Democracy and the Right to Vote: Disturbing Thoughts from Hungary

If we are to find only one detail of the new Hungarian electoral law which is being introduced solely for the sake of making it possible for the acting government to engage in electoral fraud, it is the requirement to register in advance to vote.

The country’s electoral reform is the single most consequential bill under discussion in the Hungarian parliament this fall. Hungary’s governing party Fidesz has enough votes in the parliament to pass any bill, and with the appropriate design of the electoral system it could virtually ensure the continuation of its rule through any number of future elections.

But as an opposition movement is becoming increasingly vocal and the world is watching with growing concern, any such design would be inconspicuous upon the first review. If there is indeed anything to look out for, it might in fact appear to be perfectly innocuous. It is reported from those close to the government that Fidesz does not expect to lose the 2014 election, because they do not think any opposition group capable of matching the governing party’s political appeal. The proposal to introduce an advance voter registration system in Hungary however would be perfect to help them out should they ever need a back-up.

If one is to find one detail of the new Hungarian electoral law that the parliament is soon to pass that is being introduced solely for the sake of making it possible for the acting government to engage in electoral fraud, it is the requirement to register in advance to vote. To be precise, this idea is not yet in the text of the bill currently under review by the parliament’s various committees – if past practice is any indicator, details might not become available about the actual design of the system until shortly before or at the time of the actual vote.

This is a very wise PR move on the part of the government. It is hardly ever the case that a voter registration law is outrageous while it is entertained as an idea only. Without its details, such as how onerous and thorough an effort citizens would have to make in order to get registered, normally there is nothing strikingly objectionable about such proposals. Accordingly, all we know for now is that the deadline for registering one’s intention to vote in Hungary would be three months ahead of the elections. The rest of the particulars – who, where, how and upon the fulfillment of what requirements would collect the registration at what cost in time and effort to the citizenry – perhaps only those who have had personal dealings with Hungarian offices and government bureaucracy are able to properly envision.

In Hungary, everybody must carry a government-issued ID on their person at all times. The responsibility to assemble the electoral rolls has therefore always belonged to the state and administratively speaking there is just no reason to change voter registration into an individual responsibility. Voter registration in this way would not only be a completely unnecessary addition to the Hungarian electoral system, but also a frivolous waste of money and bureaucratic capacity. No reason, other than the farcical or the malicious, could establish its necessity.

I mention the malicious type of reasoning for voter registration because I am not the only one who thinks that this system could result in restricting the voting rights of a specific type of Hungarian voter. Many in Hungary go as far as demanding that it should. This argument was presented in detail recently on a popular Hungarian blog, Véleményvezér (Opinion Leader), which goes out of its way to “encourage the Hungarian government to include [voter registration] in its new electoral law” (in Hungarian here, abstract in English here). As the article makes the case for this:

“It has happened in Hungary numerous times that propertyless people in masses were brought to vote for 1000 HUFs [less than 5 dollars] or a bowl of soup. Let us not be naïve: the hesitation until the very last-minute is not typically due to having such high standards and sophistication that would make it impossible to find an adequate political program. Rather, we are talking about those who do not even know what is taking place in this country – and care very little about it at all.”

An outstandingly perceptive analysis of voter apathy – clearly the gravest problem in Hungary is that there are too many parties in the country that have mass appeal – but what is the solution? According to the author of the piece, one must prevent those “whose vote depends on today’s lunch or on how many goals their favorite team scored on Saturday” from voting, and trust instead the future of the country to the collective judgment of “regularly voting” citizens.

“Though it is not a perfect solution, what appears to be certain is that with the institution of an advance registration system, one would be able to filter out any voters whom the parties try to win over with entirely irresponsible promises, thereby pushing the country into debt.”

