polish Post Office faced criminal liability, e.g. the mayor of the Wapno municipality in a subsidiary indictment of the Watchdog Civic Network Association was found guilty of violating their powers – the sentence was upheld in the second instance.
4. Bill on the establishment of the Central Register of Voters
The primary goal of the government's bill is to eliminate municipal voter registers. They would be replaced by the Central Register of Voters, the maintenance and development of which would be the responsibility of the Minister of Digital Affairs. The Central Register of Voters would cover data on both persons permanently residing in the territory of Poland who have the right to vote and those who do not have this right. Each voter would be included in one voting circuit. The functions that would be performed by the Central Register of Voters correspond to those currently implemented by municipal registers of voters, i.e., it will primarily serve to confirm the right to elect and draw up the electoral roll for specific elections. The main part of the Central Register of Voters would be created on the basis of data sent from the universal population registration system (PESEL) maintained by the Minister of Digital Affairs.
The municipality's obligations to enter and update the data contained in the Central Register of Voters would be limited only to strictly defined situations – applications for admission to the voting circuit in a place other than where the voter is permanently registered and information about the deprivation of the right to vote based on court decisions. This process is to be based on the use of ICT solutions. A wider scope of duties would be imposed on municipalities in connection with the registration of data of European Union citizens permanently residing in the municipality who are entitled to vote. The transfer and update of most of the data of these people will be the task of municipal and city mayors. According to the draft, the creation of electoral roll for specific elections will be the task of municipalities. However, the basis for their creation would be the Central Register of Voters.
According to the Government Plenipotentiary for Cyber Security, the announced changes are to make it easier for voters to cast their votes in the place where they will be staying on election day, because the new system will work more efficiently and will ensure that all applications will be considered and entered into the electoral roll within the required deadline. The government representative points out that keeping municipal registers caused an excessive burden on officials in the pre-election period, which meant that in some municipalities applications submitted on time were not considered and some voters could not vote in his place of residence. It is declared that the elimination of this risk is expected to positively influence voter turnout.
Due to the short time since the presentation of the project, it has not yet received an in-depth analysis. Some critics of the project points out that its purpose is primarily to provide the government with central control over the course of the election process after the experiences with the failure of the 2020 postal elections. There is concern that the data collected in the Central Register of Voters may be used to design the government's political strategy.
The findings presented above allow for the following conclusions to be drawn:
a) The existence of a decentralized voter registration system based on the responsibilities entrusted to municipalities was one of the reasons for the failure of full postal voting in the presidential elections during the Covid-19 pandemic.
b) The announced establishment of the Central Register of Voters will lead to an almost complete centralization of the voter registration system.
c) The draft act does not provide for the liquidation of electoral roll created by the municipality before specific elections, the release of which to the Polish Post was refused by municipal and city mayors. However, after the announced changes come into force, the Minister of Digital Affairs will be the holder of the voters' data.
d) The establishment of the Central Register of Voters may streamline the process of organizing elections and ensure that all voters' applications for inclusion in the register of voters outside their place of permanent residence will be considered within the required time. However, the amendment in question may also raise concerns about the indirect effects of centralizing the electoral process.
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.