By Dimitri Rhodes and Mariana Gomes
Portugal’s overseas voting system in Europe has failed its emigrants this past month. 80% of Portuguese citizens living in European countries have seen their mail-in votes for the recent legislative elections voided. The government’s poor communication and regulation regarding ID requirements with postal ballots are to blame.
More than 150 thousand Portuguese-European’s mail-in ballots were nullified by Portugal’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday. This followed a criminal complaint filed by six of the country’s political parties alleging the invalidity of these mail-in ballots, as they were not accompanied by copies of voters’ identity documents.
A spokesperson for the Embassy of Portugal in Denmark explains: “Some people put the ballot paper in the envelope without a copy of their ID, and those votes were then considered null and void. But if that was the only issue, we’d be fine. The problem was that whoever was counting the votes made a mistake and mixed the void and valid votes, so they couldn’t tell who had sent their ID and who had not.”
As a result, it was impossible to verify whether these votes had been submitted with a valid copy of voters’ identity documents and the Electoral Administration were forced to nullify 157,000 votes from Portuguese citizens in Europe.
“[T]his was a slap in the face of Portuguese abroad.”
Following a similar debacle in 2019, Portugal’s main political parties had negotiated a verbal agreement to informally remove these strict voter-ID requirements, which meant that postal ballots had to be accompanied by a copy of an official ID document. This was the case until Lisbon’s highest court judges called the procedure “grossly illegal” in 2022, as it directly defied the Electoral Law of the Assembly of the Republic.
“We think this was a slap in the face of Portuguese emigrants,” Alfredo Stoffel told 9to5. President of the organization Reflection and Intervention Group – Portuguese Diaspora Germany, he thinks the law needs to change. In a press release, the group asked the Constitutional Court to demand that the votes be recast. “We can’t have a law that is ambiguous and gives space to interpretations.”
Stoffel explains that over the years, votes abroad have been made invalid due to a lack of a valid copy of ID. But this time, the issue gained traction because the amount of nullified votes was much higher. He says that this happened because polling stations followed the agreement made by the parties in 2019, and counted and sorted all the votes in the same way. “But no one ever thought that this year PSD [Social Democratic Party] would go back on their word and press charges.”
Nevertheless, this event will have little impact on the election’s final result. Incoming Prime Minister António Costa’s Socialist party has secured a complete majority victory in the parliament, with a total of 119 of the 230 seats. He has since apologized for the incident, which he said should “serve as a lesson” to improve the legal framework around voting.
However, critics point out that poor organization of ballot sorting and counting may be the real culprit. Failures from internal administrations in regulating the counting and sorting systems seem to be at the root of this event. “Even people who voted in embassies have to recast their votes,” the Embassy of Portugal in Denmark told 9to5, “but we do not understand why the in-person votes will be repeated, as they should be counted separately [from mail-in ballots].”
The court’s ruling has not only called into question the legitimacy of Portugal’s democratic process, but has also delayed the country’s 2022 national budget until June.