Not much explanation is needed to get the part that the advance registration system would “filter out” certain voters. Contingent upon the specifics of the legislation, it would likely impact those who did not make sure that their paperwork was in order by the deadline, those who did not have the time or the means to attend the place of registration, or lacked in personal commitment to do so, as well as those who, three months before the elections, suffer from voter apathy. From what we know about the proposal, it would also filter out those who moved during these three months and cannot travel to their previous locality to vote. But why should these voters be filtered out? What makes this a particularly laudable idea? Because

“[t]he advance registration system draws a reasonable line between those interested in public life as well as at least minimally active in and informed about politics on the one hand, and people who are fully indifferent toward public life but are all the more prone to manipulation on the other. If we do not want the Sunday rain to decide the outcome of the results, or politicians to make absurd campaign promises (or to campaign with promises) in their desperation, it would be worth considering this option,”

argues the author of the article.

The answer therefore is that the “reasonable line” of distinction would not run simply in between active voters and those who are disenfranchised by the advance registration system. It would be drawn between the “informed” and “politically active” voters and those so “fully indifferent toward public life” that they are “prone to manipulation.” The idea would be to weed out a certain kind of political persuasion from voting (on the basis that it is irrational), and the advance voter registration, far beyond a simple administrative measure, would be the means of achieving this political purpose.

Voters trying to cast a vote outside of their polling place stand in line in Práter Street, Budapest to vote in the 2010 election. The advance voter registration would allow them to vote at the polling place where they are registered, if they did not forget to register three months ahead of election day.

Note that this is not the same as claiming, as one might hear from the right in other countries, that the voter registration system encourages civic participation, and that those who are “irresponsible” enough not to register to vote should forfeit their right to vote. Véleményvezér’s argument is about an entirely different kind of should. There is no emphasis here on the citizen education aspects of democracy – the exercise of voting is not seen as a means to empower others and to serve as motivation for their political participation. Quite to the contrary, the problem is that the masses are already too empowered and that their political participation, by definition destructive of democracy, must be curtailed. Or, as the author himself writes:

“Besides its numerous advantages, mass democracy is an extraordinarily dangerous invention, as evidenced by the example of the awful leaders, the practicing insane and even of dictators who obtained their power lawfully in democratic elections. Because there is no such thing in reality that the majority of the people would make a rational decision, equipped with thorough knowledge of public life, having considered every single electoral program and assessed many years of political performance.

What is the danger in all of this? Exactly what we have seen in our home country: that politicians can and will say things so preposterous, or that they will be use such methods that is going to bring these people to vote in the very last-minute.

One must add that the blog I am quoting, Véleményvezér (Opinion Leader) is not operated by the extreme right. In fact, it is a respected and respectable blog catering to the center-right intelligentsia of the country and it is particularly popular and influential among young Hungarian citizens. Though the blog often supports the policies of the current Hungarian government, typically it does not do so in an unreflecting or automatic manner. Rather, they draw their ideological aspiration from the conservative movement of the UK and the US (as do nowadays a number of similarly popular blogs, such as Konzervatórium and Jobbklikk).

The author of the opinion piece on Véleményvezér does in fact look to the US for verification (this is a phenomenon I am noting more and more in Hungarian politics: recently, Antal Rogán claimed that “in the United States of America and in several Western democracies regulations much harsher exist” for the criminalization of homelessness in Hungary). As he writes, one may be prepared against the inevitable dangers of a “mass democracy” “[f]or example if, similarly as is the case in the United States, we connect the right to vote to advance registration – in other words, by requiring voters to declare a few months in advance whether he or she wishes to exercise his or her right to vote.”

While it is true that the US has a pesky problem of right-wing politicians trying to create various types of nuisances to the citizens in order to refashion the electorate to closer match their political base, characteristically these initiatives take place in states where the tea party movement (who are not exactly the champions of rationality nor the enemies of demagoguery) is popular. But speaking more directly to the idea that Hungary has reason to adopt the US voter registration system because it is so integral to their democracy: laws requiring voter registration are controversial in the US, precisely because they lead to a lower turnout. For this reason they are seen as anti-democratic in their motivation.

