The International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy strongly criticizes the bill of amendments to the Election Code of Georgia, initiated in the Parliament of Georgia by the Central Election Commission (CEC) and the parliamentary legal affairs committee, bypassing the electoral reform working group. ISFED believes that some of these changes render useless the mechanisms of transparency and fraud aversion for announcing election results in a timely manner, and threaten democratic, free and transparent elections, more specifically:
1. PEC summary protocols will be submitted to the CEC indirectly, through DECs.
Currently para.4 of Article 71 of the Election Code of Georgia requires that PECs submit summary protocols to the CEC immediately after the protocols are prepared, using the technical means available to them. This requirement serves the purpose of ensuring timely and effective submission of results to the CEC. The CEC on its end ensures publication of summary protocols received, which is an important mechanism against election fraud, guaranteed by the election legislation. However, according to the amendments prepared by the CEC and the parliamentary legal affairs committee, PECs will be required to send their summary protocols to the CEC through district electoral commissions, which rules out timely access to election results, creates an additional barrier in the form of a DEC and poses the threat of election fraud in terms of public access to election results.
Notably the explanatory note of the bill says nothing on the proposed amendment, so the rationale behind the CEC’s initiative to receive PEC summary protocols indirectly, through DECs is unknown. In addition, according to the bill, before drawing up the protocol summarizing the final results, the CEC will no longer be required to publish on the website information about election results in each electoral precinct, immediately after summarizing final election results.
2. Prohibition of vote buying will apply to the period from calling of the elections to the Election Day, instead of the entire election period.
Currently, art.47 of the Election Code of Georgia prohibits vote buying from the moment the elections are called until the final results of elections are published. The bill reduces the scope of the prohibition and it will only apply to the period from calling of the elections to the Election Day. As a result, in case of election runoff, the prohibition of vote buying provided in art.47 will no longer apply to the period between the first round Election Day and the day of calling runoff elections, when vote buying risks are high. During the 2018 presidential election, the initiative to write off unpaid loans for 600,000 voters, assessed as vote buying by both local and international observers, was announced during the period between the first and the second rounds. It seems that the changes initiated by the CEC creates a loophole for candidates to bypass the law for vote buying.
3. Representatives of press and other media outlets may no longer be appointed as observers
The rationale behind this proposal is ambiguous and it contains the risk of interfering in the process of mobilization of observers by observer organizations. Notably, the explanatory note of the bill does not provide any justification of the limitation.
Some of the amendments contained by the bill fundamentally change the existing principle of openness of results, which runs against the principle of stability of election legislation established by the Venice Commission within the good practice on electoral matters. According to this principle, the fundamental elements of electoral law should not be open to amendment within a year before an election, unless these amendments aim at introducing European electoral standards and fulfilling recommendations of international organizations.
Problematic aspect of the proposed amendments runs completely against electoral procedures commended by OSCE/ODIHR and other international organizations, originally introduced to publish election results in a timely manner and therefore, protect election against manipulations and fraud.
ISFED also negatively assesses the process of initiation of the bill itself, which was done bypassing the electoral reform working group and without involvement of relevant electoral stakeholders.
ISFED calls the Parliament of Georgia to discuss all initiatives related to the electoral reform within the electoral reform working group format, with involvement of all election stakeholders, and administer the process based on a broad consensus on electoral matters.
The organization urges the CEC to protect reputation of the electoral administration and avoid any steps that will deteriorate the existing standards of transparency of election procedures, reduce trust toward the electoral administration and increase the risk of manipulation of election results.