Portuguese American Journal

Frank Ferreira: Legally challenging Portugal’s electoral system – Interview

By Carolina Matos, Editor

Frank Ferreira is a proud Portuguese American, with dual citizenship, who believes that Portugal’s (including the Açores and Madeira) current electoral system is impractical, injurious, unfair, discriminatory, and unconstitutional for the Portuguese living abroad. In short, what we have is an abridgement of constitutional rights.

Ferreira also believes that the solution is to permit all voters, including those who have emigrated, to vote online, in-person (where practical), and by mail in all elections. Presently voters can vote in person and by mail in presidential and national legislative elections. Expatriates have no way of voting vote in local elections.

According to the Portuguese Constitution, election law requires the in-person, presential vote, as the single method of voting. This requirement prevents millions of Portuguese leaving abroad from exercising their constitutional right to participate in the electoral process.

Ferreira has identified a number of reasons that explain why almost 61% of the Portuguese living abroad abstain from voting in the recent presidential election, per data from the Ministry of Internal Administration (MAI), especially here in the United States, where some 60,000 are registered to vote, but are faced with many barriers.

Born in Viseu, mainland Portugal, Frank Ferreira has been a public servant with nearly 25 years of national and international government experience. In December 2020, Ferreira began a new position with the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification & Compliance; Office of Verification, Planning and Outreach at U.S. Department of State, in Washington, D.C., where he works on Congressional, Public and Diplomatic Affairs.

He left the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Headquarters, in March 2020 – after nearly 15 years of service – where he worked in the Office of External Affairs – Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs Division. The Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs Division served as the Agency’s liaison to Congress, State, Local, Tribal and Territorial (SLTT) governments, non-governmental agencies, and the private sector.

Born in Viseu, mainland Portugal, Frank Ferreira become a naturalized United States citizen, and more recently he had his Portuguese citizen reinstated, with his given name Mário Francisco da Costa Ferreira. He resides in Alexandria, Virginia, and is the proud father of twin-teenage boys – Ryan and Kyle Alves Ferreira.

 

Q: In your opinion what makes the current electoral system in Portugal so impractical, injurious, unfair, discriminatory, and unconstitutional for the Portuguese living abroad, in violation of the Portuguese Constitution?

A: I will grant that not all eligible voters – whether in the United States or Portugal – exercise their constitutional right to vote. A universal right enshrined in the constitutions of both countries. That’s their choice as free citizens living in democratic countries.

But for others, the right to vote is sacrosanct and any barriers that prevent any, and all, eligible voters from exercising this right, is disenfranchisement, which is a violation of Article 10 – the Right to Suffrage and Article 49 – the Right to Vote – of the Constitution of the Portuguese Republic. When eligible voters are barred from exercising the right to vote, as many of us have, it also calls into question the legitimacy of past elections, enacted legislation, and governments, and indeed, the foundation of Portuguese Democracy.

Q: Could you be more specific?

A: Specifically, I would characterize the impediments as being of two types: systematic and geographical. The systematic are those like, the lack of infrastructure to permit online voting or to permit voters abroad from voting in their local municipal elections. The geographical is the requirement to have voters vote in-person at a Consulate or other designated voting location, like a club or association, as is the case here in the United States. Take for instance the Washington Consular services, which services Portuguese residents living in far-away states like Texas. Under the current conditions, a voter must – at his or her own expense – travel to Washington to cast a vote. That’s impractical.

Q: What could be the implications for the legitimacy of the right to vote and for the elections outcome, under this dysfunctional voting process?

A: Consequently, as we saw in the recent Presidential Election of January 24, 2021 – Eleições Presidenciais (PR’21) – of the 1,549,380 eligible Portuguese voters registered abroad, only 29,153 voted. That’s an abstention rate of 98.12%, according to data from the MIA. The results for the United States were no better. Of the 62,655 registered voters, only 863 or 1.38% cast a vote. That’s as staggering 98.62% abstention rate. Electoral reforms are needed and the solution.

Q: As we are approaching the 47th anniversary of the April 25, 1974, Carnation Revolution [Revolução dos Cravos], how do you feel that, after all the promises of freedom within a participatory democracy, the Portuguese living abroad still don’t enjoy the right to vote in all elections in Portugal?