The US and Hungary are a particularly bad match for comparison, because the US is unique among democratic countries regarding its voter registration laws. Formulating electoral law in the US is the right of the states, and very little can be understood about the difficulties to which this leads without knowing the significance of state rights in the American political system. What is certain, however, is that nine states in the US do not require advance registration at all, while another six allow for registration on election day. Without a federal voter registry, an active registration system is practically a necessity, especially in view of popular mobility across state lines. But even some of those among states with stricter advance registration laws (these set a deadline 15-30 days ahead of the day of the election) allow for same day registration if one is already registered to vote in the same state.

The idea, overall, is to make voting as easy as possible – despite the voter registration system. Indeed, many citizens make use of the same-day registration option for reasons of convenience (e.g. because a certain polling station is on one’s way to work) and radio reports sometimes assist voters to find the polling places with the shortest lines. Any intentional design in the electoral law to “filter out” voters of a specific profile is watched closely by civil rights activists, because proof of such intent is not only reproachable but also unconstitutional, on more than one grounds.

There are other basic tenets of what democracy is and how it is supposed to work that are missing from the version of conservatism that William F. Buckley’s Hungarian followers have come to adopt on Véleményvezér. To simplify this view quite considerably, mass democracies tend to correct their excesses over time. The collective wisdom of the system is due to its ability to match the political system of a society to its evolving views. It could not be guaranteed by the smarts or rationality of voters – nobody is assumed to be as perfect in their knowledge as the guardians of the philosopher king in Plato’s Republic.

Discrimination, disenfranchisement and anything that contributes to lower rates of participation are therefore seen as graver threats to the functioning of democracy than the loss of one or two elections: for as long as the politicians are responsible enough to marginalize any political sentiment that is harmful to the system as a whole, though a particular party was defeated, democracy at least prevails. When it comes to laying the blame, one typically attributes it to the politicians who tempted “the people” with their demagoguery, or the educated classes who failed to share their wisdom with “the lesser informed” – before going into the effort to design an apparatus for disenfranchising “the masses.” A system of checks and balances built into the constitution guarantees the return of sanity even upon the worst choices “by the masses.” This ensures that no matter who gets elected, incorrect decisions may be corrected, and that a one-time electoral victory does not result in one person’s rule over the life and death of his citizenry until he is forcibly removed by a revolution.

It seems that the author of Véleményvezér does not only reject the principle of democracy outrightly (as quoted already: “there is no such thing in reality that the majority of the people would make a rational decision, equipped with thorough knowledge of public life, having considered every single electoral program and assessed many years of political performance”) but is unsympathetic even to these broad-stokes philosophical characterizations of what one might call a democratic society. What is missing from the argument in particular is a proper understanding of the role of elections in a democratic system. Véleményvezér’s proposal would reduce this important element of democracy to a mere headcount. It advocates that voting right should be reserved for only those with a history of “regular voting,” and the more ingrained the political attitudes are  of these voters – the more they derive from a “thorough knowledge” of the public life of the country – the better. The real enemy seems to be the betrayal of party loyalty, or any challenge undermining the voters’ dogmatic clinging to one “truth” or another.

Too bad, because democracy is never merely just an exercise in dropping a ballot into a paper box. When done properly, the rewards of public participation are felt both at the personal and the intellectual level. To be able to convince others in a political debate is empowering, and yet it is impossible to convince another without humility, without expecting to learn something from the other’s point of view in the process. It is for this reason that democratic countries which are not democratic in name only draw from an intellectual tradition which describes their system as participatory, deliberative or communicative democracies.

Suffice it to say, no longer about democracy, but about the voter registration system currently under discussion in Hungary, that it is based on a similar misunderstanding of what is democratic about a democracy. “Naturally, the guardians of democracy on call will sound the alarms,” anticipates the author of the article almost as soon as he first states his support for this proposal. You bet we will. This advance voter registration is a travesty. It is an expensive exercise in unnecessary bureaucracy, and an opportunity presented on a silver tray to any acting government for electoral fraud.

