The local elections held on 27 September 2020, organized in the difficult context of the COVID-19 pandemic, were a competitive process that offered voters multiple and diverse options and the possibility to make an informed choice. The election authorities organized the process for the most part efficiently, however a number of key decisions were late and unclear and the authorities did not communicate sufficiently at key times. Election day was calm and organized in most polling stations. Although health protection measures complicated procedures to some extent, voters and polling boards largely complied with the regulations.
The Legal Framework and Election Administration
The complex and non-unitary legal framework created confusion among election administration and voters. The legislation was again amended several times shortly before elections, contrary to Venice Commission recommendations. International standards were also disregarded in respect to the formation of polling boards, namely a legislative amendment (Law 91/2020) made to accommodate a larger number of parties . Later in September, the legislation was changed during the election period, which led to amendments to the BEC decision 77/2020 on the formation of polling boards just one week before the election day.
The Central Electoral Bureau (BEC) and the Permanent Electoral Authority (AEP) organized the process efficiently for the most part, but failed to communicate sufficiently during key moments of the election process. A number of key decisions were drafted and published late, were insufficiently explicit and comprehensive, and created confusion among stakeholders.
The Central Electoral Bureau published several decisions for the unitary interpretation of the law, some of which needed further clarification. Decision 81, which seemed to indicate 4 September as the deadline for obtaining residence visas, was corrected by two successive decisions. However, the confusion carried on at the local level, and on election day several observers and voters reported that some polling stations did not allow voters to vote with residence visas obtained after 4 September. On the other hand, the BEC decided not to interpret certain unclear legal provisions, despite requests from stakeholders.
The BEC published its decisions and proceedings online, however the transparency of the institution’s work was diminished by the fact that BEC sessions were not public, contrary to Venice Commission recommendations. A request by FiecareVot to broadcast BEC sessions online was denied.
In response to challenges posed by the health crisis, a legal provision reduced the number of required support signatures by half and introduced the possibility to collect signatures electronically. Some FiecareVot interlocutors considered the electronic signature collection process difficult and unclear and preferred to submit lists of signatures in hard copy as well.
Candidate list verification is not sufficiently regulated and appears to have been carried out superficially in practice. A centralized countrywide list of all candidates was published after the deadline for contesting candidacies, and information such as the candidates’ date of birth and gender was missing from the database. Constituency electoral bureaus failed to apply regulations regarding the representation of both genders. Expert Forum noted that 936 (51 per cent) of the registered candidate lists did not meet legal requirements.
The Election Campaign and Campaign Finance
Although the restrictions imposed by the health crisis did not allow the organization of rallies and campaign events with large groups of people, electoral contestants adapted their campaign strategy, using social media and online advertising, and had the opportunity to convey their message to voters. In several constituencies the campaign took place in a polarized atmosphere that gave way – at the expense of debates on electoral programs – to a negative, provocative and in some cases discriminatory rhetoric, including personal attacks and hate speech. The media also reported cases in which some candidates’ campaign activities were hindered or disturbed.
Accusations regarding abuse of public resources were numerous, and some cases were confirmed by constituency electoral bureaus’ decisions. In practice, sanctions from the part of the authorities remained rather limited.
As outdoor campaign regulations are restrictive, competitors chose to promote their messages during the pre-campaign period using large banners and billboards, which are prohibited during the actual campaign. As in previous elections, this had a negative impact on campaign finance transparency.
Parties do not publish interim reports on expenditures and the AEP publishes periodically only their contributions, which reduces the overall campaign finance transparency. Candidates and political parties contributed a total of 153.3 million lei, exceeding the 2016 amounts by a significant margin.
Contrary to the law, the election campaign continued during campaign silence, with outdoor materials as well as phone calls and text messages to voters, the latter potentially in violation of personal data protection laws.
Health safety regulations for the election campaign were adopted late, by Government decision, and published the night before the start of the campaign, which did not allow for an effective and visible information campaign. FiecareVot monitoring revealed that numerous candidates violated the campaign regulations and formed larger campaign teams than allowed by law.
To ensure health safety on election day, the authorities published regulations for polling stations approximately two weeks before election day and provided masks and disinfectant to all participants. However, efforts to encourage and facilitate the participation of voters who may have been intimidated by the possibility of Covid-19 infection was limited to the organization of polling stations; authorities rejected several recommendations from CSOs to organize the elections in two days and did not consider extending the postal voting system, currently designed only for out of country voting, to be used in the country for local elections (especially for voters in isolation and other vulnerable categories of voters).
Voters who were in quarantine or self-isolation on election day could apply for mobile voting only by submitting applications accompanied by medical documents in hard copy to their respective polling stations the day before the election. The list of accepted medical documents was not public until one day before the date of submission of applications, when the BEC published, in response to a request by Expert Forum, a Health Ministry recommendation. However, in many cases recommendations to self-isolate had been communicated by the public health authorities by phone call, and voters in quarantine and self-isolation who did not have medical papers were effectively disenfranchised. An amendment allowing professional categories who are on duty on election day (such as medical personnel) to apply for mobile voting, adopted ahead of the 2019 presidential election, was not introduced in the local election law and did not apply.
On election day, 475 accredited FiecareVot observers visited approximately 900 polling stations in 36 counties and all six Bucharest sectors. This report includes data transmitted through MonitorizareVot, a smartphone application developed by Code4Romania, from 841 polling stations. The final report will be published in approximately one month, with data from all observed polling stations.
