Voter registration in Hungary

Viktor Orbán and his closest friends and political allies must be genuinely afraid that after four years, even with a new electoral law that clearly favors their party, Fidesz might lose the next election. If, however, the government makes prospective voters jump through a pre-election hoop, victory is more likely.

The idea of pre-registration already came up during the debates on the new electoral law in 2011. You may recall that it was János Áder, at the time EU parliamentary member, who was entrusted with the task of writing the law. It was Áder who first brought up the possibility of reviving the old Hungarian custom of voter registers. But it seems that in December 2011 the Fidesz leadership didn’t feel the need to reshape the voter pool by making it more difficult to vote. They felt that Fidesz’s lead was assured and that it was unlikely that the opposition would ever manage to mount a serious and concerted attack against the fortress Fidesz had built on what they considered to be very solid ground.

In the first few months of 2012, however, Fidesz losses as measured by the opinion polls were very serious, and so the idea of voter registration surfaced again. It was during a conference organized by Political Capital, a think tank, that Gergely Gulyás, undersecretary in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, said that the idea had already been discussed in the Ministry.

That is exactly the problem

Then on May 22 an article appeared in Népszabadság in which some unnamed Fidesz politicians talked quite openly about the need to introduce voter registration in order to choose “active and sober citizens who cast their votes on the basis of conscious considerations stemming from their concerns for the future of the nation” and to keep out “the uneducated, ill-mannered, stupid boors [vadbarmok] who are easily influenced by campaign slogans.” This kind of voting restriction was immediately labelled  “intellektuális cenzus.”

A brief explanation of what “cenzus” means in Hungarian is in order. Before the introduction of universal suffrage “cenzus” meant a register based on property qualifications. The system Fidesz wants to and most likely will introduce in effect puts constraints on universal suffrage, with the poor, the uneducated, and the politically undecided likely to be disenfranchised.

Fidesz-KDNP politicians keep telling critics of the planned registration that “several European countries” have the system. This is not true. In Europe there are only two countries, Great Britain and France, who have anything resembling registration. In the United Kingdom registration is necessary because the country, unlike Hungary, doesn’t have an accurate nationwide database that includes every eligible voter of the land. In France, the only prospective voters who have to register are those who turned eighteen after the last election and whose names hence don’t appear on the roll. Otherwise, voters have to register only when they move.

The country most often mentioned by Hungarians as an example is the United States. But again, the United States doesn’t have compulsory registration of domicile. And most states try to make registration as painless as possible.  For example, in several states (Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Wyoming) one can register in person on the day of the election. As you can see here, in most states one can register about 20-30 days before the elections.

The Hungarian system would be different. First of all, it will not be called “registration” (regisztráció) but “signing up” (feliratkozás). What is the difference? Some people pointed out that these two words are synonyms. Yes and no because, as Orbán explained last Friday in his weekly interview, “signing up” is a more active form of “registration.”  It seems that “signing up” is required for national elections, though not for municipal and by-elections. Is it required for every national election? Maybe, maybe not. For the time being what is critical is that it would be mandatory for the 2014 national elections, when Orbán seems vulnerable.

To be eligible to vote in the 2014 national elections, held in late spring, a person must sign up by  January 31. No last-minute decisions. Citizens who don’t register because they aren’t sure  in the winter whether they would vote in the spring would be disenfranchised. And those who find it onerous to sign up would also be ineligible to vote. Think of the villages where there is no registration office and the inhabitants have to travel to a designated town within one of the new administrative districts called “járás.” What about people who have no means of transportation? They would be disenfranchised for no good reason because surely a nationwide database of the voting age population will still be maintained.

With the introduction of its registration or signing up system Fidesz aims to get rid of those people who are not really interested in politics and those who are at a loss about whom they would vote for at the next elections. Let’s not forget that they currently make up more then 50% of the electorate. These are the people who will be least likely to register. And yet, based on past polls, the “undecided” voters were the ones who in fact decided the outcome of the elections both in 2002 and 2006. These “vadbarmok” were the ones who defeated Viktor Orbán. Given his lust for power, one can only imagine Orbán’s hatred of this crowd. He is hoping to filter these people out from the election process.

In addition to filtering out the undesirables, the uneducated, the poor, and the undecided there is surely another consideration: Fidesz voters are easier to motivate. The party has a large, enthusiastic group of party activists who in the last few elections diligently visited each household and took careful notes about their reception. These people can again be employed to make sure that Fidesz voters will sign up. One can argue that MSZP should learn a thing or two about modern campaigning, but at the moment MSZP and the other two small parties are in no position to compete with Fidesz when it comes to most likely ill-gotten party contributions.

