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Election Chaos In Bulgaria After Officials Pull The Plug On Voting Machines

A man casts his ballot on a voting machine during the parliamentary elections in Sofia in April.
A man casts his ballot on a voting machine during the parliamentary elections in Sofia in April.

SOFIA -- In a classroom with yellow walls and yellow desks, members of an election commission at a polling station in the village of Malorad, 100 kilometers north of the Bulgarian capital, are counting the votes after local elections.

After the first round of voting on October 29, election officials are dividing the ballots for municipal councilors into separate piles, and one pile is clearly bigger than the others -- the one with the invalid ballots. "What were these people [even] doing today?" one member of the commission asks after counting four invalid ballots in a row.

The situation in Malorad was documented in a video uploaded on an official government platform introduced last year to make the vote count more transparent. The official results from Malorad, published a few days after the video was shot, showed that one-third of all ballots cast at that polling station were invalid. And on a national level, things were not much better. Out of all the ballots cast for municipal councilors, 15.5 percent were invalid, according to an independent analysis of the official results.

These elections were supposed to be different, with the deployment of voting machines, which in previous elections have reduced the number of invalid ballots. But less than 36 hours before polls opened, five political parties charged that electronic voting could be manipulated and called for the machines to be retired. The Central Election Commission (CIK) ruled in their favor and cancelled the machine voting, sparking protests, throwing the election administration into chaos, and straining the ties of the country's ruling coalition.

Election workers count votes after local elections this weekend.
Election workers count votes after local elections this weekend.

On October 29, Bulgarian voters filed into local schools and municipal buildings to vote for local mayors and municipal councilors. According to the current election law, in every polling station that serves more than 300 people, voters should have the option of casting their ballot on paper or with an electronic voting machine. In April parliamentary elections -- Bulgaria's fifth in two years -- almost 60 percent of voters chose to use the voting machines.

The elections were seen as an opportunity for the recently formed anti-corruption coalition We Continue the Change -- Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) to challenge the dominant position in local politics of their grand coalition partner, the center-right GERB party. Led by former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, GERB held on to most Bulgarian cities but lost the battle for the Sofia mayor for the first time in 18 years. On November 5, some mayoral races will go to a runoff.

Spoiled Ballots

The issue with invalid votes has blighted local elections before in Bulgaria. In the last local polls, in 2019, when machine voting wasn't available, 15 percent -- or 466,000 -- of all the votes for municipal councilors were declared invalid. There was a similar number of spoiled ballots in the 2015 local elections.

There is not an established tradition in Bulgaria of spoiling ballot papers as a form of political protest, and voters also have the option of foregoing a choice and marking "none of the above." Election observers told RFE/RL that the most common occurrence of an invalid ballot they saw was a voter selecting their preference for a candidate without first marking a party.

Advocates of machine voting in Bulgaria say that it almost eliminates invalid ballots and reduces the risk of vote rigging. Voters select their preferred parties and candidates on a touch screen and then print paper receipts, allowing voters to check if their vote was properly marked. This system does not allow voters to mark more choices than permitted or spoil their ballots by marking them more than is necessary.

In a joint statement after the five parties alleged that electronic voting could be manipulated, experts from several election-monitoring organizations said that there was no risk of vote rigging and that it was impossible to "manipulate" a voting machine to change the election result. The machines, the experts said, essentially serve as printers -- the election officials count the paper receipts that the machines print after every vote cast.

"The machines do not allow invalid votes," the Institute for the Development of the Public Environment, a nongovernmental organization specializing in election monitoring, wrote in an analysis on October 31. It cited data from the last six elections in Bulgaria, when machine voting was widely used.

Officials say the voting machines act as printers to ensure unspoiled ballots.
Officials say the voting machines act as printers to ensure unspoiled ballots.

For parliamentary and presidential elections held between July 2021 and November 2022 -- when only machines were used in polling stations with more than 300 voters -- the proportion of invalid votes was under 0.5 percent. In parliamentary elections held in April 2021 and April 2023, when both voting machines and paper ballots were available, the share of the invalid ballots was between 1.6 percent and 2.6 percent.

"Data from the last six machine-voting campaigns clearly shows the low proportion of invalid votes since 2021, with such ballots only in paper-voting sections," the analysis said.

With the voting machines banned for this year's local elections, the Institute for the Development of the Public Environment concluded that 15.5 percent -- or 413,000 -- of all the ballots cast for municipal councilors on October 29 were invalid. This is the highest proportion of invalid ballots Bulgaria has had in the past 10 years.