A: The crafters of the Portuguese Constitution of April 2, 1976, had the right idea when they included the right to vote in such an important and legal document. In doing so, not only did they clearly send a strong message of the type of people the Portuguese aspired to be – free and democratic – they codified this inalienable and fundamental right.

Regrettably, subsequent leaders in the Assembleia da República fell short in implementing the electoral reforms needed to ensure that all Portuguese eligible voters had unimpeded access to the ballot box. While I am hopeful that needed corrective electoral reforms will be implemented by the deputies in the Portuguese Parliament ultimately, I have been arguing that a constitutional approach be taken to ensure that another 45 years don’t pass us by, before reforms are implemented. Legislation approved in Parliament is part of the democratic process, but it is also temporal and at the mercy of political whims and passions. Given the importance of the matter at hand – universal suffrage – a ruling from a Constitutional Court – Tribunal Constitucional – is more permanent and carries more weight. It also imposes a mandate on the Parliament to address unconstitutional aspects of the current electoral system.

Q: You took the initiative to write petition letters to various members of the Portuguese Government, at the highest levels, including the President of Portugal and members of the Assembleia Nacional, demanding more inclusive electoral law reforms. Would you update our readers on your initiative?

A: In the immediate aftermath of the results of the October 6, 2019, Portuguese Parliamentary Election, and the more recent Presidential Election, it was evident that legislative corrections were direly needed to mitigate the administrative deficiencies with mail-in ballots and the alarming and extremely high rates of voter apathy and abstentions.

I opted to pursue the powers granted in the Constitution to address these deficiencies. As a citizen and registered voter, the Constitution grants the Portuguese citizens the right to petition the government to address wrongs, as is the case with Article 52.

In addition to this power, the Constitution also gives the President of the Republic the right to ask the Constitutional Court to declare whether current legal electoral norms are unconstitutional and verify the existence of unconstitutionalities by omission; call for an extraordinary sitting of the Assembly of the Republic to discuss and implement electoral reforms, per Articles 133 and 134. Likewise, a number of articles in the Portuguese Constitution also empower the Ombudsman – the Provedor de Justiça – to pursue constitutional questions on behalf of voters. I have asked both entities to act on behalf of fellow voters.

Q: What was their reaction?

A: An interim response received this April, on behalf of both President Rebelo de Sousa and Provedora de Justiça, Maria Lúcia Amaral, from Secretário Geral-Adjunto da Administração Eleitoral, was inadequate. In a follow-up letter, I indicated that while appreciated and informative, the letter represented a bureaucratic response. Constitutional questions warrant a constitutional response. The issues at hand are of grave importance that merit a proper response and necessary corrective action from these respective offices.

Although, it was encouraging to read that the voting process for Portuguese residents abroad “… has been one of the main concerns of the Electoral Administration and the Ministry of Internal Administration.” Moreover, it was also learned that an inter-ministerial working group has been exploring efforts to implement an “early voting pilot” – in the anticipated election for the Council of the Portuguese Communities (CPC) – with the possibility of ballots cast by the electorate abroad being submitted to the embassy in-country or consulates – even honorary consulates – and public institutions for adjudication. Not to mention continuation and consideration of the much discussed three voting options: in-person, by mail and online.

Lastly, I am also pleased to share that my requests to President Rebelo de Sousa and the Provedora da Justiça Amaral are also under review by members of the Comissão de Assuntos Constitucionais, Direitos, Liberdades e Garantias in the Portuguese Parliament.

Q: You have been networking with other Portuguese individuals and organizations worldwide, like the “Também Somos Portugueses” [We are also Portuguese] a movement very active in revindicating voting rights for the Portuguese living abroad. What do you hope to accomplish?

A: Indeed, we all have a role to play if reforms are to be achieved. In addition to direct communication with government entities, other key stakeholders in our community – interest groups with public interest equities – on both sides of the Atlantic – must also engage in this noble cause. They represent extremely vital constituencies, which in some cases, includes some of us – average citizens. Let me just mentioned a few organizations. Just recently, seeing the impact that the corporations – many multinationals conducting commerce and trade with Portugal – are having on the political system by speaking out against voting infringements here in the United States, I have appealed to the leadership of the Portugal-U.S. Chamber of Commerce to support this cause.