Prior to 1919 only a very small percentage of male citizens of Hungary was able to vote: around 7% of the population. In 1919 a new election law was passed that gave the vote to all Hungarian adults without any restrictions. However, soon afterward Prime Minister István Bethlen and his fellow conservative politicians who didn’t trust the people, especially the unwashed masses, kept restricting voting rights on the basis of educational attainment and also by making a distinction between men and women by age.

Today’s Hungary can’t be so obviously discriminatory. The CEO of a major company has exactly the same say in a national election as an illiterate Roma. Some on the far right might argue that this isn’t fair, that only the “right” people should be allowed to vote. Fidesz doesn’t make this noxious intellectual argument. It just contemplates structuring its election laws to tip the balance solidly in favor of the “right” people–those who will vote it back into office.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Guest
Minusio
July 30, 2012 7:48 pm

If there is an election at all in 2014! I could imagine a scenario where Orbán says, now the international financial scene and our domestic problems are too big and everything needs the total focus of the government because we are in a state of emergency. So, at the moment we just don’t have the time to deal with elections. Sorry, folks!

Member
July 30, 2012 8:55 pm

They know that at least half of their voters are now in the undecided camp, silently banging their heads into the wall. This trick with the registration is clearly aimed to get rid of some of the undecided crowd. Sooner the better, because the country is sliding downwards constantly. This signing-up voodoo is all about statistics.

A very strong campaign is needed to get the people out to register. Also the opposition has to keep an eye on how the government organizes the registration. 9-5, only on workdays just doesn’t cut it. It has to be 8-8, Saturdays included.

One more thing: the statistical data, broken down by districts, should be available to the public.

Guest
Pete H.
July 30, 2012 9:47 pm

1) Can clarify something please. From what you wrote it sounds like the proposed voter feliratkozás can only be carried out by government employees in a designated place. Unlike in the US where independent organizations can organize voter registration drives.

2) Any chance that the IMF talks could make this an issue?

Guest
peter litvanyi
July 30, 2012 10:54 pm

Good article. Thanks, Eva.

Guest
gdfxx
July 31, 2012 12:19 am

Another Hungarian absurdity in the making. Isn’t there anything in the constitution that could make it contestable in the constitutional court?

I am also flabbergasted by the fact that some – some? apparently many – people would not register because they are not sure if they would vote or not. What do they have to lose if they register? By the way, can registration be done by mail?

Guest
Bowen
July 31, 2012 2:55 am

Pete H. :
1) Can clarify something please. From what you wrote it sounds like the proposed voter feliratkozás can only be carried out by government employees in a designated place. Unlike in the US where independent organizations can organize voter registration drives.

Well quite. It’s obviously an issue if you’ve got to travel some distance (in the middle of a Hungarian winter) and queue up somewhere to register. Unlike in the UK where you send off your position on the electoral role in the post (and face a fine if your household doesn’t); or in the US where you can do it online.

Guest
July 31, 2012 6:59 am

Professsor you wrote ** “In the United Kingdom registration is necessary because the country, unlike Hungary, doesn’t have an accurate nationwide database that includes every eligible voter of the land.” * *. This is not really true there is a complete database of all persons (that is over the age of 16) who are registered for National Insurance. This register can only be used for the purposes for which Parliament originally intended it which is the collection of National Insurance contributions, the payment of state benefits and pensions. The information it contains can be accessed under very limited circumstances by the Inland Revenue. Even the police are not allowed to obtain this information for their (CRO) records. The Electoral Register is something far older dating back to medieval times. Every person entitled to vote that is persons over the age of 18 years on polling day and are not excluded by various reasons (certified lunatics, persons serving time in jail etc) must be registered to vote by the ‘householder’ annually on penalty of £1,250 for failure to do so plus £1,500 and 6 months for ‘Contempt of Court’. The registration is usually done by post, although I understand that it… Read more »

Guest
Mark
July 31, 2012 7:18 am

Any chance you’ll be able to register online? :-)

Member
Some1
July 31, 2012 7:39 am

I think the whole idea is that employees from the “independent voting office” (it’s head probably one of Orban’s soccer buddy or previous babysitter) will go with a list they already compiled about individual voting preferences (I do not believe that all the National survey that contained identifying bar codes were for nothing) and make sure that Fidesz supporters are on the list. If any of them do not show up, they will be considered as rebells and be thrown to jail likely. I am not exaggerating, please read the interviews with Orban when he clearly stated that they are putting together a list of voters party preferences or something among those lines.
Orban is

Guest
Csaba K. Zoltani
July 31, 2012 8:50 am

The requirement to register to be able to vote is widely practiced in the U.S. It is not felt that this potentially deprives anybody of their ability to vote.

