7 - chapter

Right to free elections

Author: Egert Rünne


Key topics

  • The ban on outdoor political advertising is unduly restrictive of freedom of expression as well as ineffective, and there are plans to abolish it in the future.
  • The prisoners’ right to vote is being discussed.
  • Ensuring security and transparency of e-elections is under scrutiny.
  • Empowering national minorities and people with disabilities is becoming more important.

Political and institutional developments

In 2019 the Minister of Foreign Trade and Information Technology Kert Kingo convened a working group on electronic electoral system and electronic voting aimed at assessing compliance of processes and security measures in the electronic electoral system and electronic voting information system with current rules on cyber security and regulation on holding elections. The working group will present a report containing assessment and recommendations on improving the system’s security and raising the public’s awareness.[1]

According to the Chancellor of Justice Act, as of 1 January 2019 the Chancellor of Justice will carry out tasks of implementing, promoting, protecting and monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.[2] Carrying out this role, the Chancellor of Justice addressed the heads of councils of rural municipalities and city councils, as well as city mayors and rural municipality mayors before the 2019 elections with the request to designate only buildings that are accessible to all voters as polling divisions.[3]

ODICHR Needs Assessment Mission Report compiled a report of Parliamentary elections on 3 March 2019. Even though the report assessed the elections as very well organised it did come up with ten recommendations on how to hold elections in a more inclusive and safe manner. The main emphasis of recommendations was on guaranteeing safety and transparency of e-voting. Additionally, there were suggestions to review the process of submitting members for division committees in order to remove any lack of clarity on the maximum number of members in a division committee. There was also the recommendation to consider measures to ensure timely and effective solutions to all questions related to elections. There was a special recommendation on making elections more accessible for persons with disabilities and on including population that speak other languages than Estonian in political life much more strategically.[4]

Legislative developments

The Estonian Human Rights Centre has been recommending Riigikogu to consider reasonableness and purposefulness of the ban on outdoor advertising in the period of conducting the election campaign since 2014,[5] the same has been recommended by the Chancellor of Justice.[6] In 2019 the Government of the Republic decided to resolve the issue and forwarded the draft act to the Constitutional Committee. The draft act repeals the limitation on election campaigning on the day of the election and the ban on political outdoor advertising, while electoral peace is guaranteed in voting rooms.

On 17 September the Constitutional Committee decided[7] to send the Government-initiated draft amending the European Parliament Election Act, the Local Government Council Election Act, the Riigikogu Election Act, the Referendum Act and the act amending the Penal Code (elimination of election agitation restriction on the day of election and elimination of outdoor advertising) (51 SE)[8] to Riigikogu’s plenary session.

Court practice

The electoral committee resolved 30 complaints in association with the 2019 Parliamentary elections and 9 complaints in association with the election of the European Parliament. The Supreme Court upheld all decision of the National Electoral Committee, except one.[9] The exception was the case where the National Electoral Committee decided not to examine the complaint as, according to them, it did not reach them in time. The Supreme Court ruled that same rules apply in elections of the European Parliament as in all other proceedings, if the deadline for the complaint falls on the weekend it will be postponed until the following workday.

The content of most of the complaints had to do with election and candidacy rights of prisoners, issues of safety of e-voting and registration of candidates.[10] If reasons for complaints had previously been similar year-on-year, the situation this time where the court had to make decisions was new due to the amendment to the Population Register Act,[11] which had been the cause why people had not being registered on the polling list.[12] The situation was also reflected on by the Chancellor of Justice, who conceded that since polling lists were drawn up on the basis of data from the population register the people who had not updated their data had been excluded from the polling list. At the same time, registering of residence during elections can be done on a simplified basis – the person’s address is immediately entered into the population register (if necessary, with the accuracy of city, city district or rural municipality) upon submitting a residence notice. Following that the person is added to the polling list.[13]

Statistics and surveys

In 2019 a record number of women was elected to Riigikogu – 29,[15] which shows that representation of women in the executive branch has increased, but the same cannot be said of minority groups, whose representation according to ODIHR is still rather low in public life and in political sphere. According to ODIHR, the situation, where a large number of stateless persons cannot vote, should also be changed, and they should be afforded a complete right to vote.[16]

