“Can I have your signature?” – Comparing requirements for registering presidential candidates in Europe

Every so often, I receive a message from colleagues asking whether I know of a comparative overview on a particular aspect of presidential politics. I have previously written blog posts with such overviews on presidential term length and possibilities of re-election, salaries of West European and Central East European presidents, and the question of who acts as head of state when presidents are incapacitated or resign. Three weeks ago, I received another enquiry asking about the number of signatures required to register as a presidential candidate in popular presidential election – prompted by the seemingly high number of 200,000 signatures in Romania (notably, this threshold also applies to European elections, a fact highlighted by the extra-parliamentary “Democracy and Solidarity Party – DEMOS” earlier this year).

Electoral laws often specify various requirements for candidates, such as age, no criminal record, residency etc, but these all relate to the candidacy of a person as such, not its registration with authorities. To register one’s candidacy for president, collecting a certain number of supporting signatures arguably presents the most common requirement (closely followed by making a – often non-refundable – deposit to the Electoral Commission). Collecting signatures helps to prove that a candidate is a serious contender and can attract at least a minimum of support. In this post, I hence provide an overview and assessment of the signature requirements for presidential candidates in Europe and beyond.

The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission (an advisory body to the Council of Europe on matters of Constitutional Law) states that “The law should not require collection of the signatures of more than 1% of voters in the constituency concerned” (Part I, Chapter 1.3, point ii) – hence, for popular presidential elections signatures of no more than 1% of all registered voters in the whole country should be required for registration. Overall, all but three European nations adhere to this recommendation, albeit still showing considerable variation.

On average, a little less than half a percent of registered voters (0.454%) is required to register a candidacy as presidential candidate in European semipresidential and presidential republics. Requirements range from 0.016% (i.e. 100) of registered voters in Cyprus to 1.5% in Montenegro, yet the median of 0.396% (BiH Republika Srbska) illustrates that most countries can be found towards the bottom of the range. Three countries stand out because they do not foresee any kind of public signature collection: Ukraine abolished any kind of signature requirement in 2009 (it had previously been 500,000 in 2004 and 1m in 1999).  In contrast, presidential hopefuls in France and Ireland need to collect support from public officials – 500 signatures of elected public officials in France, and nomination by 20 members of parliament or four county or city councils in Ireland. Four other countries also have rules for the nomination of candidates by legislators – such rules generally benefit established parties.

Romania indeed belongs to countries with the highest signature requirements in European comparison, yet it is still surpassed by Montenegro. While Romania only exceeds the Council of Europe recommendation by 0.1% (ca. 17,300 signatures), this margin would already be enough to register a candidate in Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, or Portugal! The Montenegrin electoral law actually specifies that signatures equal to 1.5% of registered need to be collected in order to register a candidate for the presidency (and has subsequently been the subject of repeated criticism by the Venice Commission and the OSCE).

What do these numbers mean for parties, candidates and competition in popular presidential elections? Generally, higher signature requirements increase entry costs for political newcomers and can be a serious impediment to democratic competition. Candidates nominated by political parties can rely on established organisations for the collection of signature (often under a tight deadline) as well as for the financing of such an exercise – even in smaller countries with lower requirements, a small army of volunteers is needed. Given that signatures can later be ruled invalid for various reasons, candidates actually need to collect more signatures than the official number to prepared for this eventuality. Regulations that allow (or restrict) the nomination of candidates by a handful of members of parliament (e.g. in the Czech Republic, Ireland, or Slovakia), also benefit established parties and provide obstacles to independents and newcomers. Nevertheless, a greater number of candidates in direct presidential elections does not automatically equal a better or more democratic process. In the prevalent two-round run-off systems (only Ireland used preference voting and Iceland a plurality run-off), a highly fragmented candidate field in the first round can easily lead to the elimination of a Pareto-winner as well as voter dissatisfaction if a large proportion of voters do not see their preferred candidate advance to the second round.

When it comes to signatures for registering a presidential candidate, there is no objective “magic number”; yet, when looking at the various requirements across Europe, it would likely be around 0.4% of registered voters.

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