Evidence from three consecutive elections in Hungary reveals a systematic erosion of electoral integrity.
Democracy is on hold. Elections have been postponed and hard-fought democratic freedoms have been suspended in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet to say democracy on hold is also misleading. Across much of Europe, the safeguards that have guaranteed democratic freedoms built up over decades have slowly been eroded.
A growing group of nations
In Freedom House’s recent Nations in Transit report, declining standards in democracy saw Hungary, the only EU member state join Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia as “Transitional or Hybrid regimes” – countries classed between democracy and full autocracy.
The US-based think tank has warned that if Poland continues on its current course, it too will join this growing group of nations that “routinely mete out politicised justice”.
The drawback of democracy is increasing across Europe, yet the issue of voter fraud, specifically on election day itself, has received little to no attention.
That is the focus of election watchdog NGO, Unhack Democracy. Testimonies from over 1,000 precinct committee members conducted over three consecutive elections in Hungary (2018 parliamentary, 2019 EP and municipal), suggests there has been a systematic erosion of the country’s electoral integrity.
Widescale voter fraud and irregularities
Our recent report, based on over 850 testimonies from precinct committee members, into the 2019 European Parliamentary and municipal elections in Hungary reveals patterns of widescale voter fraud and irregularities on election day.
These include intimidating ballot counters and voters by Fidesz and municipality officials, large scale electoral clientelism, threatening elderly voters in care-homes, questions about the credibility of protocols, and forged electoral registers through the illegal transportation of phantom voters from Ukraine.
This should be taken together with Unhack Democracy’s year-long investigation into the 2018 Hungarian parliamentary election which was based on 170 testimonies and mathematical analysis of publicly available data. The investigation unveiled the unlawful transportation of non-resident Hungarians holding dual-nationality from Ukraine, Serbia, and Romania in at least four constituencies in 2018, suspicious ‘ticket-splitting’ rates, the alleged misuse of EU funds to affect voting intentions, the specific and widespread targeting of Roma and an extensive network among ethnic Hungarian organisations abroad (who are also often beneficiaries of Hungarian state spending) to register voters and collect ballots.
In short, emerges clearly persistent and concerning trends emerge around voter fraud at a local, national and European level.
The Hungarian litmus test
What happens in Hungary matters to the rest of Europe. It is the litmus test for how far would-be authoritarians can push rule of law violations, including at elections, without censure or push back from Brussels.
In Orbán’s case, we believe these measures helped him secure a supermajority by a single seat in 2018, allowing Fidesz to change the constitution at will, interfere with the independence of the judiciary, restrict civil society groups, further infringe on the freedom of the press, and target educational institutions judged critical of the government.
The semi-feudal clientelism and dependency structures that are largely responsible for such electoral fraud are not only present in Hungary, but also in other EU member states. For example, in Bulgaria and Romania, academic research has shown that political brokers use public policies and state resources to coerce or encourage support at the ballot box.
The growing problem of voter fraud is not confined to one country so neither can the solution. Yet, the EU is at present woefully ill-equipped and at present unwilling to tackle the issue within its own borders and member states.
International observation missions, carried out in EU member states predominantly by the OSCE/ODIHR, are limited in their scope and lack resources to monitor election-day activities in a large number of polling stations. Missions have also been limited by the perception that election-day irregularities in the EU are so rare and uncoordinated that they must fall short of influencing election results in a significant way.
Unfortunately, this does not reflect the electoral reality in the EU anymore.
Only part of the solution
That is why we have put forward five key policy recommendations with The German Marshall Fund of the United States that include: the need for the European Commission to extend the scope of the European Democracy Action Plan to cover the internal dimensions of threats to democratic electoral systems; the closer coordination of EU and OSCE observation missions; the need for OSCE/ODIHR observation missions in EU member states that are subject to the Article 7 procedure; allowing civic election observation in all EU member states; and greater attention for electoral watchdog and citizen engagement NGOs.
However, policy changes at the transnational EU-level are only part of the solution. Ensuring the integrity of elections also depends on making sure election officials are well-trained but also held to account by building an on-the-ground network of local election monitors and providing them with the training and tools to carry out their work effectively.
It is no longer true to say that democracy in the EU has been “achieved.” It is time to put our own house in order.
Elliott Goat and Zsofia Banuta are co-founders of Unhack Democracy. The organisation aims to empower citizens by giving them the tools and know-how to monitor their own elections and protect democratic institutions from state interference.