On June 28, after months of deliberations, the Parliament of Georgia adopted amendments to the Election Code of Georgia. The changes, discussed among parties since the start of the government crisis after the 2020 parliamentary elections, were included in a memorandum signed in January between the Citizens party and the ruling Georgian Dream and later reflected – with some modifications – in EU-brokered April 19 agreement.
The stated aim of the bill was to rectify the flaws identified during the 2020 vote. The new regulations will affect the conduct of the upcoming October 2 municipal elections in several ways. Here are the key reforms:
The new law redefined the composition of all three levels of the election administration. The number of CEC members increases from 12 to 17, out of which eight – including the chair – are supposed to be selected based on their professional qualifications. At least two such candidates are nominated by the President of Georgia for each vacant position and should be approved by the Parliament.
Should the legislative body endorse a professional member by at least 2/3 of the votes, they are appointed for a term of 5 years. If the wide consensus fails to materialize, they can only serve for 6 months. Giorgi Kalandarishvili, the first chair elected under this rule on August 2, falls in the latter category and can hold his position for another six months.
The remaining nine CEC members are selected by political parties that participated in the last parliamentary elections individually or in a bloc and got more than 1% of valid votes. If the number of such parties exceeds 9, the preference is given to the ones that received more votes.
For the upcoming elections, however, a provisional rule applies, where the preference is given to the party receiving more state funding as of January 1, 2021. This has resulted in Labor Party losing its right to appoint a member. Instead, the preference was given to European Democrats, who ran in a bloc with the United National Movement and three other smaller parties during 2020 parliamentary elections.
The amendment also lets the MPs who formed the new party after being elected to send their representative to CEC. Thus, the European Socialists (who emerged on the ashes of the Alliance of Patriots representatives) are able to nominate their representative.
The District Election Commissions (DECs) and Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) will have similar composition of 17 members, with eight professional and nine party-appointed members. There are 73 District Election Commissions, and the local self-government elections will take place in 64 municipalities, including Tbilisi with ten DECs and the same number of single-mandate majoritarian districts.
The new laws have lowered the threshold of 4% for a proportional vote in the municipal elections: parties will need at least 2.5% of votes to get Sakrebulo (local city/municipal assembly) seats in Tbilisi and 3,0% in the rest of Georgia.
An important change is that majoritarian candidates in the local elections will need more than 40% votes to avoid the runoff. Previously, a candidate simply had to get more votes than their competitors to win.
Also, the share of proportional mandates has increased compared to majoritarian seats. In the country’s five self-governing cities – Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi, Rustavi, and Poti – the changes introduced the ratio of four-to-one (in Tbilisi: 40 proportional and 10 majoritarian seats from previous 25/25 composition; in the remaining four – 28 proportional and 7 majoritarian seats). In other municipalities, the ratio is two-to-one for the proportional seats, with an overall number of seats calculated individually for each municipality. By decreasing the share of majoritarian mandates and introducing the threshold for the first-round win, the changes are supposed to reflect the voters will more fairly.
Some of the campaign concerns were addressed by the changes. Non-career public employees (those employed, for example, on service contracts) will also be banned from campaigning during work hours, just like the career civil servants were before. This list will also include school principals and other personnel of public pre-schools and schools.
The amended code also restricts the same group from “gathering on a basis of employment” for the campaign purposes, presumably to avoid mobilizing certain professional groups for political purposes.
On the voting day, assemblies, voter registration, or physical obstruction of voters’ mobility is prohibited within 100 meters of the polling stations. In the previous version of the law, only part of these actions was restricted within a 25-meter radius of the building. The suspicious and sometimes violent actions around the polling stations have been observed as problematic practices during the past years.
Flaws and imbalances in voting summary protocols were one of the key triggers sparking the post-election crisis last year, something that the new laws try to rectify.
According to the new legislation, the DEC should prompt a recount once it has detected a corrected precinct summary protocol without a respective amendment protocol attached to it. Also, PEC summary protocols can only be amended by DECs after recounting the ballots.
In addition, DECs are obliged to identify five precincts in each election district by random selection and recount the ballots no later than on the sixth day after the vote.
The amended code allows the CEC to employ new electronic tools such as photo-searching systems, video-recording of the vote count, ballot paper scanning, or ballot papers with barcodes in the upcoming local elections, including during voter registration, voting, vote count, or enactment of summary protocols. The procedures, however, are not strictly prescribed, leaving it to the CEC to define where to apply them.
The CEC defined in August 3,200 out of 3,664 precincts where the vote count will be video-recorded, in addition to the five precincts per DEC where the votes will be automatically recounted as per new law. According to the CEC, no recording will take place in precincts with 300 or fewer registered voters. The watchdogs deploying observation missions this year stressed earlier with Civil.ge that they may use the recordings in potential subsequent disputes.
So far, no massive application of any other technological novelties is planned in the upcoming vote.
The ruling party drew criticism after it defined in the new law one-in-three gender quotas in the proportional party lists of the municipal elections to be held till 2028, amending the earlier version which demanded one in two candidates to be of a different gender. The Georgian Dream lawmakers responded to the criticism arguing that after raising the proportional share of mandates, the ultimate minimum gender balance would remain unchanged.
International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) and Transparency International (TI) Georgia, two key election watchdogs, positively assessed some of the changes such as new rules of establishing election commissions, new and changed electoral thresholds in the municipal elections, campaign restrictions on civil servants and simpler appeal procedures, including the possibility for electronic submissions and extended deadlines.
The two CSOs, however, criticized the transitional procedures for the appointment of CEC members effective ahead of the 2021 municipal elections. Namely, the shorter periods (1 week instead of 4) between the parliamentary votes to elect professional CEC members “significantly diminished the space for political compromise and, in fact, gave the parliamentary majority a possibility to easily appoint the candidates of its choice without consent from the opposition,” the watchdogs said.
ISFED and TI assessed negatively the provisional rule of preference in appointing a CEC member being given to parties with more state funding. Also, they described the rule allowing newly-established parties within the parliament to appoint a member as “specifically tailored to the case of the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia.”