With less than two weeks to go before the Sept. 15 deadline, only 200 Latvian citizens living abroad have requested absentee ballots for next month’s parliamentary election, according to the Central Election Commission in Rīga.
Of those, 80 requests (40 percent) have been from Latvian citizens living in the United States, according to data tallied Sept. 4 from 38 election districts abroad.
Citizens living abroad have until Sept. 15 to mail their requests to a designated embassy or consulate. If they don’t vote by mail, they may still cast a ballot on Oct. 7 at one of the 53 designated polling stations abroad.
Germany had the next highest number of absentee ballot requests—32.
Australia was third with 19, three of which were submitted to the honorary consulate in Adelaide.
“I would have expected about 10,” said Valdis Tomanis, Latvia’s honorary consul in Southern Australia, “but some leave this until the last moment.”
Canada, which in the Toronto metropolitan area boasts the largest Latvian community abroad, had recorded just eight requests.
Some locations have had no requests for absentee ballots. In Brazil, where 108 Latvian citizens voted in the 2002 election, Honorary Consul Jānis Grimbergs was still waiting for applications.
“I hope things change in the next days,” he said by e-mail from San Paulo.
Likewise no applications had been received at Latvia’s embassy in Tallinn, Estonia, but that did not surprise Second Secretary Nora Labonovska. No one from Estonia voted by mail in 2002, but a total of 247 ballots were cast in person, according to Central Election Commission data.
Just because requests for absentee ballots are lagging does not necessarily mean that voter activity abroad will be less than four years ago. Ireland, with an estimated 20,000 or more Latvian citizens now living and working there, reported just 10 requests as of Sept. 4, according to the election commission.
“That in Ireland only 10 have requested to vote by mail does not surprise me,” Jānis Kārgins, head of the Latvian Society in Ireland, said via e-mail. “But without a doubt the number of voters this year is expected to be higher than last time.”
That may not be a hard goal to reach: In the last two Saeima elections, 1998 and 2002, no Latvian citizens in Ireland cast ballots, according to election commission data. This year, two polling stations will be in operation on Oct. 7, one each in Dublin and Cork, Kārgins noted.
“Information about the polling stations and their hours of operation has been distributed to many people,” he said. “All that remains is to wait for results and then it will be possible to judge people’s attitude toward Latvia’s future.”
Representatives of at least two Latvian political parties also have traveled to Ireland in recent weeks to talk to voters.
If they turn out, Ireland’s thousands may have an effect on the number of votes cast abroad, a number that has dropped each election even as the number of polling stations has increased.
In 1993, voting for the 5th Saeima (the first parliamentary election after Latvia regained independence), only 16 polling stations were established outside the homeland, but a total of 17,888 votes were recorded abroad, said Kristīne Bērziņa, head of the information section for the election commission. By 2002, in voting for the 8th Saeima, the number of polling stations had increased to 29, but the number of votes abroad was only 7,371.
“For the 9th Saeima election there are now 53 polling stations,” Bērziņa said, “but if that will give positive results we will be able to judge only after the election.”
The slow pace of absentee ballot requests may be explained by the inconvenience the process requires of citizens living abroad. Bērziņa added. To register, the citizen’s passport must be submitted so that a notation can be made in it. For voters in Latvia, they can appear at any polling station on election day.
That sentiment was echoed by Mārtiņš Duhms, chair of the American Latvian Association.
“People do not want send their passports by mail,” he said in an e-mail from Rīga. “Some fear they might get lost. For others, the process if too complicated.”
That’s why the ALA pushed the Central Election Commission for more polling stations in the United States and was rewarded with nine for the 2006 election. And now the association will campaign to get more voters out on Oct. 7, sending e-mails to about 1,600 Latvians in the United States, discussing the political parties in the next issue of its journal Latvian Dimensions and advertising in the Latvian-American weekly newspaper Laiks.
The ALA also recommends the Latvian government in future create a register of voters, similar to what is used in the United States, to ease the voting process.
Further information, in Latvian, about how to apply for an absentee ballot is available from the Central Election Commission’s Web site.
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