Expert Forum organized a support center for voters and observers, consisting of the 0800 080 200 hotline and the platform www.votcorect.ro. Information gathered from voters and observes was published on election day in two press releases that listed a number of problems and recurring irregularities.
Observers assessed the opening of polling stations positively in 94% of cases. Voting was generally well organized and conducted in an orderly manner in most polling stations observed, and the Computerized Monitoring System for Presence and Prevention of Illegal Voting (SIMPV) functioned under normal conditions. In some cases, health protection measures slowed down the flow of voters, resulting in crowding and long queues outside some polling stations, where the safe distance between voters was not always observed. FiecareVot observers did not identify major incidents or irregularities of a systematic nature with a potential to compromise the integrity of the process at the observed polling stations.
Observers evaluated polling board activity as good or very good in over 90 per cent of polling stations visited during voting. However, in several cases observers reported that polling board members did not appear to be sufficiently knowledgeable about the procedures.
In some polling stations, observers reported pressure on voters from local authorities or candidates’ supporters. The most frequently reported irregularities were violations of health provisions and instances where polling board members did not know or did not apply the election law. Observers were subjected to pressure and intimidation in some polling stations, and in one case an observer’s car was damaged Nehoiu, Buzău county.
In the presence of observers, polling board members wore masks all the time (in 65 per cent of observed polling stations) or almost all the time (in 26 per cent). In almost half of the polling stations visited, voters did not remove their masks to be identified; according to polling board members, the procedure was deemed unnecessary in small communities where voters were easily identified, and polling boards only requested the removal of the mask in cases where voters has not already been recognized. The layout of observed polling stations was generally adequate, however in some cases observers had to leave polling stations where the insufficient room did not allow for safe observation.
More than 29 per cent of polling stations observed were not accessible to people with disabilities. A legal provision allowing voters with reduced mobility to vote on the supplementary list at accessible polling stations, adopted ahead of the 2019 presidential election, was not introduced in the local election law and did not apply.
A legal provision allowing voters waiting outside the polling stations at closing time to cast their vote, adopted ahead of the 2019 presidential election, was not introduced in the local election law and did not apply. The Ministry of Internal Affairs requested the BEC to extend voting time after 21:00 hrs and to allow voters waiting in line to vote, and the request was denied.
Vote Counting and Tabulation
Procedures were assessed as poor or very poor in a significant 15 per cent of the limited number of polling stations observed during the counting. Observers noted that in 20% of cases polling board chairpersons had difficulties completing the protocols, blank protocols were signed by polling board members in 30 per cent of cases, and the atmosphere was tense in almost 16% of the polling stations observed. Observers also reported cases in which polling board chairpersons interpreted the law restrictively and did not allow observers to be present during the vote count.
Some Bucharest polling boards failed to submit results protocols to the upper level commission within the 24-hour legal deadline. Electoral contestants reported the involvement of unauthorized persons in the transmission of results, as well as a number of – often considerable – inconsistencies between the results in the hard copy protocols and the results published online, and alleged intentional attempts to alter the results. Police started investigating the alleged falsification of protocols in Bucharest Sector 1, after a person was caught in possession of 437 protocols. After the legal deadline for transmission of the protocols – and until the time of this report – the electoral administration did not announce publicly the cause of the delays, and did not communicate the situation of the contested minutes in a transparent manner. This lack of transparency on the part of all election administration institutions involved – AEP, BEC, BES1 – has contributed to public confusion.
Fiecare Vot observers present at the Bucharest Sector 1 electoral bureau during the reception and verification of results protocols reported that one day after the legal deadline the bureau had difficulties in bringing in the polling boards from polling stations that had not been processed, and the verification and validation of protocols took place in a tense and disorganized atmosphere. During the observers’ presence, corrections to protocols were made in compliance with the law, and in some cases where the figures did not reconcile correctly the polling boards recounted the votes in the presence of a BES1 member.
The BEC received many requests for corrections to the protocols from lower level commissions. In Dolj county, the constituency electoral bureau identified in the protocols of 80% of the polling stations errors in the numbers of registered voters and voter turnout, which indicates poor understanding of the results protocols on the part of polling board chairs.
On election night, the online publication of result protocols was monitored in real time by Code4Romania, who aggregated the data and published it in an easily accessible format on the webpage www.rezultatevot.ro. The quality and format of the data published on the platform www.prezenta.roaep.ro were criticized by Code 4 Romania and several FiecareVot interlocutors.
FiecareVot observers were informed of several criminal investigations opened after election day and will follow their resolution before the publication of the final report.
Election day statistics
See more statistics in the report
Material produced under the Fair and Transparent Local Elections project implemented by Expert Forum in partnership with the Center for Civic Resources and with financial support from Active Citizens Fund Romania, programme funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA Grants Grants 2014 -2021. The content of this website does not necessarily reflect the official position of the EEA and Norway Grants 2014-2021; for more information visit www.eeagrants.org. The aim of the project is to monitor the process of amending electoral legislation and to provide emergency intervention using legal instruments and public resources.
Project implemented by Expert Forum in partnership with Center for Civic Resources; September 2020
Details about the project: www.expertforum.ro/alegeri-locale-corecte-si-transparente