‘Voter tourism’: New Hungarian residency law raises risk of electorate manipulation, NGOs warn

New residency law amendments legalise declaration of fictitious addresses, which risks influencing next year's parliamentary elections in Hungary, NGOs warn. [Shutterstock/Lightspring]

A newly-adopted amendment in Hungary legalises the establishment of fictitious addresses and could unleash ‘voter tourism’ in next year’s parliamentary elections, according to a statement on Tuesday (16 November) of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) and the Political Capital think tank, EURACTIV’s media partner Telex reported.

The amendment changes the definition of residence as it no longer requires one to actually live at that address. Residence will be reduced to a contact address, with only a presumption in favour of residence. 

According to the civil society organisations, the amendments also eliminate punishment for the establishment of (or complicity in) a fictitious residence.

András Fekete-Győr, an opposition politician who leads the liberal Momentum’s party list for next year’s parliamentary elections, called the amendments “scandalous”. 

In his view, this is a move by the ruling Fidesz party to “legalise the tried and tested, illegal method of 2018 and scale it up”.

The section of the penal code on forgery of public documents will be amended so that anyone will be able to register an address on a piece of private property with the consent of the owner, without criminal sanctions – even if it is obvious from the outset that he or she will not live there.

In TASZ’s view, this is dangerous because recent elections have seen several cases of people establishing a residence in an electoral district only to be able to vote there, without actually living at the address.

This happened in several cases in the 2019 municipal elections in which opposition won back several big cities, where the police detected and a criminal court sanctioned the abuse.

Hungary's opposition wins Budapest election, makes gains in other cities

Hungary’s opposition scored its biggest election victory in a decade on Sunday (13 October) when liberal challenger Gergely Karácsony ousted ruling-party incumbent Istvan Tarlos as mayor of Budapest and opposition parties made gains in other major cities as well.

From one vote to two

The country’s mixed electoral system gives two votes for each citizen, one for the single-seat constituency in which the voter lives, out of Hungary’s 106 districts, and one for national party lists. However, those without a legal residence in Hungary can only cast the vote for the lists.

A number of convictions also followed after the 2018 parliamentary elections, when ‘voter tourism’ (voksturizmus), the Hungarian term for the practice, was in full swing in the northeastern border regions with significant Hungarian minorities living just outside the country’s borders.

At the time, fictitious addresses were reportedly established whose sole purpose was to enable voters to cast an additional ballot on top of national lists for individual candidates running in electoral districts.

As a result of the new amendment, those who establish a residence in Hungary for this sole purpose, without the intention of actually living there, will no longer be held criminally liable.

Rights defenders argue that the amendment could in itself address some real problems: There are indeed many people who do not register their change of residence out of forgetfulness or for practical reasons. It would be unnecessary and excessive to prosecute them through criminal law.

At the same time, however, the law should continue to deter those who establish a fictitious residence, or assist others in doing so, in order to illegitimately influence the outcome of elections, as this is the only way to preserve the integrity of elections, NGOs argue.

This could be done by expanding the criminal code and making it an offence to knowingly declare a fictitious address as their residency to enjoy fuller voting rights. This should apply to elections, referendums, and European citizens’ initiatives, civil society activists said. 

Government: Law response to reality

The official explanatory memorandum attached to the law says the amendments are a response to the reality. According to the Central Statistical Office, more than 6.37% of the Hungarian population, or some 625,000 people, do not live at their declared place of residence.

The explanation goes on to add that the bill follows a more lax regulatory approach of limiting the state’s knowledge about its citizens to what the public interest requires.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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