A year before the 2024 Parliamentary elections, the Georgian legislative body is rushing through amendments to the electoral code that will allow citizens to vote with the so-called “laminated” IDs, which are outdated and vulnerable to fraud.
On November 15, the Georgian Parliament adopted in the first reading the amendments to the Election Code of Georgia, which propose to allow voting with “existing non-electronic identity cards (identity cards that do not contain electronic information).”
The draft law was submitted by Fridon Injia, MP and the chairperson of the “European Socialists” parliamentary group, and it was endorsed by the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority.
“As for Fridon Injia’s initiative, this initiative also allows people with non-electronic IDs to vote. We will support this initiative,” said Irakli Kobakhidze, the Chair of the ruling “Georgian Dream.”
What is the change?
Currently, only Georgian citizens in possession of either an electronic ID card or a Georgian passport are allowed to vote. This was enacted in December 2022, when the Parliament adopted the amendments to switch to the electronic system of voting procedure.
If the law is changed again, people who have only the old-style so-called “laminated” ID cards will also be allowed to vote.
How many people have the so-called “laminated” IDs?
It is unclear how many people currently have only the “laminated” IDs. According to the Public Service Development Agency (PSDA) of Georgia, about 400,000 people had only old-style non-electronic IDs in 2019, however, but this statistic does not mean much today, as their number was expected to decrease since then. Politicians and experts give different figures, ranging from 200,000 to 300,000.
Introduction of electronic IDs in 2011
The introduction of electronic ID cards in Georgia in 2011 was accompanied by controversy and opposition from certain segments of society, ranging from dissatisfaction with the price to concerns related to religious issues. In 2020, the Constitutional Court of Georgia declared inadmissible the lawsuit filed a year earlier against the electronic ID cards.
According to the plaintiffs, the chips contained in the electronic ID cards and passports are a means of total control over people and are related to the biblical prophecy of the Apocalypse. The plaintiffs refused to receive such documents because of their faith, while arguing that leaving them without ID cards and passports would completely isolate them from social life and limit their constitutional rights.
Why might the adoption of the draft law be the problem?
As the amendments to the Electoral Code were adopted in the first reading, politicians from the opposition spectrum, as well as the civil society representatives, expressed their concern about the growing fear of electoral fraud.
Zurab Japaridze, the leader of “Girchi-More Freedom” party, demonstrated in the video how easy it is for those who want to cheat the elections to do so by printing extra ID cards, even at home. He also says that in order to rig the elections, the ruling party needs its own people in the Ministry of Justice and the Central Election Commission (CEC), which he says they have.
What problem does the draft law claim to solve?
The Explanatory Note to the amendments reads:
“Tens of thousands of Georgian citizens will be prevented from exercising their constitutional right to participate in elections and determine their position,” i.e to vote says the note referring to the Georgian citizens who do not have the electronic ID cards.
The Explanatory Note recalls amendments to the Georgian Electoral Code that, as the note says, were initiated in response to the EU 12 recommendations, which introduced an electronic vote counting mechanism. According to the amendments over 70% of votes in the 2024 parliamentary elections and other future elections will be counted electronically. As a result, those with old-style “laminated” IDs will be barred from voting, according to the explanatory note. The Explanatory Note emphasizes the importance of ensuring that no one is prevented from exercising his or her fundamental right to vote.
In addition, the Explanatory Note also states that the draft law is aimed at bringing the Electoral Code of the country in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR, which were given to Georgia through their Joint Opinion issued in December, 2022.
The Explanatory Note argues “the particular attitudes towards the electronic ID cards” including religious beliefs, should not become a “restrictive factor for them to participate in elections and to exercise the constitutional right to vote. It adds: “A person’s beliefs should not be the basis for discrimination.”
The Note says that this requirement could be a financial burden that prevents them from exercising their constitutional right to vote, as the cost of acquiring new IDs ranges from GEL 60 to GEL 150. In turn, the draft law removes this financial burden from those citizens who wish to participate in the elections.
Notably, 2019 a one-month grace period was announced, during which any Georgian citizen could have received the new electronic IDs free of charge.
What did the Venice Commission – OSCE/ODIHR say in 2022?
