Iceland Violated Right to Free Elections, ECHR Finds

Alþingishúsið

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found this morning that Iceland violated the right to free elections and the right to an effective remedy in a case that concerned the 2021 elections to Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament. Iceland will have to pay the two applicants in the case €13,000 each in respect of non-pecuniary damages.

Recount irregularities

The case concerned irregularities in the recount of votes in the Northwest constituency that changed the allocation of seats in Alþingi after the 2021 elections. The applicants in the case, Guðmundur Gunnarsson of the Reform Party and Magnús Davíð Norðdahl of the Pirate Party, were both unsuccessful candidates in the constituency, the smallest of Iceland’s six constituencies.

“When the results came in, there was only a thin margin of votes in the Northwest and South constituencies, which could have affected the allocation of levelling seats,”  the ECHR’s press release reads. Levelling seats are distributed nationally between parties that receive at least 5% of the total vote. “A recount was ordered and it changed the standings in the Northwest constituency, leading to Mr Gunnarsson losing his levelling seat.”

Lacked impartiality safeguards

Certain irregularities were found to have taken place during the recount, including the unsecured and unsupervised storage of ballots between the first count and the recount.

The ECHR found that Alþingi’s handling of the applicants’ complaints “had lacked necessary impartiality safeguards and had been characterised by virtually unrestrained discretion”. The procedure meant that the applicants did not have an effective domestic remedy, which violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

Vote Recount Case Dismissed

parliament Alþingi

The Police Commissioner of West Iceland has dismissed a case against the staff of the Northwest Constituency’s election supervision committee, Vísir reports. The staff have received letters informing them of the decision. The letters state that new legislation, which took effect on January 1, makes it unclear whether the staff had broken the law by not resealing ballot boxes between the initial count and a recount of votes.

A recount changed results, which Parliament confirmed

A vote recount in the Northwest Constituency following the Parliamentary election on September 25, 2021 redistributed five of Parliament’s 63 seats. As a result, several candidates filed charges against election proceedings in the constituency. Evidence showed that the election supervision committee had failed to seal the votes after it had completed its initial count and had left them unattended, actions that constituted breaches of regulation. Police had fined election staff, who had refused to pay the fines.

A preparatory Credentials Committee was subsequently established (later succeeded by the actual Credentials Committee after parliament reconvened following a lengthy hiatus) to investigate these claims. Following weeks of discussions and a field trip to Hotel Borgarnes, the committee submitted its findings to Parliament last November. The Parliament then voted to confirm the election results in all constituencies, putting an end to the matter – except for the ongoing police investigation.

New law sows doubt about criminality of actions

West Iceland Police stated that the new election legislation that took effect this year is not sufficiently clear about the obligation to seal election data, though previous legislation had been. Therefore, the Police Commissioner considers there to be doubts about the criminality of the alleged violation.

Police Says No Indication Votes Were Tampered With, But Cannot Confirm

Hotel Borgarnes

Staff of Hotel Borgarnes walked in and out of the room where ballots were left unsealed and unsupervised after the initial count following the September 25 parliamentary election, Vísir reports. Votes in the Northwest Constituency were later recounted, ousting five politicians from their seats. West Iceland Police says there are no indications that votes were tampered with, but stated that security camera footage could not confirm that was the case.

The police investigation into the matter revealed that hotel staff entered the room where ballots were stored while election supervision staff was not present. Election staff had left the ballots unsealed and unsupervised between the first and second counts, both breaches of election regulation. Thirteen people have filed legal complaints with Parliament over the handling of votes in the Northwest Constituency.

Security camera footage from the room where ballots were stored shows hotel staff entering the room. The boxes containing the ballots are, however, not visible in the camera footage. Police have stated they believe it unlikely that the ballots were tampered with while election staff were away, but that they have no way of confirming that belief.

Election staff refuse to pay fine

The Chief of Police in West Iceland has issued fines to all members of the constituency’s election supervision committee due to the handling of election documents. The fines range between ISK 100,000 [$775, €667] and ISK 250,000 [$1,938, €1,666]. Vísir reports that at least two of the committee members do not plan to pay the fines. The media outlet’s sources also state that one committee member believes the first, and not the second vote count, should be considered valid.

