Webinar: Electoral Justice in Europe During a Pandemic


A voter with a physical disability casts a ballot during Serbia’s 2020 elections.

Electoral justice is a cornerstone of democracy responsible for protecting the rights of citizens. Ensuring the effective resolution of all election disputes, claims and complaints is especially important when elections are threatened by disinformation, foreign influence and pandemic chaos. During the 12th session of the Democratic Resilience in Europe During a Pandemic discussion series organized by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), an esteemed panel of experts discussed electoral justice and how it can be improved.

The June 24 event gathered 68 participants from 18 countries and featured simultaneous interpretation into AlbanianArmenianGeorgianMacedonianRussianSouth Slavic language and Ukrainian. The webinar was facilitated by IFES Senior Political Finance Adviser and Regional Europe Office Director Magnus Öhman.

IFES Vice President of Global Strategy and Technical Leadership Chad Vickery discussed the future of electoral justice, including the recent spike in cases and use of litigation as a political tool in various elections across Europe. Vickery noted that the pandemic further undermined the efficiency of the judiciary, due to the suspension of previously scheduled sessions and hearing limitations. Many judicial courts transitioned to digitizing their court documentation, adopting e-filing and livestreaming hearings in the interest of public accessibility to justice while building trust in the overall election process.

Irena Hadžiabdić, a member of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) of Bosnia and Herzegovina, spoke about unprecedented challenges during the 2020 local elections and the resulting consequences. Hadžiabdić noted that the CEC faced an extremely high number of abuses of the out-of-country voter registration process. The CEC received 2,820 appeals, and almost half ended at the second instance court. Ninety-nine percent of the 1,542 appeals that made it past the second instance court were confirmed by the Supreme Court. Given that the elections happened during the pandemic with very short deadlines (two days for the CEC to decide and three days for the Court of BiH to render a decision), the CEC was very successful and prompt in solving electoral issues.

Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) Project Manager Emilija Orestijević spoke about the outcomes of their large-scale research on electoral justice in Serbia. The findings show that election dispute resolution processes in Serbia are not completely aligned with recognized international principles of electoral justice. Deadlines for filing complaints are extremely short; there is inadequate compliance because electoral commissions (mostly at the local level) often lack transparency; and, while remedies are well prescribed, they are not adequately applied in practice. Despite these shortcomings, much of the Serbian population (58 percent) believe the current election dispute resolution processes are good, and generally trust the work of the Republic Electoral Commission and Administrative Court.

Professor Rafael Rubio at the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain discussed the process of postponing and subsequently holding different elections in Spain. From the electoral justice standpoint, complaints were mostly filed due to overseas ballot postal issues; issues related to deadlines; soliciting and employment of private messaging services; voting by people with COVID-19 and in quarantine; and the formation of polling stations. Rubio also spoke about the questionable ban on voters who tested positive for COVID-19, which was originally passed in June 2020. The Supreme Court sustained this ban, causing concerns over political rights limitations. Six months later in Cataluña, a dedicated “COVID-19 hour” for voting was introduced for those who were positive for COVID-19 or in close contact with a positive person.

The pandemic highlighted the need for electoral justice reform in the region, further exhibiting that a healthy democracy cannot thrive without law and order. Many countries were unprepared for the challenges that the pandemic would bring to electoral justice — setting into motion a plan for other crises that may arise in the future and their remedies.

Published on July 13, 2021.

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