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.

41 comments

  1. Louis Kovach :

    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.

    You don’t speak to the issue here. I’m talking about online registration and not about registration on the day of the election.

    View Comment
  2. Dr Balogh :I’m talking about online registration and not about registration on the day of the election.”

    Correction, if you register on-line the address needs to be verified before registration becomes valid, and if you register on voting day you can only cast provisional ballot, regardless of registration method.

    View Comment
  3. Eva: “On the link I gave in the post on voter’s registration you can register right on the spot online.”

    In Oregon on can register on-line or by mail but proof of citizenship need to be shown in person to enable one to vote in federal elections.

    View Comment
  4. In the UK you CAN register online – I have done so for several years. If no details have changed you just click the appropriate box and that’s it.

    Not that I’m in favour of voter registration, in theory all you should need to vote is proof of citizenship/age. But of course, in the UK, where our first-past-the-post ‘democracy’ means where you live is critical, voter registration is unfortunately necessary.

    One weird aspect of voting in the UK is that you don’t have to prove who you are when you vote! You just give your name and address, they check it on a list of registered voters, and give you the ballot paper. You could, in theory, pick any name and address you happen to know in your poling area and vote as them. If you were sure you weren’t going to be recognised (the polling staff work shifts), you could even do this several times as different people.

    Having said that, and contrary to Charlie H’s earlier post, my experience in the UK is that the vast majority of people believe the system to be fair and to work well. And in fact there are very, very few cases of results being called into doubt because of alleged fraud, even where the result has depended on just a few votes.

    The only real weakness in the system is postal voting, which has gone from a very minor exception to being touted by the politicians as the future way to vote (presumably because they think more people are likely to vote). The suspected abuse (although only low level) of postal voting and people’s distrust of the system means that any possibility of on-line voting in the UK is dependent on people being really convinced of the security of the system. And in a country that doesn’t have ID cards, that isn’t going to be easy.

    One last point – you can’t use the UK national insurance number system in place of an ID card or voter registration system as NI numbers are given to anyone wanting to work in the UK, whatever their nationality. My wife, for instance, has a UK NI number, but she doesn’t have a vote.

    View Comment
  5. Kovach:
    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

    How impressive! In 1840, Hungary was ahead of other countries – hopefully not only because these rights to vote were granted to the unelected and bloated nobility. I think, to stay ahead of the others, Hungary should seriously reexamine the appropriateness of secret ballot and return to the “old Hungarian custom” of checking the votes – only cowards can resist that!

    View Comment
  6. Mutt Damon :
    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.

    I am not in favour of fines for not voting but reading that the word “costs” alone already might discourage people from registration to vote, I am not sure whether the EU can do anything to save democracy in Hungary. With people giving up their rights only because it may also entail “costs”, what should the EU do?

    View Comment
  7. It will be interesting to see if there will be some pressure (obviously not from the government) on the legitimacy and effectiveness of the electoral registration office.

    As the number of voters (residents) is already known and registered, it will be easier to see if, say, 50% of the electorate enrolls. Is that a good number? That would make an interesting table of comparison with other voter registration systems. Could any government claim that being elected from that proportion of elected voters is legitimate?

    Many countries have low turn out rates at elections, but Hungary may become an outlier in the low proportion of people who are allowed to vote.

    I’m sure Fidesz would still happily accept the victory, and its spoils, but it will turn into more adverse international publicity of the “Hungary on the road to dictatorship” kind.

    View Comment
  8. A bit OT:

    Does anyone remember the questionnaire that Orbán sent to all Hungarian voters ?

    My wife got hers finally at the end of June, but of course didn’t send it back …

    What about numbers, how many sent it back and how were the answers to those “Very important questions” ?

    I haven’t heard/read anything yet …

    View Comment
  9. London Calling!

    Wolfi – My partner put it in the bin in July – accompanied with some colourful rhetoric!

    And….

    In England my (Hungarian) partner registered – by post, on the electoral register (you can only register online if nothing changes).

    And she voted in the London elections – with a legitimate local election vote.

    (Of course, she can’t vote in the General elections.)

    I can pay quite large sums for stuff I buy on the internet – so why shouldn’t I be able to vote? Authentication could be sorted out quite easily – and the cost savings could be immense.

    Many people in England want to do this – and the ‘turnout’ would be extremely high – I have no doubt.

    Regards

    Charlie

    View Comment
  10. Is there any information available regarding if the “wrong side of the border” Hungarian citizens need a registration/sign up too, or its only privilege of the natives?

    Wouldn’t it be discrimination in that case?

    Any answer appreciated.
    Thanks in advance1

    View Comment
  11. It’s being reported that if you sign up and don’t vote, you won’t be allowed to vote in the following election…. this is getting to be so flawed it’s pathetic.

    View Comment

Comments are closed.