In some towns, such as Lukovit, about 90 kilometers northeast of Sofia, more than one-third of votes cast were invalid. In the regional center of Pleven, 130 kilometers northeast of Sofia, more invalid ballots were cast than valid ballots for the winning political party.

"The problem with invalid votes might not have existed at all if machine voting hadn't been canceled hours before election day," the institute said in its postelection analysis.

Invalid ballots aren't the only issue. There is also election fraud. A video from another polling station in the village of Malorad shows members of the election commission discussing whether to "help" some of the candidates. Election officials end up marking preferences for particular candidates on ballots where voters had only selected party lists and not individual candidates. Two members of the Malorad commission have since been charged with falsifying election results.

The fact that this decision was made at the last minute "significantly undermines confidence in the process and leaves suspicion of political motives," Iva Lazarova, an elections expert at the institute, told RFE/RL. "It is difficult to determine what is the logic behind abolishing the machine voting for the most complex elections."

What Led To The Commission's Decision

It was the evening of October 27, less than 36 hours before the polling stations were supposed to open, when Bulgaria's Central Election Commission unexpectedly decided to cancel the use of the voting machines.

Earlier the same day, several political parties -- GERB; the Movement For Rights And Freedoms (DPS); the pro-Russian Revival party; the Bulgarian Socialist Party; and the populist There Is Such a People -- accused the government of attempting to manipulate the machine voting. In separate statements in parliament, party officials said that the deputy minister tasked with the certification of the voting machines, Mihail Stoinov, had made a video recording of the steps required to generate the source code of the voting machines. This, they alleged, would allow the manipulation of the election results.

Delyan Peevski, a DPS lawmaker who is under sanctions by the United States for corruption, called for the outlawing of the voting machines. "There is no other solution -- either cancelation of machine [voting], or cancelation of the elections," he told reporters in parliament on October 27, with other lawmakers echoing his call.

Those opposed to the voting machines said their claims were based on a paper by Bulgaria's domestic security agency, the State Agency for National Security, which had cited the source-code incident with Stoinov. The paper, which was published after the machine voting had been canceled, did not specify how this could affect the voting or mention any evidence of an attempt to manipulate the results.

The government has rejected the allegations, saying that everything done by Stoinov was part of a standard process for the certification of the voting machines, which was done in a room at the Electronic Governance Ministry under video surveillance and in the presence of other officials.

The computer code running the voting machines is not a secret. Bulgaria's election law states that representatives of all parties in the parliament, as well as officials from the Electronic Governance Ministry, should all have access to the code to ensure transparency.

Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov casts his ballot in Sofia on October 29.
Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov casts his ballot in Sofia on October 29.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov has called the events that led to the cancelation of machine voting "a classic example of active measures" -- the term used to describe political warfare conducted by the Soviet Union, which included espionage, propaganda, and sabotage.

The PP-DB alliance was the only political group to defend the machine voting. Atanas Atanasov, a lawmaker from PP-DB, highlighted the role of the State Agency for National Security and, in a Facebook post, called their much-cited paper critical of voting machines "low-quality kompromat, serving the preservation of the feudal model of GERB and DPS in the local government by compromising the machine voting and creating conditions for replacing the citizens' vote."

Ruptures In The Ruling Coalition

The spat over the voting machines is just the latest disagreement between the two factions in Bulgaria's governing coalition, formed after the April parliamentary elections. They are on opposite sides of the barricades, with PP-DB defending the machine voting and GERB calling for only paper ballots to be used.

With a series of snap elections in Bulgaria in 2021, the parliament has several times changed the rules on machine voting, depending on which group has a majority. According to elections expert Lazarova, machine voting has become "a topic used to mobilize the parties' electorates" in the last two years. "The machines were loaded with expectations to solve the problems in our election process, which is impossible for a voting technology," she said. "But...the focus was shifted and there was no scope for expressing expert opinions regarding the benefits and functionalities of the machines."

The runoff local votes on November 5 should be different. After several thousand citizens protested in major Bulgarian cities, calling for the return of the voting machines, and political parties appealed the election commission's decision, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that, in fact, the voting machines would be allowed.

Written by Elitsa Simeonova in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service
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    Elitsa Simeonova

    Elitsa Simeonova is a correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. She previously was a correspondent in Sofia for RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.

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    RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service

    RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service relaunched in 2019 after a 15-year absence, providing independent news and original analysis to help strengthen a media landscape weakened by the monopolization of ownership and corruption.

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