Electoral innovation – an opportunity for the democratization of democracy

As citizens’ trust in politics and political processes is diminishing on a daily basis and uncertainty is increasing unlike the available space for public debate, democracy is once again in question. One may ask if we live in a democracy at all. But, should we give up or invest our energy into its preservation and improvement as an ongoing task of all citizens, and not the one we undertake once every four years in elections tritely referred to as the “festival of democracy”? The answers to these and many other questions were sought during the “Election Innovations Conference” – a two-day international conference organized at the National and University Library in Zagreb by GONG.

“Participation, equal approach to decision-making and deliberation are the basic principles of democracy which has once again become questionable in the times of severe economic crisis and will therefore have to be preserved and improved. GONG believes that the crisis has to be overcome and advocates the democratization of democracy,” said Berto Šalaj, Head of GONG’s Council and a professor at the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb.

“Free and transparent elections are an important factor of democracy and each electoral system needs to be constantly upgraded in order for it to serve its main purpose. Voters are becoming increasingly demanding and require greater participation, and political elites have to be ready to respond to this challenge that has been put in the spotlight by many new media,” said UK Ambassador David Slinn, adding that as a passionate user of social media he “believes they play an important role and can both increase and improve participation, especially when it comes to young people”.

Heading towards changes – but what kind of changes and when?

As regards participation in elections, there have indeed been various participants in Croatia so far, many of whom have frequently defied the laws of physics, as well as the laws of life and death. Minister of Public Administration Arsen Bauk of SDP is convinced that the dead will no longer rise from their graves to cast votes, as he hopes that this issue will be resolved by the next parliamentary elections through the process of regulating the list of voters that has been initiated owing to the new Act on Residence and the new Register of Electors Act. Having witnessed and participated in various types of elections in Croatia, Bauk commented on possible changes in this area, such as those concerning the ‘arrangement’ of electoral committees, which could be introduced as early as this year, for the upcoming presidential election. He added that a discussion concerning direct election of mayors could take place after the forthcoming local elections.

The preferential voting system used in the elections for the European Parliament might be used in city and municipal council elections, Bauk said, adding that the discussion involving various issues related to the parliamentary elections should also be continued, as well that better technical possibilities regarding the voting rights of ethnic minorities should be realized. Commenting on the constituencies, he said that the question concerning their size and boundaries was a legitimate one; however, he didn’t announce any radical changes. Having stated that he considered the proportional system the best one, he concluded: “Each vote needs to have an equal value. There will be some minor corrections that will stir much interest, and after the elections there will be certain changes in the rules for their monitoring”.

However, his party colleague Peđa Grbin, Head of the Parliamentary Committee for Constitution, Rules of Procedure and Political System and the representative of the Parliament Speaker who is the sponsor of the Conference, considers the mixed electoral system to be the best one. Grbin pointed out that differences were completely legitimate, but they had to be presented in public discussions. In his opinion, “direct communication with voters for which politicians have to be prepared” is very important. He disagrees with the attitude that democracy has lately been in question; according to him, it has always been questionable. “As has already been said – no better system than democracy has been invented yet, but this does not mean that we cannot question it; and we should not just question it once in four years at the time of elections, but in-between, as well.”

Democratic insolvency – citizens as objects

“One of basic problems of modern democracy is its lack of solvency, i.e. capacity to signalize a social intent,” Mr. Smari McCarthy, Executive Director of the International Modern Media Institute and co-founder of the Constitutional Analysis Support Team (CAST) project pointed out in his presentation. He warned of the “institutionalization of democracy”, wondering what the institutions were and reminding us that there was no society without individuals. Amy O’Donnell of FrontlineSMS – an organization that, among other things, explores potentials of mobile technology that could be used for strengthening the voice of the citizens, protecting democratic voting and ensuring compliance with the transparency requirements, delivered a presentation on the ways to facilitate the participation of citizens. O’Donnell pointed out that “it is important to remember that it is precisely the citizens that are in the centre of the process, while technology is here to facilitate their participation”.

In addition, Grbin pointed out during the discussion that he did not consider direct democracy to be a better model because it could not be a substitution, and that one should be careful when taking examples of democracies in theory. However, he emphasized that direct democracy should be strengthened at the local level. Admittedly, we have not had much experience in this area, and the most recent examples, such as the citizens’ initiative in Dubrovnik regarding the referendum for the Srđ project, do not inspire too much confidence since the politicians believe that the reins of power should remain in their hands, although they will frequently claim to the contrary.