Guest
An
July 31, 2012 9:01 am

Csaba K. Zoltani :
The requirement to register to be able to vote is widely practiced in the U.S. It is not felt that this potentially deprives anybody of their ability to vote.

In the US you only have to do it once, not before every election. You only have to register again, if you move. Unlike Hungary, the US does not have a central database of everybody’s residence, that’s why people need to register to vote where they live. Once they registered, and don’t move, they are good to go… at every election. Registration is not used as the declaration of planning to vote and is not designed to use to keep undecided voters away.

Member
July 31, 2012 9:12 am

An : Csaba K. Zoltani : The requirement to register to be able to vote is widely practiced in the U.S. It is not felt that this potentially deprives anybody of their ability to vote. In the US you only have to do it once, not before every election. You only have to register again, if you move. Unlike Hungary, the US does not have a central database of everybody’s residence, that’s why people need to register to vote where they live. Once they registered, and don’t move, they are good to go… at every election. Registration is not used as the declaration of planning to vote and is not designed to use to keep undecided voters away. Exactly. Plus you register when you become 18. Another important thing is proving you citizenship. I’m not sure where the database is but at the booth there are always a bunch of “church ladies” who cross your name out on a big sheet of paper (!) after you show some kind of “bumashka” (like drivers license). What only matters is the address and the citizenship. There’s that joke about the lawyers. “How do you know they are lying? – Their lips are… Read more »

Guest
July 31, 2012 9:59 am

Dr Balogh: “Prior to 1919 only a very small percentage of male citizens of Hungary was able to vote: around 7% of the population. In 1919 a new election law was passed that gave the vote to all Hungarian adults without any restrictions”

In that “terrible” country (you all know that is Hungary) in 1840 one in 14 had the right to vote, at the same time ratio in the advanced western countries was: Austria 1/353, Bohemia 1/828, England 1/24 (and this after the 1832 Reform Bill) and of course the USA was better than others at 1/8

Guest
enufff
July 31, 2012 10:04 am

Back home, we have mobile booths set up . so, you could reg. in shopping malls or in rural areas, whichever that is easiest for you.

surely, in a EU country, like HU, people should at least be able to do it in their town hall. The way the govt. cooked up this scheme disgusts me.

Guest
July 31, 2012 10:16 am

Odin, etc.: “Jurymen are conscripted (or press ganged) on the basis of the Electoral Register. By tradition (and to stop fraud) those so chosen are ‘pricked’ for Jury Service on the Master Register (a hole is punched by their name). Those ‘pricked’ for jury service have a ‘dagger’ mark printed by their name on the registers which are freely available for public inspection and will remain eligible for this duty until they reach a certain age, die or are summoned for Jury Duty. Pick the bones out of that one Kovach!. The article which appeared on May 22 in Népszabadság as quoted by our good hostess is a clear contravention of the European Rules of democracy etc. Again pick the bones out of that one Kovach!. The first one is easy, it is the same in the US, potential jurors are picked from the voters rolls. Except it is not a lifetime pick,(sorry “prick”) but only for a court session or a year. In Many US states one also has to re-register if did not vote in three consequitve general elections. I take issue with the second part. It is not my experience that the Fidesz announces its intentions in… Read more »

Guest
An
July 31, 2012 10:28 am

Louis Kovach, sure, let’s wait for the formal proposal. We’ll have plenty of time to take it apart then… all that two days while they run it through the Parliament.

Guest
Pete H.
July 31, 2012 11:17 am

Csaba K. Zoltani :
The requirement to register to be able to vote is widely practiced in the U.S. It is not felt that this potentially deprives anybody of their ability to vote.

Actually in the US in some states parts of this system are considered an unreasonable constraint. For instance in Massachusetts there are efforts to move to a same day voter registration. Currently you must register no later than 20 days in advance.

However every effort is made to make access to registration easy. You can mail it in, do it when you renew or first get a driving license. There are many locations where can walk in and register and non-govermnetal organizations can organize voter registration drives. So for instance, groups can visit seniors homes and register them there.