Election Supervisors Fined as Investigation Continues

parliament Alþingi

A preparatory committee met in Borgarnes yesterday to investigate ballot papers in the Northwest Constituency, RÚV reports. Thirteen people have filed legal complaints over the election results in the constituency following the September 25 election, including five politicians who lost their seats after votes were recounted. Ballot papers were not sealed and were left unsupervised after the initial count, both breaches of regulation that have led some to wonder whether votes could have been tampered with.

Same number of unused ballot papers

Unused ballot papers were recounted yesterday by staff of the National Electoral Commission and the District Commissioner’s Office. The counting revealed that the number conformed with voting document records. Birgir Ármansson, chairman of the preparatory committee, stated that staff were working to “rule out all sorts of possibilities to try to get a holistic picture of what really happened.”

Read More: 13 Legal Complaints Filed Over Election 

The committee questioned staff at Hotel Borgarnes, where ballots were counted and stored, as well as Ingi Tryggvason, chairman of the constituency’s election supervision committee. All of these individuals had already been questioned by police. Birgir says the committee will continue to gather information in the coming days and could not tell reporters when its work would be completed.

Fines issued to election staff

The West Iceland Police department’s investigation of the matter is, on the other hand, complete. The Chief of Police has issued fines to Ingi and all other members of the Northwest Constituency’s election supervision committee, as a proposal for closing the case. According to RÚV, the fine is likely issued on the basis that ballots boxes were left unsealed after the initial count, though this is not confirmed.

According to RÚV’s sources, Ingi has been fined ISK 250,000 [$1,938, €1,666] while others on the committee were fined ISK 100,000 [$775, €667]. If the committee members refuse to pay the fine, the police must decide whether to issue an indictment, which would bring the case to court.

Two Politicians Call for Revote After Recount Shuffles MPs

Two politicians will file charges against election proceedings in the northwest constituency during last Saturday’s Parliamentary election, RÚV reports. Votes in the constituency were not sealed after the initial count as required by law and were left at Hotel Borgarnes after election staff went home. Other breaches of regulation occurred during the recount, which redistributed five of the Parliament’s 63 seats and invalidated what would have been Europe’s first female-majority Parliament.

Election officials in the northwest constituency decided to do a recount of votes on Sunday as the ballot numbers were very close between MPs. The recount did not change the distribution of seats between parties, but ousted one MP each from the Social-Democratic Alliance, Left-Green Movement, Reform Party, Pirate Party, and Centre Party for another of their fellow-party members. The original count also had female candidates in 33 of 63 seats, which would have been Europe’s first female-majority Parliament. Female MPs were reduced to 30 in the recount, meaning women occupy 48% of the total seats, still a European record.

Demands revote in northwest constituency

Magnús Davíð Norðdahl, Pirate Party district chairman in the northwest constituency, told RÚV he plans to file an official charge against the election proceedings in the constituency. Magnús’ fellow party member Lenya Run Taha Karim, who would have been Iceland’s youngest-ever MP, was ousted from Parliament following the recount. Magnús says he will also file charges with the police due to the election proceedings in the constituency.

Magnús asserts there were serious flaws in the counting of votes in the northwest. Ballots were not sealed after the end of the first count, as required by law, but were left in a locked room at Hotel Borgarnes after counters went home. He also points out that the recount began without Pirate Party candidates being notified, and the chairman of the electoral commission did not approve a request to delay the recount until candidates arrived at the scene.

The recount resulted in a different number of blank and spoiled ballots as well as the number of votes for individual candidates. “Such working methods in the democratic process of elections and counting are completely unacceptable,” Magnús stated. He believes the only remedy is to redo voting in the constituency.

Wonders if votes were tampered with

Centre Party politician Karl Gauti Hjaltason, who was ousted by the recount for his fellow party member Bergþór Ólason, has also stated he will file charges with police against the election proceedings in the northwest constituency. “What happened there, how was this decision made? Where were the ballots while the election supervision committee was away? Did anyone have access to them. Was it possible that someone could have reached them? The police are the best-positioned to bring this to light in a neutral way,” Karl Gauti told RÚV. If there is any evidence votes could have been tampered with, the only appropriate measure would be a revote, he added.