E-elections would enfranchise disabled and expat Turks

TALLINN — While listening to what Mr. Priit Vinkel, an advisor from the department of elections of the Estonian parliament, the Riigikogu, was telling me about the success of e-elections in Estonia, I thought this could be the perfect solution for our millions of disenfranchised voters at home and abroad. Wishful thinking? Not really.

It is impressive that 15 percent of voters turned to the Internet to cast their ballots in a country of 1.4 million people. The results in the last four elections were pretty conclusive: The Internet was able to pull voters who would most likely shy away from exercising their democratic rights anyway. So in fact voting over the Internet further solidified democracy in Estonia by engaging more voters in the election process.

What is even more impressive is that Estonians living abroad voted from 82 countries, making up almost 3 percent of all votes cast online. People using secure digital ID cards were able to vote not only in national and European Parliament elections but also in local elections as well.

The results show that the votes are fairly evenly distributed among all parties and across all age groups. Though the possibility of e-elections at first created an uproar among some party officials who thought it would work in favor of their rivals, these concerns quickly disappeared from the national debate.

Although it may prove more difficult to extrapolate the Estonian experience to a large country such as Turkey, with its population of 72 million who still use paper ID cards and are not as concerned about a broadband connection as the Estonians, there might still be a need to resort to an e-election on a case-by-case basis.

Take for example Turks with disabilities. In last year’s local elections, 4 million of the 8.5 million disabled citizens eligible to vote were not able to do so because the polling booths were inaccessible. Advocacy groups for the disabled were furious that one of their basic rights — the right to vote — was curtailed and that they were completely ignored.

This constitutionally guaranteed inalienable right in a democratic system was violated. Though the Supreme Election Board (YSK) had decided that the ballot box was to be carried to the entry-level floor for disabled citizens, this was seldom the case. While no special accommodations were made at polling booths for these people, to add insult to injury, the YSK last year sent letters to 300,000 disabled individuals to tell them not to vote because no such accommodations were made.

An e-election may also be used to involve voters working and living abroad. Currently, no Turkish citizen can cast a ballot either in local or general elections if s/he is residing abroad on election day.

If a law is adopted to allow Turks living abroad to cast a ballot, half of the approximately 5 million Turkish citizens living in European countries will be eligible to vote, making Europe the fourth largest electoral region after İstanbul, which has 7.5 million voters and 70 deputies; Ankara, with its 2.9 million voters and 29 deputies; and İzmir, which has 2.5 million voters and 24 deputies.

The Constitution was amended in 1995 to allow Turkish citizens in foreign countries to cast their votes, but they remained unable to exercise this right because a relevant law was not drafted to accompany the amendment. Amid stiff opposition, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government passed a piece of legislation on March 13, 2008 in Parliament to allow Turkish citizens living abroad to vote by mail, e-mail and at the ballot box in elections. Together with the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the YSK was to decide which method of voting should be used, depending on the country in which Turks live.

However, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) took the legislation to the Constitutional Court, which ruled on May 30, 2008 that Turks living abroad cannot use absentee voting to cast their ballots. The government then began drafting a new bill envisioning another constitutional amendment.

In the new bill, the government offers to open temporary election offices in such countries as Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark and Austria, where many Turks live.

An e-election can also ease concerns on the part of Germany, where about 1 million Turkish citizens eligible to vote reside. Germany, while permitting Croatian citizens to vote in Croatian elections, opposes the idea of Turkish citizens voting in Turkish elections, citing security concerns.

The Turkish government has for this reason offered to set up temporary election offices for a month to prevent congestion and related security concerns. Though German officials seem to be warm to this idea, I am sure they would welcome an e-election even more as there is no need to line up in front of any polling station to vote.

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