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24 Responses to Democracy and the Right to Vote: Disturbing Thoughts from Hungary

  1. Paul says:

    Surely this is a simple question of rights? OK, responsibility as well (as the two should always go together), but responsibility comes with how you exercise those rights, the actual having of the right is paramount.

    And in a democracy, all those citizens allowed by law to vote have the right to vote, no one has the right to take that away from them by whatever means: force, bureaucracy, legal ‘niceties’, whatever.

    In a country like the UK, where there is no single recognised and universally used form of ID, and where the vote is entirely location based, this presents difficulties, so some form of voter registration is required. But in a country like Hungary, where everyone has an ID card, and where the law says you must register any change of address, there is absolutely NO need for a voter registration system.

    The only point of such a system would be antidemocratic – to restrict the number or type of people voting. Why Fidesz wants to introduce such a system and what they think they will gain from it are unanswered questions at the moment, but, given their track record, it is very unlikely that the are introducing this restriction of democracy for the peoples’ benefit. They must think that such a restriction will benefit them – but how? Are Fidesz voters, as opposed to those supporting MSzP, LMP or Jobbik, say, more likely to register in advance? Or are they frightened that the uneducated, easily persuaded mob will charge the polling stations at the last minute and undo all their good work by restoring Ferri to power?

    A strange belief, if true, because the last time the uneducated mod were persuaded to vote stupidly, we got this bunch of con-men and incompetents elected with a two-thirds majority!

    • “Why Fidesz wants to introduce such a system and what they think they will gain from it are unanswered questions at the moment, but, given their track record, it is very unlikely that the are introducing this restriction of democracy for the peoples’ benefit. They must think that such a restriction will benefit them – but how? Are Fidesz voters, as opposed to those supporting MSzP, LMP or Jobbik, say, more likely to register in advance? Or are they frightened that the uneducated, easily persuaded mob will charge the polling stations at the last minute and undo all their good work by restoring Ferri to power?”
      As you can tell from the time between these two comments, I thought about this a lot. Because you’re right that it would be totally unreasonable for Fidesz to _really_ want to get rid of the demagoguery voters. That’s one of the reason why this argument is so cheeky and outrageous (by the way, it’s from the same group of “young conservatives” who are close to Navracsics and the government’s PR team). There is nothing genuine about their concern to prevent demagoguery in Hungarian politics, if anything, the opposite is true…
      How could this system benefit Fidesz: Remember the Kubatov lists? It’s an annotated “database” kept by director of the party Gábor Kubatov about the party sympathies of voters on the electoral rolls. It was illegal to collect, but it was worth it: Fidesz has a database about who would be good to get to the voting booth and who will vote for other parties.
      My perhaps less reasonable fear is about electoral fraud. Let’s suppose that some of the voters with a “non-Fidesz voter mark” next to their names disappear from the registry after the fact. Only in a few districts, and only enough of them to make a change in the close races. Who is to say whether they are not on the list because they did the registration wrong or because someone mishap in Election Committee Central manipulated the list? Will something like this be a reason for redoing the elections? And how upset are these voters going to get if the character-assassination media goes to work to prove them a wife-beater, or their father a former spy, or their wife a drunk?
      But what appears to be more likely is some kind of a systematic bias in the system. Already Jobbik is clamoring for making elementary school education a prerequisite for the right to vote. This would exclude many of the voters living in deep poverty. Jobbik has its own reasons for wanting this (it would impact the Roma vote disproportionately), but this would also be in the interest of the government (when the author of the above speaks about people being promised miraculous things, things that cost money to the country, by “irresponsible politicians,” I think they mean those whose economic despair could be turned into a vote against the government). But the government does not have to be so blatant as Jobbik with instituting the same requirement. They could just make voter registration easy if one can prove that they completed at least 8 years of educated, but quite complicated without that document. E.g. maybe those who cannot show their high-school certificate would also be allowed to register, but they would also have to get a signature, and fill out a few more forms – something easily done upon two more trips to two other offices. That would practically take care of excluding a good majority of this target population.
      What I mean is that if the government will use this system, it is going to be in these very subtle ways, which are going to be really difficult to document or even explain.
      The great thing about making it an individual responsibility to register to vote is that the individual can be blamed for not doing it right. I don’t think I can exhaust the number of ways the government could do this, but the right people could find the