Guest
July 31, 2012 11:32 am

I see Mr Kovach you did not understand ‘Pricking for Jury service’. You have to have a similar mixture of age and sex as there is in the local population. You have to have enough jurors to run the courts for two to three years. When you are summoned and are empanelled at least twice your service is generally over and you will be unpicked on the next register. You can be ‘pricked’ again at some future date but that is very unlikely unless you were ‘pricked’ young or a Judge decides that the case you tried was harrowing or very long in which case the judge may excuse you from any further service. New electoral registers are printed only once per year and contain all those who are or will be over 18 years of age before the next register is issued. As to your remarks in Nepszabadsag, I will leave it to our good hostess to comment on that source. If however any part of her report is true and I have read similar comments elsewhere which imply similar ideas. If they prove to be even partially correct then the authorities are depriving some folks of their rights… Read more »

Member
July 31, 2012 11:35 am

Some even suggested to make the voting mandatory after registering. I guess this would mean fines. I sincerely hope this idea will not make into the law.

In every free country voting is encouraged as the most important civic responsibility. Not on Planet Hungary! Another unorthodox idea from the little middle European geniuses. Let’s discourage voting.

And then, like in a Greek drama, the Fidesz chorus (Zoltani) goes: “To learn your wonderful ideas would not displease me much … would leave me speechless, oh.”

Guest
July 31, 2012 12:55 pm

Sorry Mutt Voting is compulsory in the land of ‘Oz’ (Australia). The penalty for failing to vote is $A20.

Member
July 31, 2012 1:02 pm

Crikey, mate! I still think it is a very stupid idea. Because in the land of the Goulash this coupled with an optional pre-registration will discourage people.

Guest
July 31, 2012 1:27 pm

Sorry Mutt it is worse than that. There are 9 other countries including Luxemburg (under special conditions). The object is to get people to vote.

Guest
July 31, 2012 1:44 pm

London Calling! England is NOT a good example of how to administer the voting process. All too often there are opportunities to commit fraud – and many in England believe the occurrences are widespread – but on a small scale. That is, many incidents involving a small number of votes by over-zealous party members – many stealing postal voting papers from blocks of flats’ entrance halls – or filling in, fraudulently, postal voting requests. A judge commented on one such case that England’s voting system was worthy of a banana republic. I have a postal vote simply because my usual voting station was opposite my house at the local school – until they moved MY station to a school three quarters of a mile away. Ludicrous. Many of us in England believe the answer is registering and voting via the internet – as we do in local elections. Orban would probably manipulate this fraudulently – but it is the answer to universal suffrage. They manage very well in the European Parliament – which, btw, I believe is very efficient and not over-bureaucratic. But our parliament is so archaic that they won’t even use technology properly – If an MP wishes… Read more »

Member
July 31, 2012 1:47 pm

Odin’s Lost eye : Sorry Mutt it is worse than that. There are 9 other countries including Luxemburg (under special conditions). The object is to get people to vote. Well, 20 bucks will not break the bank, so I seriously doubt that this fine gets out the Ozzies to vote. Mandatory, 100% voting can go either way. In 2010 in Hungary many thought the FIDESZ will win anyway, why bother. And this was true I believe in case of both pro and anti FIDESZ voters. This is speculation of course but I would think if these people would have voted then Orban may have ended up with more than 53%. Well, nobody realized how important the numbers were. Now the voters learned the lesson. That’s why Orban is pushing this law to keep at least some of these undecided voters home. And again to the FIDESZ chorus: of course there is nothing wrong with registration. You do it once and you prove your eligibility and residence. Done. The rest is technicality. This is the case in the US. The authorities need some time to prepare the lists and verify if needed the registration data. That’s what the few weeks are… Read more »

Guest
July 31, 2012 2:10 pm

London Calling! (2)

O/T I know we had a debate on the best smoked Hungarian sausage and salamis but it looks as if Gyulai Húskombinát will go bust – the largest taxpayer in South-East Hungary.

http://www.xpatloop.com/news/hungarys_oldest_meat_processor_awaits_lifeline_from_state

I know one of Eva’s blogs expounded on a sausage factory being too closely associated with a Fidesz MP – is this a corollary?

Regards

Charlie

Guest
July 31, 2012 2:46 pm

Dr Balogh: “On the link I gave in the post on voter’s registration you can register right on the spot online.”

However, in most states, if you register on voting day, you can only cast a “provisional” ballot, which becomes valid only after the appropriate legal address is verified.

wpDiscuz