Good practices

In cooperation with the Chancellor of Justice, the State Electoral Office and the Estonian Chamber of Disabled People, the information necessary for voters with special needs was made more accessible and easier to find. The information necessary for voters with special needs was added onto the elections’ homepage.[17] The voters with mobility special needs were able to use a map application of polling divisions, which made it easy to find the location of their polling division and receive information about accessing it. The map app also showed whether it was possible to enter it independently with a wheelchair and, for example, with a baby buggy.[18]

Noteworthy public discussions

As in every election period where e-voting has been allowed, the public debate arose on its security and observability. If in previous years the party that had questioned it had been the Centre Party, this time the greatest criticism came from the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE). For example, the deputy head of EKRE, Martin Helme claimed in ETV’s “Esimene studio” that e-elections in his estimation, are not reliable and verifiable.[19] The State Electoral Office had to intervene and confirm that e-voting activities are observable and verifiable. Observation of e-voting starts with a training programme explaining participants all the specificities and technical details. In addition to the observers, the e-voting activities are verified by independent information system auditors, the accuracy of the processing and counting of votes is mathematically verifiable.[20]

The voting rights of prisoners were in focus in summer of 2018. As the Supreme Court had found in 2015 that the ban stating that no detainee carrying a prison sentence can vote in parliamentary elections is in conflict with the constitution as well as the European Convention on Human Rights, the Minister of Justice began to seek a solution. As a solution the minister proposed that a small group of detained people carrying a prison sentence of up to one year is eligible to vote. This was to avoid giving the right to vote to all detainees.[21] The head of the Estonian Human Rights Centre Kari Käsper replied to the minister that this is progress, but expanding the right to vote should be considered. For example, it would be justified to remove the right to vote from those persons who have committed crimes against democracy. It would also be proportionate to exclude long-term prisoners who will not be returning to society any time soon.[22] Although the minister promised that the Constitutional Committee would consider the proposal in the autumn of 2018, it has not happened and no changes were ultimately made to the prisoners’ right to vote.


Abolishing the general ban on outdoor advertising and relaxation on restriction of electoral agitation seem to be a general trend in the next two years. The Chancellor of Justice is helping guarantee accessibility of disabled persons to elections long-term, since as of 2019 she is performing the tasks of implementing, protecting and monitoring the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

A general standstill and unwillingness to address the problems of the prisoners’ right to vote as well as the right to vote of non-citizens is expected to continue.


  • Include national minorities in political life more actively.
  • Amend the appropriate acts so that the voting ban is only for prisoners bearing it as an additional penalty.
  • Contribute to making polling divisions and e-elections more accessible.

Case description

At 2019 Riigikogu and European Parliament elections the partially sighted persons who wished to cast an e-vote and used Apple computers running macOS operating systems received a nasty surprise when it turned out that the screen reader was unable to read the content of the voting application. “I opened my computer in the morning and came face to face with the realisation that I cannot do this activity, which takes a few minutes, because the app does not work,” said the head of the Estonian Blind Union Jakob Rosin. “The State Electoral Office is aware of the problem, but is unable to say when the issue will be resolved as, according to them, it is a specific error, which takes a long time to solve.”[14]

[1] Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication. 2019. Kinnitati e-valimiste töörühma kooseis [The composition of the e-elections working group was confirmed], 21 June 2019.

[2] Chancellor of Justice. Puuetega inimeste õigused [Rights of persons with disabilities].

[3] Chancellor of Justice. Õiguskantsleri aastaülevaade 2018/2019 [Chancellor of Justice’s annual report 2018/2019]. Uued ülesanded [New Tasks].

[4] Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. (2019). Estonia. Parliamentary Elections 3 March 2019. ODIHR Needs Assessment Mission Report.

[5] E. Rünne. 2015. Inimõigused Eestis 2014-2015, õigus vabadale valimistele [Human Rights in Estonia 2014–2015 Right to free elections].

