As the deadline loomed for Bulgarians abroad to apply to register to vote in the country’s November 2016 presidential elections and national referendum, controversy erupted as a result of the law enacted this year limiting the number of polling stations in a foreign country.
The deadline for submitting applications online to the Central Election Commission (CEC) to vote abroad is midnight on October 11.
A day before the deadline, just more than 25 000 applications had been submitted. The most was in the UK, 5500, with Turkey in second place – 5400 – and Germany third, 2700.
On the basis of applications sent online to the CEC and in writing at diplomatic missions abroad, the Commission will decide where polling stations will be opened.
According to amendments in the latest of a succession of versions of Bulgaria’s electoral law, which has been rewritten a few times in recent years, at least 60 applications are required for a polling station to be opened.
At the same time, the law says that in a foreign country, no more than 35 polling stations may be opened.
This caused a problem created by this limitation to kick in. What happens if the number of applications leads to the number of stations that could be opened exceeds the limit set by law?
The unintended consequence is the result of the limitation that was approved by the ruling majority at the insistence of minority coalition partner the nationalist Patriotic Front, which intended it as a means to curtail the significance of the votes of Bulgarian passport-holders in Turkey, stronghold of the PF’s bete noire, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.
But, as noted, the largest number of applications to vote has been submitted not in Turkey but in the UK.
Representatives of the Bulgarian diaspora in London told Bulgarian media that they had gathered sufficient signatures to justify opening 39 voting stations.
But four would have to be given up. Somehow, the CEC would have to decide which four polling stations were less important than others, even though the criteria set in the law for the opening of a polling station do not vary, and the law is silent on what to do about such a problem.
Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry said that the problem, which – a spokesperson told Bulgarian-language website Mediapool – had been expected, was one for the CEC.
With the CEC not yet having any official comment on the matter, Mediapool said that sources at the commission indicated that it had no idea how to decide which polling stations should open and which not.
One idea was to compare the number of applications, so that if in one case there were 80 signatures and in another 62, the former would get a polling station. Practically, however, this may not be a solution because in many cases in the past, Bulgarian expatriates delivered precisely the number of signatures required by law to open a polling station – no more, no fewer.
Another theory was to open polling stations on the basis of a comparison of voter turnout in recent elections, and omit to open a polling station where it was the lowest. Possibly, the number of polling stations in London could be reduced, an option that irks Bulgarian expatriates because it is in the British capital that most live and work.
In Bulgaria’s October 2014 parliamentary elections, a total of 13 855 Bulgarians voted in the UK, 8347 in London.
The CEC, bound by law, may open only 35 polling stations – meaning that in some cases, people may have to travel long distances in the UK to vote.
The draft versions of the Electoral Act were the subject of repeated controversy, as Bulgarians abroad repeatedly complained that the succession of limitations – the current version is not as radical as the first attempts by the nationalists to curtail the vote in Turkey – effectively severely damaged or deprived them of their constitutional right to the franchise.