Election turnout likely to fall despite rise in mail-in ballots, say experts

Overseas votes set to plummet following legal battle over election date

A voter casting their ballot in a 2019 election (by Gerard Vilà)
A voter casting their ballot in a 2019 election (by Gerard Vilà) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

January 27, 2021 12:07 PM

Three years ago, galvanized by the territorial dispute with Spain, Catalonia hit a record turnout of 79.1% in a parliamentary election.

With Catalans summoned to the polls again on February 14, the 80% threshold seems a long way off. In fact, experts say that surpassing a 60% turnout could be deemed as "satisfactory" enough.

It’s not that the upcoming elections are any less consequential than those of December 2017; the emerging government will lead Catalonia’s economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic, and will determine the fate of the independence movement for years to come. 

But parties may have a hard time convincing their followers to head to the polls when hospitals and ICUs are struggling to cope with the third wave of contagions. Especially since most political groups agreed only a week ago to adjourn the vote over health concerns, only to be overruled by a court.

"Some people are afraid to be a member of a polling station, and others are saying they will not vote," said the Catalan government’s election director, Ismael Peña-López, in an interview with eldiario.es. 

While he says that the government has worked to make sure polling stations will be "one of the safest public spaces," this might not translate into people going to vote.

Mail-in voting and international electors

Mail-in ballots, that are able to be requested up until February 4, have been encouraged and facilitated this election in order to try and overcome the issues surrounding attending polling stations. 

Only 10 days from the deadline, 84,001 citizens have registered to vote through the post, already surpassing the 78,876 of the 2017 election. 

Experts believe that the postal service is "ready to handle" an expected rise in mail-in votes, but it is far from certain that this will be enough to compensate for the overall fall in turnout.

International voter numbers are also expected to drop, as political science professor at the UB Josep Maria Reniu explained that obstacles they have to overcome have been “multiplied by 10.”

Since the 2011 reform, Catalan nationals who lived abroad have had to opt in to elections, which experts say will only contribute to the drop in people participating in the plebiscite, however this is only one of the hurdles. 

The battle over election dates, and the swing that has gone back and forth between the possibility of February 14, and May 30 some citizens might not have registered to vote in time due to the confusion. 

Although Reniu affirms that the low participation will not make the elections illegitimate, to some level he believes it does “affect the legitimacy of the elections.”

These thoughts were also shared by Peña-López, who identified it as the main reason for pushing the election back and beleves that voters´concerns "cast doubts on the legitimacy" of the election.