VoteBrussels: The campaign to register non-Belgians to vote for the local elections in October
Thomas Huddleston is Research Director at the Migration Policy Group that launched and runs the VoteBrussels campaign that calls on non-Belgians to register to vote for the local elections in October because “you have nothing to lose, but everything to gain”.
Thomas and I met over a coffee on a Tuesday morning and within 45 minutes I learned more about Belgian democracy than after five years living in the city. “Originally American”, as Tom describes himself, he is now “Belgian-American or Brussels-American” and truly dedicated to the city. One can tell he speaks from the heart when he speaks of having always been “in love with Europe’s history and cultures and attached to Europe’s appreciation of diversity, history and its investment in equality and social justice and peace in the world”. Tom moved to Brussels in 2006 and found that it was “this place where Europeans came to learn from each other, where no one was stuck in national ways of thinking but were meeting and learning from each other.”
“It was healthy for my well-being that Belgians and particularly Brussels people were so open and open to diversity. But what struck me was that the approach to say ‘Of course you can become Belgian and Bruxellois but what kind of Belgian are you? And who are you as a person?’ The attitude of Bruxellois to say ‘Don’t try and be like me, also be yourself’ has helped me become Brussels-American.” He describes how he feels more at home in Brussels than anywhere else in Belgium — or in Europe. But he does not feel very secure about Brussels’ future, because of the state of politics since Brexit and the last US election and in Europe with “these populist election results and then almost every day with the media. I think that we cannot take Brussels for granted.”
Why voting in the local elections?
It is from this dedication to Brussels, that we come to speak of the campaign that Tom is involved in to get non-Belgians to register for the local elections in October. “For any of us non-Belgians, Brussels is a safe place that we can always come back to. But we don’t know what the future lies in store and we need to seize any opportunity that we have to give back and ensure that society is working for everyone. If there are things that we know are not working in Brussels, we need to use our knowledge to demand the changes that everyone wants to see. If not, at some point we’re going to be left not just without the European institutions but also a Brussels that we feel at home in.”
The VoteBrussels campaign was launched and is run by the Migration Policy Group, an EU-level think tank that works with networks across Europe on immigrant integration. They were approached to help by a local Brussels organisation who had difficulties reaching out to EU citizens. “We told the organisation about all these different organisations that we work with in the EU quarter and we realised given that we are an organisation full of foreigners working in and around the EU institutions, we could practice what we preach and run a voter registration campaign to help EU citizens make use of the rights they fought for.” The campaign is funded by the European Commission’s DG Justice as part of the larger “Fair EU” project that looks at the obstacles that citizens face when they move to another country and want to participate in elections.
Voting is social
The VoteBrussels campaign dispatches Belgian and European volunteers to register non-Belgians to vote. There are 300,000 non-Belgians in Brussels of which 220,000 EU citizens and 65,000 non-EU citizens. “Voting is social”, Tom tells me, in that most people do it because their friends are doing it and they want to impress their friends. “Elections have to become a topic of conversation among people in order for people to realise why their vote matters” and that’s what VoteBrussels is focussing on.
“It’s good to have official brochures but you have to put them in the hand of somebody who goes out and talks to people, someone who addresses misinformation and concerns.”
They developed brochures and information material that is easy to understand and focuses on the information that voters will need together with the 19 Brussels communes. Steeped in research, Tom says of the efforts: “It’s good to have official brochures but you have to put them in the hand of somebody who goes out and talks to people, someone who addresses misinformation and concerns.” VoteBrussels mobilises volunteers that work in and around the EU institutions turning them into grassroots activists. “Our volunteers see themselves as actors and not just experts.” To date, 100 volunteers have been trained and reached out to 2500 voters in direct conversations. Across social media, another important staple of the campaign — “because we realised one of the challenges is that people in Brussels work too much and travel too much, even though they will show up on election day”, VoteBrussels regularly reaches 40,000 non-Belgians in Brussels and engages 12,000 every week.
The campaign kicked off in the beginning of 2018 with focus groups to determine the right messages to address the questions that voters have. MPG met with the heads of the 19 population services of the Brussels communes to provide this information. “That was quite important because there was hardly any information when this campaign begun and where there was information it was written by lawyers for lawyers in complicated Belgian French”, Tom explains. “We explained to them that they had to provide this information in simple language and simple steps to help citizens understand that voter registration is the easiest thing that you do in Belgium, what obligatory voting means, that you can vote by proxy on election day, you can de-register afterwards, that there are no fines and so on.”
Since then, the volunteers have opened their networks for information sessions, trainings or lunch meetings and more. “We are at networking events, courses, in organisations and offices for lunch briefings and explain the process of voter registration, address questions, discuss myths but also explain how much political power citizens could have if they would vote in Brussels because local authorities are powerful in Belgium”, says Tom. At an action day in 19 buildings of the European Commission in July, over 300 voters registered on the spot. Tom elaborates on the importance of volunteers explaining that “Get out the vote research shows us that the messenger is as important as the message”. It is important not just to get the right information but have them transmitted by a trusted messenger, who can help a potential voter to understand the environment and maybe compare democratic approaches between her home country and Belgium.