The Joint Opinion of the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) said:
“While electronic identity cards were introduced in Georgia in 2011, it is not mandatory to possess one, and many citizens continue to use their non-electronic identity card (which does not have an expiry date), including for voting. In effect, voters in possession of only the non-electronic card will be disenfranchised. It is imperative that the law ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that all eligible voters are able to cast a vote as a suffrage right. In light of this, consideration should be to continue to provide voters with the option of using either type of card or otherwise incorporate a transitional provision that allows use of either card until a specified date.”
Back in 2022 the OSCE/ODIHR also said: “The transitional period should provide sufficient time for the relevant authorities to inform voters of this new voting requirement and allow citizens a reasonable time period to obtain the electronic card if they do not already possess one. In this respect, it is imperative that the relevant authorities conduct a timely information campaign and facilitate an easy access to obtain the required electronic card.”
What do the opponents say?
In the midst of the new election season, Georgian civil society and opposition representatives raised a number of concerns, mainly about possible vote rigging.
According to Giorgi Sioridze, a representative of the “Lelo” party in the CEC, quoted by Netgazeti, there are still about 300,000 old ID cards and it is of great concern how they could be used for fraud. In addition, Sioridze notes the procedural problems that might arise during electronic voting with old laminated IDs, as they require the ID numbers to be written down manually, slowing down the process.
Sioridze emphasizes that the right to vote is not an absolute right, and in case of the will to exercise such a right, one must accept some rules: “”For example, we have the right to leave the country, but in order to cross the state border, we have to take the passport,” – Sioridze says, adding that if anyone wants to exercise their right to vote, they must possess the electronic IDs.
Tbilisi Bureau of Radio Liberty quotes civil society representatives’ comments on the issue:
Gigi Chikhladze, a project coordinator for local watchdog Transparency International /TI-Georgia, also believes that the “laminated” IDs offer less protection against voter fraud. He also stresses that the Ministry of Justice should use all existing mechanisms at its disposal to ensure that everyone has the electronic IDs, including providing them free of charge, which is a common practice in the run-up to elections.
Levan Natroshvili, deputy executive director of the local CSO International Society for Fair Elections And Democracy (ISFED), also claims that it’s much easier to commit fraud with non-electronic IDs. He cites the case of the 2012 elections, when so many fake non-electronic IDs were discovered, which allegedly were used in the elections.
Iago Kachkachishvili, a sociologist, argues that the majority of supporters of the ruling Georgian Dream party belong to the elderly population, which includes the largest number of people with non-electronic IDs. “The government is trying not to lose a single vote from its supporters… One of its target groups is the elderly population,” says Kachkachishvili. Although he reiterates the central argument against the proposed law, that “it is very easy to print the old ID in a non-factory way [under home conditions], you can print a lot of them, even under the names of those who are already dead, especially since this kind of ID is possessed by representatives of the older generation”.
What to expect?
The opposition parties called for the abolition of Injia’s initiative, saying that the old identity cards are a lever for the GD to rig the 2024 parliamentary elections. On November 24, the the GD majority discussed the initiative in a closed meeting with opposition.
The participants’ comments after the meeting raised more questions than answers.
Tina Bokuchava, MP from UNM said: We have said that there is a great risk that such [laminated] IDs could be used to rig the elections. Therefore, it is fundamentally important that these people [who have laminated IDs] change their IDs and get the electronic IDs…We have been promised, I would say, that this will happen.”
“All ID cards issued before 2011 will lose their legal power, i.e. [those ID cards] issued before the [new] ID cards with chips were issued,” – said GD Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze. He also said that “there will be a maximum of 500-1000 people who will vote with non-electronic IDs”. How he arrived at this figure, or when exactly the old-style IDs will be invalidated, remains unknown.
“A certain day will be set after which these [laminated] IDs will no longer be valid” – said one of the leaders of the GD, Mamuka Mdinaradze, adding that if anyone still considers it absolutely unacceptable to sit to obtain the new IDs for health reasons or religious beliefs, the same “laminated” IDs will be issued again for these people. Mdinaradze noted that there are currently 64 cards issued on such grounds.
The future of the draft law remains unclear. The draft law has not been suspended and the second hearing in the Parliament is scheduled for the upcoming weeks.