United in diversity: Why the Czechs can’t vote from abroad in 2024

, by Věra Dvořáková

United in diversity: Why the Czechs can't vote from abroad in 2024
Source: Eurostat

The citizens of the EU have cast their votes in the European Parliamentary elections and elect their brand new European Parliament. Yet not all votes are cast the same way: the EU Member States have a certain level of freedom in the way they allow their citizens to vote, especially those living abroad. A few of them, like Czechia, simply don’t enable voting from abroad.

Although EU citizens living in another EU country have the right to vote and become a candidate in municipal and European Parliament elections, the concrete rules on how they can vote are specific to the rules of their home country. For example, the citizens of Poland living abroad can vote at embassies or established voting stations, while their neighboring German citizens can cast their votes from abroad also by post. Estonians are the only ones able to vote online. However, four EU Member States - Czechia, Slovakia, Malta, and Ireland - simply don’t allow voting from abroad in these elections, according to a European Parliament’s briefingon the 2024 elections.

If we zoom in on Czechia, the most populous one out of the four, its ca. 10.5 million citizens must all vote physically at one of the polling stations in Czechia. In practice, it means that if you are an expat working in the US or a student doing her Erasmus exchange in Hungary, you must first register at an embassy to get a voting card. Afterwards, you must travel to Czechia and vote there.

Alternatively, if you live in another EU Member State, you can decide to vote in your country of residence and then follow the voting procedures of that country. In that case you can only vote for the candidates registered in your residence country, not the ones from Czechia, which brings about some issues.

“It’s more difficult to figure out who I want to vote for, because I follow Czech politics,” says Daniela Hummelgren, a Czech working and living with her family in Copenhagen, who wasn’t aware that the rules were different across Member States. “I don’t follow Danish politics as much so it requires more effort from me to find out who [...] the right candidate is”, she adds. “The politics on the European level is different from the national. The parties are in different groups and it actually takes a lot of work to figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t.”

Different rules across the bloc

The reason for these differentiated rules across the EU lies in the European Electoral Act from 1976 which only includes principlesfor all Member States “that should be respected by the different domestic laws applicable to European elections”. The problem is that there is no consistent rule applicable for all. In the end, different Member States adapt their rules to their own electoral rules, resulting in the current variety of voting rules.

The European Parliament has already approved a revisionof the European Electoral Act which would, among other things, require all Member States to facilitate voting by post for its citizens. The reform has, however, not yet been approved by the Council.

According to Jan Kovář, the Research Director of the Institute of International Relations Prague, Czech legislators can easily change the rules for Czech expats by tweaking the law on the Elections to the European Parliament. The technical solution might nevertheless not be feasible soon, since “there isn’t political will to change it,” explains Kovář.

No change in sight

Indeed, the lawmakers’ attempt to enshrine postal voting into law hasn’t been fruitful. The proposal is being discussed in the Czech Parliament with fierce oppositioncoming from the populist former PM Andrej Babiš’ party ANO and the far-right extremist SPD party. They cite the postal vote’s lack of security that would lead to fake ballot papers.

The precise political impact of citizens abroad not voting in the European Parliament elections is difficult to estimate. There aren’t reliable statistical xdata on how many Czechs live abroad so it’s not possible to know if and how much these voters could swing an election.

The Czechs already voting from abroad, however, often vote more liberal parties than the majority which could be a consideration for some Czech political parties. “Indisputably, it could bother the political parties whose electorate is mobile and more educated and has bigger social capital. So evidently not parties like ANO or SPD,” says Kovář.

Does living abroad equal fewer rights?

Apart from the political situation, there is also the question of whether people living abroad should vote at all. “It seems that in our national political debate the prevailing view is that, if people want to vote here, they firstly have to live here and pay taxes here or travel here if they want to influence who will be elected,” says Kovář.

Daniela Hummelgren experienced this mindset first-hand in expat communities abroad, but doesn’t think it’s right because expats still have connections to their homeland. “I find it absolutely shocking that people dare to claim we have no right to vote,” she says, adding that people without citizenship always run the risk of being pushed out of their host country.

She also considered the impossibility of voting for Czech candidates in the European Parliament elections a part of integration before learning about the different rules across the EU. “What I thought before, that I vote wherever I live in Europe, wouldn’t that also make any sense?” she thinks out loud.

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