Local politicians have more powers in Belgium than any other EU country
When asking Tom to elaborate on his comment that in “Belgium local officials have a lot of power but are elected with a few hundred votes”, he explains how local politicians have more powers in Belgium than in any other EU country. “Everything that has to do with population is organised at a local level. If you don’t like how you’re being treated at the commune, then it’s probably because the commune sees you as a foreigner, not a voter. They have a lot of power to decide how they treat the population and how they organise their services, for example cleanliness, road works etc.” Local councils are the main investor in the community because “a lot of money for programmes comes from regional community or the federal government but it’s the local government that puts their local tax base into projects and make it happen, like sponsoring cultural organisations, schools, sports facilities” Tom explains. “Particularly in Brussels, your communes are your main advocate at the regional and federal level. If the mayors don’t like something, they can easily block it and at the moment three quarters of local parliamentarians have a local office, so it’s quite easy for them to make something happen or not.”
“If you don’t like how you’re being treated at the commune, then it’s probably because the commune sees you as a foreigner, not a voter.”
But these local politicians are only elected with a few hundred votes because Brussels has preference voting. “You vote for individual candidates and if everyone would vote for one candidate on the list, that can bump them up to the top of the list and give them a seat. So, EU citizens could vote for EU citizen candidates or whoever they want and that would change who gets elected to the city council and the city council decides who gets to be a city councillor and the mayor.”
Voter registration is not part of Belgium’s culture
One of the root causes that the campaign addresses is that voter registration is not part of Belgium’s culture as Belgian citizens are automatically registered to vote. Tom comments: “Many politicians don’t realise the effort they should put into voter registration. And it’s not necessarily in their interest because non-Belgians are a very diverse population and you don’t necessarily know who they’re going to vote for. If you would get one third of the electorate to sign up to vote, you would increase the electorate by 50%. In communes like Ixelles, Etterbeek and St. Gilles half of the potential voters are non-Belgian, so if all of those people would sign up to vote, that would double the electorate.” In short, that means for a local politician that they would need twice as many votes to get a seat. “It leads to a stronger local democracy”, Tom believes, “and it is in the interest of Belgians that non-Belgians sign up to vote.”
“If you would get one third of the electorate to sign up to vote, you would increase the electorate by 50%. In communes like Ixelles, Etterbeek and St. Gilles half of the potential voters are non-Belgian, so if all of those people would sign up to vote, that would double the electorate.”
It is this belief in creating social cohesion among Belgians and non-Belgians that gets him out to campaign. “We need to not take Brussels for granted or otherwise we shouldn’t be surprised that people don’t see the benefit of mobility and vote against us”, he says with a view to the rise of populism. “People don’t see these concerns with Brussels because they take it for granted that Brussels is Europe’s most cosmopolitan city but during this campaign I discovered how difficult Brussels’ history was.” He cites the example that until the 1990s, many Belgians very much resisted the diversity that came to Brussels and how in the 1980s and 1990s six Brussels communes were allowed to refuse to register foreigners if they thought they had too many. “The culture has changed a lot — we don’t know how much Belgians and non-Belgians fought for the right to vote and we shouldn’t take it for granted and not participate”, he concludes.
Signing up to vote by 31 July
The VoteBrussels campaign tries to reach the 300,000 non-Belgians that have the right to vote and looks towards those who have signed up to call upon their friends to do likewise. “We are creating a lot of social media content, among other, that people can share to call their friends to sign up to vote”. The material is available in many languages in order to build a bridge between Europeans and the city. “Our materials are translated by our volunteers because it arrests people as it makes them stop and say ‘Oh wait, this is me! Someone’s talking about Brussels in Romanian and there is the Manneken Pis dressed in the Romanian national costume!’ We want that EU citizens feel like they are part of Brussels.” Tom tells me that “it’s been really fascinating throughout the campaign to see how in two sentences you can tell people what they need to know.”
One of the issues that the campaign has to deal with is that non-Belgians have to sign up to vote by 31st July and yet the election campaign only started on 14th July. “One of the real challenges for VoteBrussels is that as non-Belgians we have to be better citizens as we have to become interested in the elections before Belgians, before the city is plastered with posters and parties have local websites with all of their candidates and before debates start”, Tom comments. Many non-Belgians will likely only realise that there are elections until they come back from holidays and then it’s too late to sign up to vote.
“One of the real challenges for VoteBrussels is that as non-Belgians we have to be better citizens as we have to become interested in the elections before Belgians, before the city is plastered with posters and parties have local websites and before debates start.”
Building on this ground work, the campaign will write recommendations after the elections about how the communes and the regions could better reach out to non-Belgians. “The real risk is that every six years Brussels is confronted with this democratic deficit and does too little too late”, Tom explains. “Most communes didn’t even have websites until May, three months before the deadline.” He appreciates how non-Belgian voter registration is a task that is put on top of the population services in Brussels, who “are understaffed and overburdened”. “We have to built on the effort to date, the websites that were built now; that sign up forms can be sent by email in 15 of the 19 Brussels communes”.
How to sign up to vote
The simple three-step process to sign up to vote in Tom’s words:
- Download the voter registration form. You should have also received a copy by post. It is a simple one page form that takes two minutes to fill in. The form has four lines and your signature. It is literally the easiest administrative task you’ll do in Belgium because voting is a fundamental right.
- Scan it or take a photo of it with your phone. Taking a photo of your Belgian ID is also a good idea but it is not required. And then mail it to any commune by post or send it by email if you live in one of the 15 communes that accept email submissions.
- Tell your friends to change Brussels!
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