Lower House Speaker: Czechia Should Have E-voting

Photo: Wokandapix,Pixabay

Should Czechs abroad have the possibility to vote electronically? One of the politicians in favour of making this possible is lower house speaker Radek Vondráček from the ruling ANO party. He has observed elections in Estonia, which makes so-called “e-voting” possible, as well as the counting of the postal votes in California in the United States. And as he told Vít Pohanka, he considers some sort of electronic distance voting more feasible than introducing a postal vote.

Radek Vondráček,  photo: Sejm RP,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0

Czechs living abroad have been actively lobbying for the possibility to vote by mail. Czech consulates in countries like Australia, the United States, or Canada are far apart. So, in many cases, Czech ex-pats have to undertake a two-day trip by air and pay for a hotel to make it to the polls. However, when it comes to proposing a law that would make distance voting possible, Radek Vondráček is cautious:

"I went to Estonia to see how their electronic voting works. I also went to San Diego in California and saw how the postal votes are counted in their local election center. Both of these systems have gaps and deficiencies. In Estonia, for example, my Czech parliamentary colleague and I found three different ways how to trick the system. In short, we Czechs are a very creative nation in this respect, and I am afraid that can cause problems. It is true that the Estonians really trust electronic voting and they are developing it. It should be noted, however, that they are a smaller nation. Their officials themselves admitted that if you provide someone with a digital signature and a code, it can happen that another person might vote for you.

"I gave them an example: if my assistant knows my digital signature, I may be, say, in Italy, but she can still send my vote from my hometown in Kroměříž and it will be valid. Even if I instruct her to do so, I might change my mind and I will not be able to do anything about it. The vote will be valid. We are talking about the possibility of a “proxy vote”, and that is something we refused quite recently when we were debating the organization of the Czech regional elections during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe it is essential that the vote is cast by the person eligible to vote."

Photo: Chris Phan,  CC BY-SA 3.0
When it comes to a postal vote, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies is even more skeptical:

"Postal voting in the United States has been at the forefront of media attention. I was invited by the United States government to see how it works and I have to say that I was truly consternated. It is full of holes and we Czechs would never accept it. We have very solid legislation concerning voting and supervision over elections. Their system is based on visual checks of signatures and at times, it resembles a poll rather than an election. I do not think it would be acceptable for us Czechs. I suppose there are ways to organize postal voting in such a way that a secret ballot would still be possible and at the same time  supervision was more solid and there was a direct connection between the voter and election committee. However, I think it would mean kind of stepping aside without really moving ahead.

"I am a fan of science-fiction and I believe that technology will make reliable electronic voting possible. We are already very close to it. We have fingerprint readers in our phones, you can pay with them, use them in a bank. For example, if I use Apple Pay and I confirm the payment with my fingerprint I cannot let even my daughter use it instead of me. So, I am sure protection against abuse can be ensured.

Photo: Matěj Skalický,  ČRo

"That is something that worries many of my colleagues in  Parliament, no matter whether they are conservative or liberal, it cuts across the political specter. Just to give you an example: when we debated how to elect the leadership of our parliamentary committees and other institutions, electronic voting was considered a problem. In the end, we elected them in the old fashioned, traditional way. Somebody has to count the votes, and somebody has to supervise the system. Anonymity and secret ballot have to be ensured and that is not easy. All these are challenges, but I believe they can be overcome. Once we establish a trustworthy system of electronic voting in the Czech Republic, all citizens will be able to cast their votes and it will not matter where they are voting from. Expats will be able to vote abroad and will face no limitations. That is why I favour this way and that is why I am not for a postal vote. My reasons are rather technical."

Czechs are due to vote in general elections next year. Radek Vondráček says it is highly unlikely that the law would be amended to allow an electronic vote before then.

"It is totally unrealistic due to the number of legislative proposals we have in our Chamber. We had seven plenary sessions last week, next week we have two more sessions, and we are debating extending the state of emergency. Just to organize our program is becoming a sort of crisis management. It will not change till the next elections. It would be unrealistic to expect that you can prepare and debate and approve such an important change before the end of our term in office. So, it definitely will not be approved for the elections in 2021. Then there will be 4 years to change the election law. We will probably not have the postal or electronic vote option for the presidential elections in 2023, but I believe it will be possible in the following elections."

Petr Just,  photo: archive of Charles University

Petr Just is a political scientist at the Metropolitan University of Prague. He points out that the Czech Republic is one of the very few countries in the European Union that does not make some sort of distance voting possible. There seems to be a lack of political will, no matter which party is in power:

“The Czech Republic has not given much thought to this issue in previous few years. There were some initiatives in this respect some twenty years ago, but they all failed to win approval in the Chamber of Deputies. It seems that Czech legislators are quite conservative in their point of view and so is the Czech society in general. Just to make voting possible at Czech embassies and consulates around the world took a long time. So perhaps it is no surprise that there is not enough support to amend the election law and make distance voting possible.”

Petr Just agrees that it would be unrealistic to expect any legislative changes in this respect for the elections in 2021. But that does not mean, that the question of electronic or postal voting should be ignored, as it has been so far. As Radek Vondráček suggests, serious discussions should start in the new parliament after 2021. So hopefully, there will be some changes to the Czech electoral system that will make casting votes by other than traditional means possible in the 2025 elections.