Better and independent information before elections, the possibility of online voting, voting rights for foreigners and more citizen participation and direct democracy are recommended by a citizens' jury in the Austrian province of Vorarlberg.
The non-party citizens' initiative "Fair Elections" handed over more than 1,300 signatures for the convening of this citizens' jury to the President of the Provincial Parliament Harald Sonderegger on 24 February 2022. The citizens' jury was to draw up an electoral law reform in time for the 2024 state elections. The aim of the petition was fair regulations for all parties. The Citizens' Jury took place on 1 and 2 July 2022.
"We no longer want to be governed by parties that buy media presence and coverage through excessive election advertising spending," it says on the website of the "Fair Elections" initiative. The conservative party alone, for example, knowingly overspent its allowed campaign budget in the 2017 National Council election by 5.96 million euros, i.e. by 85 per cent of the allowed campaign budget, because it could easily afford the penalty payment of 800,000 euros due for this. This money was used, among other things, to manipulate polling data and to steer reporting.
"Unworthy of a democracy"
"The initiative criticises that "smaller parties with smaller budgets do not or hardly appear in the public media." Voters are therefore unable to perceive them or classify them sufficiently. Small parties seem to have too little chance to be given a vote. This is unworthy of a democracy.
In a democracy, political content and social development should count. For "Fair Elections", this means that every list admitted to the election should be able to publicly present its election programme and its stances on socially relevant issues. Topics of the intended electoral law reform should include media presence for all parties running for election as well as compliance with legal requirements, or penalties for non-compliance.
Six thematic fields
The citizens jointly identified a total of six thematic fields:
- Overcoming the crisis of confidence
- Teaching civic education and politics
- Voting rights
- Digital voting, contemporary voting
- Equality of electoral groups
- Citizen participation and direct democracy
The Citizens' Assembly participants agreed on the following recommendations:
- Politicians should create spaces for meetings and dialogue with voters. Such spaces can be, for example, consultation hours, citizens' cafés, regulars' tables, forums and social media.
- An election wiki should be created to provide voters with better information. Political education should become compulsory in schools. An independent platform should provide information on upcoming elections. Information should be offered in several languages and in easily understandable language.
- People without an Austrian passport should be granted the right to vote after ten years of permanent residence in Austria.
- An election app is to make it possible to vote digitally, quickly, easily and regardless of location. The use of ID-Austria is suggested for identification purposes.
- Every party and group running for election should be given the same time and public opportunities and allowances for their election advertising.
- A regular citizens' forum and binding referendums should be introduced.
Discussion in resonance group
In a resonance group, provincial councillors and experts from the administration, among others, discussed the recommendations. They point out that the constitution would have to be changed for a right to vote without citizenship. Other demands of the citizens' jury, on the other hand, meet with more approval. For example, the demand for more political education in schools. Politicians must now present to the members of the citizens' jury what will happen with the results.
On 28 March 2023, the province of Vorarlberg presented its new participation strategy. The strategy's goals include a central contact point for citizen participation, comprehensive information work, new forms of joint design, practising participation, design opportunities for young people, greater diversity and inclusivity, co-decision-making instead of just consultation (also online) and measurable consequences/effects of citizen participation.
The Vorarlberg Citizens' Jury
In the Vorarlberg Citizens' Jury, randomly selected citizens work out solutions to social challenges over a weekend. The results are then publicly presented and discussed. The citizens' jury is anchored in the Vorarlberg state constitution. It can be convened not only by government and parliament, but also with at least 1,000 signatures from the population.
In order to ensure the broadest possible and most qualitative representation of Vorarlberg society, criteria such as age, gender and place of residence are taken into account in the selection. Due to the random selection, the participants are people with everyday knowledge who do not have any special expertise or qualifications. Thus, they represent their personal opinions and no interest groups. All persons who have their main residence in Vorarlberg and are at least 16 years old are eligible to participate.
Ideas for solutions are developed
The participants of the Citizens' Jury, usually twelve to fifteen people, are invited to discuss certain topics and issues, to point out challenges from their point of view and to develop ideas for solutions. The content of the citizens' jury is neither guided nor controlled in any way. It is facilitated using the solution-oriented method "Dynamic Facilitation".
At the end of a citizens' jury, a joint statement is drafted by all participants. This is presented, discussed and expanded upon in a "citizens' café" held in the near future for interested members of the public, as well as contact persons from the administration, municipality, politics and relevant institutions. In the case of the Citizens' Jury on Electoral Law, interested members of the public were also given the opportunity to participate in two citizens' cafés and to supplement or deepen the results of the Citizens' Jury. In addition, there was the possibility to contribute online until 24 July 2022.
Implementation of the recommendations
In a meeting of the "resonance group" (strategy group consisting of affected representatives from politics, administration, etc.), the proposals of the citizens' jury are examined for concrete implementation and further measures are set. Afterwards, the participants of the citizens' jury receive written feedback on how the results will be utilised.
Since 2011, there have been 13 citizens' juries in Vorarlberg. Topics have included asylum, youth, climate, agriculture and transport.