Peoples’ anger & the Austrian re-vote. Read correctly, plan accordingly

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 16, 2016


The real takeaway from the forthcoming re-run of Austria’s presidential election (now re-re-scheduled from October 2 to December 4)? That advanced democracies must now pay excessive care to voting technology and process. And possibly to the norms of campaigning too?

On Bloomberg View, Leonid Bershidksy lays out the urgent case for the installation or upgrading of the right sort of voting technology. However expensive, he points out, it’s likely to be essential if populist movements, which fight elections as one would a war, are not to be given the chance to call distasteful election results (ie. defeat) into question.

He’s right, though I would go still further and we’ll come to that in a minute. Let’s first examine Mr Bershidsky’s point. As he says, Austria is “an uneventful and reliable democracy”, the sort of country you couldn’t credibly mount the accusation of electoral fraud or any hanky-panky. And yet, the country’s Constitutional Court has called for the May 22 run-off presidential election to be re-done on the following basis: not because of fraud or conspiracy but because 77,926 postal votes (about one-seventh of all postal voters; and a fraction of Austria’s 6.4 million electorate overall) were handled improperly. The Court’s mild rebuke fit the tepid crime: many of the district election commissions opened the postal votes without observers present; some were opened by people who did not have the authority to do so.

In every possible way then, it was right for the Court to order a re-vote. The irregularly dealt-with 77,926 ballots are more than twice the margin of the Green Party victory over the Far Right Freedom Party candidate.

More to the point, it gives populists ­– the Freedom Party – the chance to play up some people’s suspicions and anger that “everything is rigged” and the system weighted to discount the popular will. Remember, we live in an age in which UK ‘leave’ campaigners asked their supporters to take pens to polling stations for the June 23 referendum – the pencils supplied could mean their vote is rubbed out. That’s an amazingly suspicious suggestion considering that Britain has traditionally had a high level of electoral probity.

But Brexiteers, Donald Trump supporters and, yes, Austria’s Far Right party play the notion of a rigged system very skilfully. In Austria, they will still use this argument, as Mr Bershidsky says, by claiming that their “candidate lost because of a conspiracy”. But by ordering a re-vote, at least some of the rage against the system can be drawn off.

That should be the hope, anyway.

Onwards then to the suggested remedies to deal with the hostility against the so-called “establishment”. Not just in Austria, but in other parts of Europe and in the US and the UK.

“No ‘hanging chads’,” urges Mr Bershidsky, which sounds like very good advice as elections become more contentious and possibly tighter contests.

He suggests a drive towards super tech – possibly secure online voting as in Estonia and Switzerland – rather than the halting and patchy picture that exists. After 20 years of using them, the Netherlands stopped relying on voting machines in 2006 because hackers showed up vulnerabilities. Ditto Ireland, in 2009. Its machines came from the same manufacturer as the Dutch.

This is all very sensible. But technology is not the only answer. What about calling for tighter campaign norms? Like advertising standards (and advertising standards authorities that police the claims made by manufacturers and sellers), campaigners should be called to account for mis-selling propositions. That might take some of the more popular bits out of the angry populists’ march to take over the world?