[6] Madise, Ü. 2019. Euroopa Parlamendi valimise seaduse, kohaliku omavalitsuse volikogu valimise seaduse, Riigikogu valimise seaduse ja karistusseadustiku muutmise eelnõu [Draft amendment to the European Parliament Election Act, the Local Government Council Election Act, the Riigikogu Election Act and the Penal Code], 17 June 2019.

[7] Riigikogu. 2019. Põhiseaduskomisjon toetas poliitilise välireklaami keelu tühistamist [The Constitutional Committee supported repealing the ban on outdoor advertising ], 17 September 2019.

[8] Riigikogu. 2019. Euroopa Parlamendi valimise seaduse, kohaliku omavalitsuse volikogu valimise seaduse, Riigikogu valimise seaduse, rahvahääletuse seaduse ja karistusseadustiku muutmise seadus (valimispäeval valimisagitatsiooni piirangu ja välireklaami keelu kaotamine) [repealing the ban on election campaigning on the day of election and the outdoor advertising] 51 SE, 19 November 2019

[9] Chancellor of Justice. Õiguskantsleri aastaülevaade 2018/2019 [Chancellor of Justice’s annual report 2018/2019].

[10] Supreme Court. Riigikohtu lahendid [Judgments of the Supreme Court]

[11] Riigikogu. 2000. Rahvastikuregistri seadus [Population Register Act]. State Gazette I, 17 November 2017, 16

[12] Riigikohus. 2019. Valimiste ajal on rahvastikuregistrijärgse elukoha puudumisel võimalik nõuda enda elukoha viivitamatut registrisse kandmist [During elections it is possible to demand immediate registration of place of residence in the population register if it is missing], 26 March 2019.

[13] Chancellor of Justice. Õiguskantsleri aastaülevaade 2018/2019 [Chancellor of Justice’s annual report 2018/2019].

[14] Palgi. G. 2019. Valimisrakendus diskrimineerib osa vaegnägijatest [Election app discriminates against portion of the visually impaired], 16 May 2019.

[15] Ots. M. 2019. Riigikogusse pääses rekordilised 29 naist [A record 29 women made it into Riigikogu], ERR, 04 March 2019.

[16] Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. 2019. Estonia Parliamentary elections 3 March 2019, ODIHR Election Expert Team Final Report.

[17] Estonian National Electoral Committee.

[18] Chancellor of Justice. Õiguskantsleri aastaülevaade 2018/2019 [Chancellor of Justice’s annual report 2018/2019]. Uued ülesanded [New Tasks].

[19] Olup, N,M. 2019. Martin Helme: e-valimised on sisuliselt loto [Helme: e-elections are essentially a lottery], Postimees, 19 March 2019.

[20] Estonian National Electoral Committee. 2019. E-hääletamise toimingud on vaadeldavad ja kontrollitavad[Activities of e-elections are observable and possible to monitor], 20 March 2019.

[21] Mihkels, D. 2018. Tapjad nöökisid riiki. Reinsalu pakub lahendust [Killers taunted the state. Reinsalu offers a solution], Eesti Päevaleht, 14 August 2019.

[22] Voltri, J. 2018. Reinsalu tahab anda valimisõiguse kuni aastast karistust kandvatele vangidele [Reinsalu wants to give the right to vote to prisoners serving sentences of up to a year], ERR, 14 June 2018.


  • Egert Rünne on omandanud bakalaureusekraadi rahvusvaheliste suhete alal ning magistrikraadi riigiteadustes. Egert on töötanud Eesti Inimõiguste Keskuses alates 2011. aastast ning läbi viinud erinevaid projekte ühiskonna inimõigustealase teadlikkuse tõstmiseks. Egert on aastatel 2019–2023 olnud kaasautor erinevatele Euroopa Põhiõiguste Ameti poolt tellitud inimõiguste teemalistele uuringutele ning toimetanud inimõiguste aruannet. Aastast 2020 juhib Egert inimõiguste keskuse tööd.