When at the end of June 2011 Hillary Clinton visited Budapest, besides having a frank discussion with Viktor Orbán about the state of democracy in Hungary she also had a talk with members of the opposition. Here she said that “as long as there are free elections we cannot speak of the end of democracy” and remarked that the opposition as well as the governments of democratic countries all over the world “have to pay special attention to the election reforms.” She emphasized that “the electoral law is key and it will determine whether the Hungarians can freely express their will at the next elections.”
American observers might be misled by several points in the proposed law. Perhaps they will not understand why the Hungarian democratic forces are so upset about the plan to introduce prior registration without which a citizen cannot vote. After all, they will say, what’s wrong with that? Why is this undemocratic? In the United States people have to register to be eligible to vote and that practice doesn’t make the U.S. an undemocratic country. Thus, American critics are at a disadvantage in this respect. I have heard Fidesz politicians express their astonishment at American objections to the law on account of registration. If the Americans can have it, why can’t we Hungarians have it? A perfectly good answer from the point of view of the Hungarian government.
Let’s face it, the American practice of registration is not the most democratic in the world. In the past registration was blatantly used to exclude certain people from the democratic process. Even today right-wing political forces are trying to keep certain people away from the voting booths by demanding a photo ID card.
In the last few decades more and more people have been encouraged to register, but participation in elections remains very low in the United States in comparison to other countries. Registration is necessary (and may be viewed by some as a necessary evil) in America because there is no compulsory domicile register, and thus no accurate voting list can be compiled. But that is not the case in Hungary. There is a domicile register on the basis of which the election committee of each voting district has a close to perfect list of eligible voters. The list is available ahead of time, and each person can easily check whether he is on the list or not. The likelihood of someone not being on the list is fairly slim.
Therefore, there is no reason to introduce a separate voter registration list unless of course the current government is trying to lower the numbers of those who vote in 2014. In fact, those Fidesz-KDNP politicians who spoke on the issue fairly freely admitted that they would like to ” filter out” those who decide only in the last minute that they want to vote. Why? Because polls indicate that undecided, last-minute voters usually vote against the current government party.
But there is another reason, and again Fidesz-KDNP politicians make no secret of their plans. They want to keep away the uneducated and the poor. Because they will be less likely to register than people with a higher educational attainment and social status. First of all, they are less savvy politically, and most are unfamiliar with the issues that may determine the country’s future. Many of them live in small villages, and we still don’t know how easy or difficult it will be for rural people to register. People will have to go to a public notary to register, but by the time registration begins next September notaries will be found only in the járás centers. Earlier I briefly mentioned that this government had revived an old administrative unit called járás that had been abolished in 1983. There will be 200 such districts. Since there are over 3,000 cities, towns, and villages I assume that it can easily happen than 15 or so villages will make up one járás. So, for rural inhabitants registration will entail traveling. Moreover, registration can be done only Monday through Friday during working hours. That should get rid of a lot of potential voters. Moreover, given the general political ignorance in Hungary there is a good possibility that these people won’t even hear that prior registration is necessary to cast their ballots.
The other peculiarity of the proposed registration is that, unlike in the United States, the registration procedure will have to be repeated every four years. Before every national election between September and April 30 (or fifteen days before the election) everybody will have to register again if they want to vote. Not just new voters, not just those who moved in the interim. Everybody.
Officially, the proponents of registration don’t reveal their real motives. They don’t say, as one anonymous Fidesz MP said to a reporter, that they “want to keep out those vadbarmok,” meaning those stupid people who will not vote for Fidesz. The official excuse for registration is that 350,000 new voters were added to the citizenry of Hungary as a result of the new law on dual citizenship and these people surely will have to express their desire to vote in the Hungarian elections. And if these people outside of Hungary must register, then surely the people inside of Hungary must also register. When pressed, Fidesz politicians can’t justify that proposal in any logical way. Hungarian citizens living abroad had to express their desire to vote in the past as well, and that didn’t necessitate voter registration inside of Hungary.
Finally, I would like to mention the possibility of fraud if the election law goes through in its present form. At the moment the Fidesz-KDNP proposal includes a provision enabling Hungarian citizens living abroad to vote through the mail. Until now the voting process for Hungarians living abroad was extremely cumbersome, mostly on the insistence of Fidesz while in opposition. One couldn’t vote simply by sending an absentee ballot by mail to a local election committee. One had to appear in person at either the Hungarian embassy or one of the consulates. Considering that in the United States the embassy is in Washington and there are only three consulates (New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago) you can imagine that not too many Hungarians living in the United States voted. Now, all that will change. Unfortunately, there’s a catch. While in individual voting districts representatives of the parties are present to watch over the purity of the elections, these letters will be addressed to the National Election Center, a government office. Since most likely there will not be any oversight at this center, the ballot count from abroad could in theory be anything the government desires, or needs.
All in all, I would like to warn those Americans who don’t realize that this registration is not the kind of registration they are familiar with not to fall for this latest attempt at ending democracy in Hungary. If the Fidesz-KDNP plans concerning future elections in Hungary materialize there will be no way to dislodge Viktor Orbán and his party from power. He is already itching to move his whole office over to the former Royal Palace.