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The Right to Vote Abroad – Lessons Learned from Romania’s Presidential Election

With the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (which later became the EU), the fall of communism, the waves of democratization that followed, and the EU enlargement of 2004, 2007 and 2013 respectively, the demand for free movement of persons and thereby external citizenship rights has been established in Central and Eastern Europe. Citizenship is no longer limited to either inside or outside a state’s territory; this notion is especially true for EU citizens. This piece seeks to explore who should provide national citizenship rights in the EU once an individual moves from one Member State to another. The case study for this piece will be the 2014 Romanian Presidential Election and the citizenship right to be explored will be external voting in national elections because it is a means of political participation in democratic societies. The fundamental question is: if the EU’s foundation of free movement is to continue to flourish then should the EU assume responsibility in ensuring that its citizens can vote in their respective national elections while residing in another EU member state?

On Sunday, 2 November 2014 Romania held its first round of Presidential elections; the following day it was concluded that current Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, from the Socialist coalition, won the first round after receiving 40 percent of the votes. Ponta’s primary challenger- Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German mayor of Sibiu who is backed by a center-right Liberal coalition, came in second with 30.5 percent of the votes (Pop, 2014). There are many ways in which societies can enable their citizens to cast their votes abroad. The most popular options include voting in person, postal voting or early voting by mail- which sometimes will require a witness in order to limit tampering, proxy voting- which enables a citizen living abroad to select a proxy to cast their vote for them, or most recently e-voting through the internet, phone, or mobile phone (Administrative Cost of Elections, 2007). There is one system used in Romania for external voting and that is voting in person at a Romanian Embassy. There are approximately 3 million people living and working abroad who are entitled to vote in the Romanian Presidential election. For the first election round the Romanian Foreign Ministry sent a total of 600,000 ballots to its embassies. The shortage of ballots led to thousands of Romanians across embassies in Europe unable to vote. The extra voting precautions taken by the Romanian Foreign Ministry left many citizens waiting in line as the embassy closed and were therefore, also unable to vote. At the embassies in Paris, London, and Vienna local police had to intervene after people, angered by how poorly the vote was organized, refused to leave (Pop, 2014).

For many Romanians the Foreign Ministry’s failure to provide an adequate number of ballots for external voters is not only a violation of their Constitutional rights and election fraud but also, a dreary reminder that their country’s communist past still lingers closely behind. Chapter 1, Article 17 of the Romanian Constitution, adopted in 1991, states the following, “Romanian citizens while abroad shall enjoy the protection of the Romanian State and shall be bound to fulfill their duties, with the exception of those incompatible with their absence from the country.” This statute does not state whether or not voting in national elections is a compatible duty while being abstinent from the country. Nevertheless in Article 36 from Chapter 2 Fundamental Rights and Freedoms the following is stated with regards to voting, “Every citizen having turned eighteen up to or on the election day shall have the right to vote.” Again, this statute is vague; it fails to specify where a citizen must reside on election day. Nevertheless, taking this statute in its most literal definition it can be interpreted that the place of residence on election day does not matter since it was not mentioned. If this interpretation is applied to the 2014 Presidential Elections then the constitutional rights of many expats have been violated.

This stripping of the right to vote brings forth questions regarding who should be held accountable and who should organize and manage external voting in national EU-Member State elections in the future. Currently, the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for organizing and managing national elections abroad. Since the announcement of Prime Minister Ponta winning the first election round (not an overall win because he failed to earn the majority vote) responses from Romanian Public Officials have thus far been mixed. Prime Minister Ponta apologized for those who were not able to vote but argued that extra measures were needed in order to prevent voting fraud (Economist).

Prime Minister Ponta’s rational was not perceived well by the public because this was not the first time Ponta had been in the spotlight with allegations of corruption (Pop, 2014). Consequently, numerous protests were organized following the conclusion of the first election round. After protests erupted outside the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Prime Minister Ponta said that his Foreign Affairs Minister Titus Corlățean would be held responsible for any future problems in the next voting round set for 16 November 2014. However, some officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs shifted the blame onto the Central Electoral Authority and the representatives from the candidates’ political parties for not being present at the voting booths. The blame game finally erupted when Titus Corlățean decided to resign after the decision was made to create additional voting stations abroad for the next voting round. He stated in a press conference that the creation of additional booths was illegal and grounds for contesting the results of the second round. Many speculate that the now former Foreign Affairs Minister’s resistance to the creation of additional political booths was purely political because the votes abroad were expected to go to Iohannis being the pro EU and westernization candidate (Euractiv, 2014). Nevertheless, the international attention provoked by protesters, which led to the creation of additional voting booths, enabled the number of external voters to more than double to 397,000 votes on Sunday, 16 November, 2014. The addition of these external votes from the second voting round contributed to the internationally unanticipated victory of Klaus Iohannis’s after securing 54.5 percent of the vote. As it currently stands, Klaus Iohannis will serve as Romania’s President and Victor Ponta will continue with his role as Prime Minister (BBC, 2014).

