Bulgaria’s 2023 mayoral elections: Voting machines being readied for run-off

Barring any new developments, it appears that voting machines will be used at close to 6000 polling stations in Bulgaria in the November 5 mayoral elections run-offs – in contrast to the October 29 first round, when the Central Election Commission (CEC) controversially banned them.

An October 30 ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court opened the way for the use of voting machines. Bulgarian election law says that voters should have a choice between voting machines and paper ballots.

On November 2, the Ministry of Electronic Governance, the Bulgarian Institute of Metrology and the Bulgarian Institute for Standardisation completed the process of certification of the machines, reporting this to the CEC.

In a message on November 2, Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov said that the certification of the machines was “a key step to guarantee fair and correct reporting of the election results”.

“This is extremely important so that we do not repeat the unfortunate result of half a million invalid ballots in the first round,” Denkov said.

On November 3, Ivan Todorov of Ciela, the company responsible for the delivery and maintenance of the voting machines, warned of problems because the CEC had ordered paper for the machines which was the wrong size.

Todorov said that the machines work with rolls of paper 12mm in diameter, but the CEC had ordered from Bulgarian National Bank’s printing house “not 12mm, not 17mm – which is the maximum – but 25.5mm”.

He said that this also had happened in Bulgaria’s early parliamentary elections in April 2023 “we said that it can’t and it shouldn’t, it damages the machines, and in these elections again, even though they had plenty of time, they ordered 25.5mm again”.

Todorov alleged that the CEC leadership was conducting a policy against machine voting.

In October 2022, only two machines malfunctioned because of printing problems. In April 2023, the number was 67.

“This is state property worth many millions. And it gets damaged through these non-standard rolls,” Todorov said.

He said that this non-standard paper is also thicker than it should be, and the number of damaged machines will grow exponentially.

“It’s like putting diesel in a petrol car,” he said.

The CEC decision against the use of voting machines was met with large-scale outrage in Bulgaria last weekend, among those who demanded their statutory right to use a voting machine and who feared that the sole use of paper ballots opened the way for abuses. Advocates for machine voting said that the machines simply act as printers and the integrity of the process was not in question.

The October 29 vote, in which only paper ballots were used, has been followed by several reports of illicit behaviour by election officials in various places, including officials filling in ballot papers and altering the record. Some of these reports were based on video monitoring of the ballot-processing stage. This video monitoring is mandated by Bulgarian election law.

The Prosecutor’s Office said on November 3 that it had brought charges against a member of the sectional election commission in Vidin, who on October 29 had allowed the same person to vote several times.

The statement said that pre-trial proceedings had been initiated in connection with the assault of a member of the sectional election commission in Vidin. The official had witnessed irregularities on October 29, how people voted several times and a member of the sectional commission accepted the ballots.

The official took out his phone to video them, after which he was threatened and attacked by several people who punched him in the head, face and body.

On November 1, the District Prosecutor’s Office in Vratsa laid charges against the head and a member of a sectional election commission for illegally revising the results of elections of mayors and municipal councillors.

Bulgarian National Television reported on November 3 that two court actions had been lodged in the Blagoevgrad Administrative Court for the annulment of the municipal council elections on the basis of reported flaws in 75 per cent of the tally sheets.

A total of six parties and coalitions in Petrich have lodged an application in the Blagoevgrad Administrative Court to annul the municipal council elections in Petrich because of alleged incorrect counting of votes and preferential votes.

“It turns out that video surveillance is rife with egregious violations as long as there is someone to watch the hours of footage,” Bulgarian National Television said.

In the November 5 run-off elections, 91 municipal mayors, 31 borough mayors and 451 mayoralty mayors are being elected.

The official campaign period ahead of Sunday’s vote ends at midnight on November 3.

Polling stations are to open at 7am on November 5 and close at 8pm, though the law allows an extension at a polling station until 9pm if there is a queue to vote. The CEC said that exit polls may be released only after 8pm.

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