• Inside the voting booth, the voter takes a picture of the ballot paper with a mobile phone, leaves the station, shows the photo to the agent - and picks up the money. (Photo: European Commission)

Post EU Elections

Threat of voter fraud haunts EU vote in Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia

18.03.14 @ 09:30

  1. By H. Appelt, M. Bird, S. Candea and N. Popkostadinov

Bucharest, Sofia and Zagreb - A sharp insight into the abuse of European democracy was revealed in the recent trial of Croatia's ex-Prime Minister Ivo Sanader.

  • A voting website in Croatia (Photo: Hrvoje Appelt)

The ex-leader of the now-opposition Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) was sentenced in March to nine years in prison for extorting around €9 million from public companies and institutions to use for slush funds and personal acquisitions.

During the trial, former HDZ treasurer Mladen Barisic detailed Sanader's corrupt mentality as revealed in 2009 during a meeting with his successor, the incoming prime minister Jadranka Kosor.

Sanader allegedly told the new prime minister: "Elections cannot be won by financing them solely through regular funds."

It is claimed the centre-right leader then pointed his finger under the table, demonstrating through gestures that elections are fought with two-thirds of the money beneath the table and only one-third above board, implying that only a minority of campaign funds are used legally.

Meanwhile in Romania the vice Prime Minister, Social Democrat (PSD) Liviu Dragnea, is facing trial due to his alleged role in attempting to fix a 2012 referendum aimed at deposing Romanian President Traian Basescu.

Dragnea is one of the most powerful men in the current government thanks to his brokering position between Bucharest and the wealthy regional barons who control local councils.

As PSD secretary general in 2012, he is accused of defrauding the referendum by pushing the vote numbers to over 60 percent of the population, the threshold needed for the vote to be valid.

He is indicted for coordinating a system involving 74 other people, local party executives and activists as well as heads of local polling stations.

Dragnea claims the investigation is a farce and that he undertook a "legal" campaign, which eventually failed to kick out the President.

Despite being sent to court by Romania's Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), Dragnea remains the PSD's campaign chief for this year's European elections – a move which some democratic observers claim shows the contempt political parties hold for accusations of voter fraud.

Although efforts by national justice systems to combat election-fixing in new EU member states are muscling up, this crime remains a threat to these democracies ahead of the May 2014 elections.

How to fix an election

Political parties tend to outsource fraud to regional party hubs or agents, who pay blocs of voters with cash or goods, while employing a smorgasbord of creative methods to outsmart election observers.

A common strategy is for a voter to meet with an agent outside the voting station – the agent then tells them who to vote for.

Inside the voting booth, the voter takes a picture of his or her ballot paper with a mobile phone, leaves the station, shows the photo to the agent – and picks up the money.

This was happening in 2012 in Romania and in 2007 and 2009 in Croatia.

Since 1996 in Romania, the 'mobile ballot box' has been popular. A 'commission' of usually three people takes such a ballot box to remote places, such as old people's homes, where citizens cannot physically turn up at the voting station.

This can encourage fraud because the 'commission' can travel to sympathisers for a specific party and, as they are out of the voting station, there is less observer oversight.

Another trick is for the agent to hand over a pre-stamped ballot paper to the voter. The voter then enters the voting station, picks up a second – blank – ballot paper, enters the voting booth, posts the pre-stamped paper in the ballot box, leaves the station and hands over the blank ballot paper to the agent.

Dead people have turned up as voters in Romania. If voter lists are not up to date, people who died in the previous year can vote.

In Croatia, there are reports of priests using church sermons to persuade voters to back certain individuals and, in Romania, of a priest cursing voters who dared turn up to vote at all.

In Bulgaria, there is suspicion about use of fake ballot papers. On the day before national elections in May 2013, some 350,000 voting-papers were found in a printing house near Sofia. There was speculation over whether they would be marked and used in elections.

In 2007, independent candidate in the Croatian national election Jerko Ivanovic Lijanovic was caught offering cash to election commission members in return for the insertion of additional ballots after the closing of the polls.

In Bulgaria, Transparency International claimed that around 23 percent of the public vote was "controlled" in May 2013. This is the procedure where buses or other vehicles pick up voters and transport them to voting stations.

This is not illegal and is common practice in western Europe. However, in eastern Europe, these are often citizens who have been threatened to vote for a certain party, or are paid with goods or cash.

In Romania, parties have historically ferried voters around in minibuses from county to county to vote many times. But since 2004, this method has been less visible, according to electoral watchdog Pro-Democracy Association.

However it may still be possible to vote twice or more. In Romania, each voter has a personal ID. When they vote, the commission attaches a sticker to the back of the ID. But this can easily be peeled off, so someone can vote twice.

This should not be possible because there should be a collation of ID numbers to ensure that a number has not voted twice.