  2. Kirsten says:

    I only now read this piece of you and would hope that it might find a wide audience in Hungary. It is particularly useful that you stress that such reasoning as presented by the contributor to Velemenyvezer is in its essence non-democratic. It is the committed few – the noble families educated enough and “knowing” what is best for the country (if I connect that to earlier Hungarian thinking) – who are best equipped to and therefore should decide. It is also revealing that the author of the Velemenyvezer article does not think about political education or education in general to improve the sorry state of participation in public issues or the several aspects of the system up to now that prevent a broad-based participation (old and new networks in politics and economy). Political education in many respects is a necessary ingredient of functioning democracies, as you write, this will empower people to make more informed choices or to participate themselves more actively in the political process.

    As regards the alleged intention to reduce the participation of the “uninformed” and “irresponsible” voter, who shows up for “money”, I am not sure why such “irresponsible” person may not want to double his income from voting by showing up twice, once to register and then to vote. That argument is to my mind not valid.

  3. Gabor Toka says:

    An excellent piece but a bit too generous to Fidesz. We know specific reasons to expect that potential Fidesz supporters will be far more likely registered “voluntarily” than opposition supporters (of any persuasion). The fist is that Fidesz has accumulated impressive databases of its likely supporters via referendum initiatives and election nomination campaigns over the years that vastly and deliberately overshoot their targets in terms of the number of signatures collected, and were supplemented by information obtained via tracking responses to millions of automated phone calls by Fidesz (and Fidesz call centers pretending to be non-partisan pollsters). Obviously, data protection law obliged Fidesz never to merge these datasets and not to retain them after the original purpose (backing a referendum initiative, poling party preferences in the aggregate, etc.) was fulfilled. But in early 2010 a much-debated speech of Fidesz MP and national campaign chief Gabor Kubatov to a gathering of party activists (you can listen to the voice recording of this speech on YouTube if you search for, say, “Kubatov Gabor szarszoi beszed”) confirmed that this illegal database does exist, is continuously updated and actively used for electioneering purposes. Opposition parties either do not have such lists because they are simply too new (Jobbik, LMP, DK, 4K etc) or because their previous databases may be grossly outdated due to recent changes in their electoral base (MSZP). The second reason is that Fidesz, partly because of the party funding regulations that themselves passed in parliament recently, have vastly more financial and organizational resources to use such lists to mobilize supporters to register than any other party would.
    (Two footnotes: first, maintaining such databases by political parties is, in my view, a potentially good thing for democracy, but only such data should enter these databases that was obtained, stored and used for this purpose with the express approval of the citizens concerned. Second, it has never been suggested by Fidesz or any evidence that such approvals were solicited in the case of Mr Kubatov’s database. Yet the prosecutor’s office refused to heed calls to start a criminal investigation into the matter in 2010 citing lack of “sufficient evidence” to substantiate the suspicion that something criminal may have happened, and would surely be even less likely to investigate the matter now that a former Fidesz candidate for parliament is the General Prosecutor.)
    Another interesting aspect of voluntary voter registration (and Velemenyvezer’s argument about the uninformed vote) is the introduction of voting rights in Hungary’s elections for ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries who have never had a permanent residence in Hungary – or at least not since the Trianon peace treaty of 1920. I gather from rumours in Transyllvania that Fidesz plan to exempt them from the voluntary registration requirement – obviously because their superior ability to judge Hungarian politics is well established by polls of their party preferences.

  4. Pingback: Hungarian Parliament Passes Early Registration Requirement to Disenfranchise Apathetic Voters | The Contrarian Hungarian

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