Changes in election law benefit Latvians abroad

Latvian citizens living abroad—including World War II exiles and their descendents who reclaimed citizenship after 1991—may find it a bit easier to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Latvia’s parliament, the Saeima, on May 30 approved changes to the election law that were sought by several Latvian emigre organizations.

Under the revised law, voters abroad will be able to mail in absentee ballots at least 15 days before the official election day. Latvia’s national election day this year is set for Saturday, Oct. 5.

Some citizens abroad had complained that in their countries of residence mail service is not offered on Saturdays, while Latvia’s election law said that citizens abroad could vote either in person or post their absentee ballots on the day of the election. Mailed ballots also had to be received and opened in polling offices within three days of the election.

The World Federation of Free Latvians (Pasaules brīvo latviešu apvienība, or PBLA) was among emigre organizations pushing for the changes.

“The PBLA is very satisfied,” Linda Kovaļevska, head of the federation’s Rīga office, said in an e-mail to Latvians Online, “because the adopted amendment that allows voting by mail 15 days before election day was proposed by the PBLA.”

The president of the Latvian National Federation in Canada (Latviešu nacionālā apvienība Kanādā, or LNAK) agreed the changes are good.

“The changes definitely will help Latvians living in Canada to participate in the elections,” said Imants Purvs. The federation already has begun discussions with the Latvian Embassy in Ottawa about how best to publicize the changes and increase voter participation.

Under the revised election law, citizens living abroad may still vote at an official polling place.

The emigre organizations’ concerns were addressed in election law amendments proposed Oct. 31 by the Central Elections Commission, according to a press release. The commission oversees elections in Latvia. Arnis Cimdars, chair of the commission, also had noted that in some large countries even three days may not be enough time for a ballot to reach a local polling place.

Although the changes may satisfy the concerns of many Latvian citizens abroad, one catch might be that in order to receive an absentee ballot, voters will have to mail their Latvian passport to their polling place to prove their eligibility. Because a unified and computerized registry of voters is not yet available in Latvia, the passport is needed to verify eligibility. By the time the next parliamentary elections would be scheduled in 2006, such a registry should be ready, Kovaļevska said.

The PBLA also headed off an amendment proposed by the Latvian Foreign Ministry which would have barred citizens without a passport from voting, Kovaļevska said. Some citizens may not have a passport, but instead have a document from the Department of Citizenship and Migration Affairs that proves their citizenship.

Also struck from the proposed legislation was a provision that would have allowed a citizen voting abroad by mail to change their ballot by showing up in person at the polling place, taking back their absentee ballot and voting again.

Voters on Oct. 5 will elect 100 members of parliament. Citizens who are at least 18 years old are eligible to vote. Candidates for parliament have a 20-day window, beginning 80 days before the election, in which to apply to be on the ballot.

In the meantime, the Central Elections Commission also will need to decide where polling places will be established abroad. In Canada, Purvs said, LNAK is considering opening an election office in Toronto.

For the last parliamentary elections in 1998, the Central Elections Commission set up a total of 31 polling places abroad, most of them in embassies. Three of those were in the United States: the Latvian House in Chicago, the Latvian Social Center in Los Angeles and the Latvian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Two were in Canada: the Latvian Embassy in Ottawa and the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto. Australia also had two, in the honorary consulates in Sydney and Melbourne.

In all, 10,080 votes were recorded from Latvian citizens living abroad, with 2,928 (29 percent) coming from the United States. Australia had the next largest bloc of votes, 1,791 (17.7 percent), while Canada contributed 1,579 (15.6 percent). Together, Latvian voters in the three countries represented more than 62 percent of votes cast abroad.

Voters abroad in general were a conservative group. Of the 10,080 votes cast, 46 percent went to Tēvzemei un brīvībai/LNNK (For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK), Latvia’s leading conservative party. Overall, the party took third in national elections, earning 17 spots in the 100-seat Saeima. A third of ballots abroad were cast for Tautas partija (People’s Party), the conservative reform party that recorded the best results in the election, earning 24 seats.

More than 32,000 Latvian citizens were living abroad in 2000, according to the Department of Citizenship and Migration Affairs. More than a third—a total of 11,344—were in the United States, followed by 4,447 in Australia and 4,198 in Canada.

Voting in 7th Saeima election

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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