Direct democracy is (not) a burning desire

Bauk reiterated that the required number of signatures for the referendum, although high, was not unattainable. He added that a list of topics that should not be the subject of a referendum vote needed to be drawn up. “I am sorry that Croatia is that reserved with regards to direct democracy,” repeatedly stated Robert Podolnjak, a professor at the Faculty of Law in Zagreb, who believes that time periods for collecting signatures should be extended.

Hrvoje Jurić, an activist and assistant professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, expressed strong criticism, stating that the “system we live in is not at all democracy in its original sense, but a parody of democracy, pseudo democracy, democratic anti-democracy, which cannot be remedied”. ”Direct democracy cannot be realized with the help of gadgets, either technological or those offered by the politics. It emphasizes the role of community without intermediaries and that is a new, bottom-up geometry. It is not a burning desire or a utopia; it is possible here and now – all we need to do is offer new forms, revitalize the community and strengthen solidarity”.

Laying all cards on the table

Many countries throughout the world have large or influential emigrant communities that want to be included in the electoral process of the home country and majority of them has considered or used the possibility of the so-called out-of-country vote in order to increase the participation of citizens in the electoral process. This was the topic of the presentation given by Tihana Bartulec Blanc, a specialist in the area of elections in post-conflict and transition countries who is currently heading an electoral administration and rights project organized by the Creative Associates International in Washington.

In addition to the issue of emigrant voting, the topic of ethnic minority voting has been largely discussed in Croatia, as well. Milorad Pupovac, a member of the Parliamentary Committee for Constitution, Rules of Procedure and Political System and an MP of the Serb minority, said that the voting of ethnic minorities was neither an advantage nor a disadvantage, but rather a necessity that occurred as a result of the past events and divisions within the society. “In the Parliament, we see it as a means of overcoming such divisions, but the way of realizing the rights needs to be changed in order for us to avoid violations of secrecy and privacy of participation”.

Dean of the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb, Nenad Zakošek, also agreed that certain changes were necessary. He raised the question of whether there were justified reasons for emigrants to vote at all, given the fact that they thus participate in making decisions about the life of the community they do not live in. Duje Prkut, a researcher at GONG, concluded that even if we reached the final conclusion that the current state should be maintained, it is necessary to question all solutions for the sake of providing clear arguments.

The cornerstone of trust – is there any room for technology here?

As already mentioned, Croatia needs the list of voters for the 21st century and the electoral administration shares the responsibility for their updating with citizens/voters and political parties. In this context, Daniel A. Smith of the Department of Political Science at Florida State University spoke within his presentation about the attacks on voting rights through legal mechanisms and practice in the 2012 U.S. elections. The registration of voters requires precision and good practice, added Nicolai Vulchanov, who was, among other functions, for many years a member of the Central Electoral Commission of Bulgaria and the Census Division: “Equal and universal voting rights are key for the democratic electoral process, while the compilation of correct and inclusive registers/lists of voters is the cornerstone for building and maintaining the public trust”.

The process in which citizens are required to prove their identity, age and citizenship varies from one country to another, while the identification of voters in the process of registration and at the polling stations is necessary to prevent frauds. However, it is also important to understand that too strict a procedure for the identification of voters might lead to their revolt. This is one of the challenges of inclusive democracy that must be talked about, said Tova Wang, an expert in electoral reforms and political participation in the U.S.A. Wang’s presentation dealt largely with biometric technology. As emphasized by Ian Schuler, a leading innovator in the area of application of technology for improving democracy and human rights, “technology, although important, is not omnipotent and this should never be forgotten”. Schuler said that technology was not flawless either and that there was also, as always, the issue of trust.

The fact that technology is not without flaws, despite its usefulness, was also pointed out by Tomislav Medak of the Multimedia Institute MAMA, who said that the emphasis should be put on including as many people as possible: “Technology ensures greater participation in the sense of providing an opportunity for everyone to speak in public, but what we need is a filter”. In the view of Dragan Zelić, Executive Director of GONG, a precondition for this are “informed and educated citizens”. His views were echoed by Alen Delić, an expert in information security, who said that while it was evident that the use of technology in the electoral process required special considerations, he was not completely sure if everyone should vote about everything or it would perhaps be better if certain things were left to experts and politicians?