There is not a similar case in an EU member state, regarding the right to external voting in national elections, that can be compared to the recent events in Romania. This is primarily because according to Directive 94/80/EC EU citizens have “the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in municipal elections by citizens of the Union residing in a Member State of which they are not nationals.” If we incorporate this directive into Romania’s Presidential election than this right was violated in the first round but then, to a greater extent, provided in the second voting round. Since the adoption of Directive 94/80/EC it is relevant to this case to compare how other member states make external voting accessible. Good governance practices have already been put into place in Member States such as Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Spain, and Sweden. These states have adopted measures to inform EU citizens of their rights under Directive 94/80/EC by sending post individual letters or polling cards containing information about their electoral procedures. Member states such as Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia enable citizens to be privy to their rights by providing information on their website on external voting procedures for national elections. Furthermore, Germany and the United Kingdom have gone as far to create a dedicated “helpline” to external voting rights and procedures (European Commission, 2012). In addition, some member states have facilitated greater access to external voting by using multiple voting methods. For example, citizens of Estonia living in another EU member state can vote in their national elections by voting in person, voting by mail, and e-voting. Other examples of central and eastern member states utilizing multiple methods of external voting for their expatriate citizens include Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia (Administrative Cost of Elections, 2007). Romania has not yet adopted these good governance electoral procedures, which were praised by the European Commission in their most recent 2012 report on the implementation of Directive 94/80/EC.

The European Commission’s (EC) position on external voting is that national election practices can have a negative impact on the EU’s free movement right and thus contradict the very foundation of EU citizenship that was put into place to give EU citizens additional rights, as opposed to taking them away. Consequently it is not surprising that the incident in Romania’s Presidential election would not be likely to occur in European Parliament elections. EU citizens living in another EU country have the right to vote in either their host country’s European Parliament elections or in their home country’s European Parliament elections, so long as their national rules provide. This system allows for EU citizens to vote without stripping Member States of their sovereignty. Nevertheless, the system used in the European Parliament elections is currently mutually exclusive from the system used for national elections in the EU.

Bauböck (2007) sheds light on the classic argument against external voting- that individuals who will not be subjected to laws should not be allowed in the process of making them. This is a strong oppositional argument in conjunction with a similar argument- that many expats are so detached from their country of citizenship that they do not possess the competency to decide who should lead. Some member states have even adopted policies which give legitimacy to these arguments against external voting. For example, in the UK a citizen cannot vote in a national election once they have lived in another country for over 15 years (Administrative Cost of Elections, 2007). While these oppositional arguments are worth noting can they be applied to a post-transitional state such as Romania?

Considering the intertwined relationship between the EU and Romanian national governance, and in light of the recent controversy, a seemingly simple solution would be for the EU to assume control over the organization and management of external voters in future national elections. The EU could assume control on the grounds of protecting its freedom of movement foundation. Even so, the solution is not that simple. If the EU were to assume control over its expat voters’ national voting rights’ a system would be created in which national elections are dual managed and thus threaten the sovereignty of EU Member States. Considering the recent increase in EU skepticism, shown in the 2014 European Parliament elections, giving one more national power to Brussels would not be a popular option. Another issue with shifting this power to the EU is that national voting rights for expats is only a problem for a small number of member states. In Romania, a recent member state and a country still dealing with its communist past, dual-election management with the EU may sound like a good idea but for other member states it would completely threaten their sovereignty. Consequently, Romanians are left with no immediate solution. Nevertheless, either one of two future scenarios are likely:

1.) International and national pressure from the new presidential administration result in Romania adopting more good governance practices and we see a gradual shift away from their communist past
2.) continued mismanagement and/or corruption at the national level result in the EU being pressured to take a larger role in Romanian national governance in order to protect its citizens and its status as an EU member state.

For now, it’s up to Romania.

About the Author

Bonnie Bethea is currently a Master in Public Policy (MPP) Candidate at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at the University of Erfurt. Bethea’s research,writing, and academic interests include Eastern European politics, regulatory affairs, and Transatlantism.


ACE The Electoral Knowledge Network. (2007). Voting from Abroad. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

Bauböck, R. (2007). Stakeholder Citizenship and Transnational Political Participation: A Normative Evaluation of External Voting, 75. Retrieved from Fordham L. Rev. 2393.

BBC. (2014). Ethnic German wins Romania vote. Retrieved November 26, 2014, from

CONSTITUTION OF ROMANIA. (1991). Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

The Economist (2014, November, 4). Romania’s Elections Polls Closed. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

European Commission. (2014). Electoral rights RSS. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

European Commission. (2012). Report from Commission to European Parliment and Council on Application of Directive 94/80/90. Retrieved November 26, 2014, from

Pop, V. (2014, November 3). Romanian PM ahead in presidential elections. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

Schwartz, A. (2014, November 10). Romania rocked by protests ahead of presidential election runoff. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from

*Cover image ‘Sibiu – Romania’s Orthodox Cathedral‘ by Camil Ghircoias


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