Nevertheless, president of democracy watchdog the Pro-Democracy Association Ionut Tata says that what happens at county electoral offices, where all the votes from a county are collected, is not subject to scrutiny.

Observers are not allowed in these offices.

"It might be that fraud happens there," he says.

Romanian authorities have claimed over the years that they have wanted to introduce software to check electronically for voting fraud – but the gap between their intention and action has never been bridged.

E-Bay for voter fraud

In Croatia electoral fraud reached a sophisticated low with the selling of votes online.

During the country's first European Parliament elections in April 2013, the State Electoral Commission filed a criminal charge against an unknown person who called on voters to sell their votes on the now-defunct website myvotemymoney.com.

Entitled "Do you want cash to go out to vote?", the site offered payments if voters pledged their ballots to a specific candidate, thus acting as a clearing house between party agents and the people.

Voters could fill in a form stating their e-mail address and mobile number. The site then gave voters an SMS with instructions detailing who to vote for.

In the voting booth, the voter would photograph the stamped ballot paper and upload the photo to the web. The site then promised the voter to "expect compensation within 96 hours" via PayPal.

"We call upon all candidates who want to help their voters immediately to contact us!!!" the site urged, using three exclamation marks.

Roma: target for vote-buying

Because they constitute an impoverished segment of the population, suffering from high unemployment and illiteracy, and low social mobility, Roma are enlisted by local mayors and party agents to vote for specific candidates.

This is true in Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, where parties also target the elderly, the rural rank and file and the impoverished living on the periphery of large cities.

"The Roma community are always subject to vote-buying," argues Ciprian Necula, Romania-based Roma activist.

In Bulgaria, the turnout in the last two elections in Roma neighborhoods varied between 50 and 80 percent against a national average of 50 percent. This massive disparity raised questions over the legitimacy of the Roma's voting behaviour.

In Romania, Roma leaders are also paid by party agents to secure a 'bloc' of Roma votes for a particular party.

From €8 upwards: the price of democracy

In the 2009 Croatian local elections party agents were willing to pay citizens between €15 and €150 for their vote.

Further east, democracy trades at a cheaper rate.

In Bulgaria a vote can be on sale for between €15 and €35 and in Romania between €10 and €50, according to samples.

A Romanian political party source told Roma activist Ciprian Necula that when parties draw up their budgets for an election campaign, they base the sum on the number of votes needed.

He told Necula a vote in Romania costs €8, a figure which factors in the advertising and campaign costs – as well as a bribe.

Euro 2014: low fraud priority

In Romania, Croatia and Bulgaria, fraud at European elections is suspected to be on a smaller scale than those of local and presidential elections.

"European parliamentary elections are of low interest for fraud," says Pro-Democracy Association's Ionut Tata. "In Romania, there has never been an organised effort to fraud these elections to the extent of presidential or local elections."

However, in a survey by his association, 52 percent of the Romanian public believe that the 2009 European elections were fraudulent.

One indication for potential fraud was the disparity between voters. There was a large difference between the turnout of urban voters (20 percent) and rural voters (36.6 percent). Remarkably, only 15.9 percent of Bucharest voted, compared to its surrounding county, Ilfov, where 41.31 percent voted.

This is the equivalent of the citizens of Isle de France voting in almost three times as many numbers as those from central Paris.

Wide-scale fraud, few convictions

Croatia knows it has a problem. International and local oversight on the issue is tough – but courts have convicted few for voter fraud.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime issued a report in 2010 stating that votes in Croatia's 2007 parliamentary elections were bought outright and extorted by blackmail and threats. Arrests are scant in number.

Meanwhile in Bulgaria, democracy watchdog Transparency International showed that five percent of the voting irregularities in May 2013 were those in which votes were suspected to have been bought. Allegations surrounded all the major political parties, but only two men received a sentence. They were caught buying votes in a village in the seaside region of Bourgas for an organisation which failed to win any seats in parliament.

There have been no major convictions for voter fraud in Romania yet, nor have major political parties in any of the three countries faced proper scrutiny for their alleged behaviour.

During the 2009 European elections, a case in Romania's northwest Cluj county found a group of people ferried from a voting station to another to vote several times and paid €60. The voters received a suspended jail sentence of two and four months, respectively.

A concern is that an omerta exists between major political parties, where they agree to allow each other to steal votes, as long as they hold back from initiating a more transparent system.

Following the Romanian Presidential elections in 2009, then senior PSD member and now Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, told journalists that his party's candidate lost the vote because the opposition's system "worked better".

Elaborating on what he meant by this vague statement, he added "the system of stealing, buying and defrauding votes".

It seems election crime is an addiction that has hooked both government and opposition parties – and is a habit they are too scared to kick.

Hrvoje Appelt reported from Croatia; Michael Bird and Stefan Candea reported from Romania; Nikoleta Popkostadinova reported from Bulgaria