Likewise, and given the constitutional nature of the matters at hand, I have asked the Portuguese-American Bar Association and the Ordem dos Advogados to consider filing a joint and pro bono lawsuit with the Portuguese Constitutional Court for the elimination of infringements of and the enforcement of voter’s rights. I have also contacted long-established and prominent foundations and preeminent American academic institutions with chapters in Portugal to also engage in this dialogue. Among these: the Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD), the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Georgetown Club of Portugal, Harvard Club of Portugal, and the American Club of Lisbon.

Q: Would you introduce our readers to the “Também somos Portugueses” movement?

A:Também Somos Portugueses” is an ad hoc group of Portuguese expatriates from around the world, with an equally passionate dedication to ensure that all Portuguese citizens – especially those of us abroad – have the same and equal treatment before the law – when it comes to the right to vote. It is a motivated, talented and focused group of professionals – with no office nor government positions – laboring uncompensated for the good of the community. The reward is knowing that we will make a difference in the lives of millions of fellow expatriates.

Without any hesitation, collectively, this group has put this vital issue on the agenda in Portuguese politics. As a matter of fact, I can now share of two important and upcoming events. A conference is scheduled for May 4, 2021 with Chair of the Comissão de Negócios Estrangeiros e Comunidades Portuguesas, Sérgio Sousa Pinto. Voting difficulties for expatriates and electoral reforms will be on the agenda. In addition, on June 8, 2021, the group is tentatively scheduled to host a Zoom and Facebook Live session entitled “Votar Sem Fronteiras.” Opening remarks will be given by Presidente da República, Prof. Dr. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, followed by a moderated session with Antero Luís – Secretário de Estado Adjunto e da Administração Interna and Pedro Rupio, Presidente do Conselho Regional da Europa do Conselho das Comunidades Portuguesas. The program ends with a panel discussion with the participation of Paulo Costa, founding member of the movement “Também Somos Portugueses,” Nathalie de Oliveira – Portuguese and French Socialist Party leader, and I. The aim of the event is to discuss impediments and solutions to the voting from abroad.

Q: Do you have any opinions about the modus operandus and the democratic legitimacy of Conselho das Comunidades as a representative body of Portuguese expatriates?

A: Per the description on the Embassy of Portugal’s webpage, the Council of the Portuguese Communities – Conselho das Comunidades Portuguesas – was created under Law nº 66-A/2007, of December 11, as a consulting branch of Government for policies relative to emigration and Portuguese communities in foreign countries. Members are elected from consular areas in the country they reside abroad for a period of four years with no compensation. The role of the “Counselor” is to make commendations on a number of “comissões temáticas” ranging from social and economic matters, immigration issues, to education, culture, civic associations and consular concerns. It is a mechanism for civic involvement in community matters abroad. Because it is a consultative body, its power is limited, with recommendations either being accepted or ignored by governing entities in Lisbon, Funchal or Ponta Delgada.

It is a body that can benefit from reforms as well. After a review of its composition during a recent consideration of standing for election, I made four recommendations regarding: election date, comissões temáticas, effective representation and code of ethics.

Election Date – A Fix and Constant Date Unlike elections in the U.S., the election date for the Council is fluid. As of now, the site of the Comissão Nacional de Eleições (National Election Commission) reflects a date of September 2021, but with no concrete date set. That’s five months from now. Not having a firm and constant date is problematic in that it benefits incumbents and puts new candidates at an organizational disadvantage. I understand that this is illustrative of a Parliamentary System, but it creates political uncertainty and leaves little time for the preparation of a cohesive campaign for candidates to meet voters and develop input for an affirmative agenda that is representative of the electorate’s needs.

Comissões Temáticas – While the current topics are important, they are not reflective of rights guaranteed in the Portuguese Constitution. These being: Article 63 – Social Security and Solidarity, Article 64 – Health, Article 65 – Housing and Urbanism, Article 66 – Environment and Quality of Life, Article 67 – Family, Article 68 – Fatherhood and Motherhood, Article 69 – Childhood, Article 70 – Youth, Article 71 – Disabled Citizens and Article 72 – The Elderly.

The CPC is certainly within its right to decide what topics to advise on. To an extent, the current themes are broad enough to probably reflect additional themes. Being that the above are Constitutional rights, perhaps they merit a discussion for inclusion. As are others. For instance, climate change is one other of the preeminent existential issues of our times. I’d recommend it to be added to the list. The same recommendation for consideration being private sector, veterans and women’s issues.

Effective Representation – Any elected official worth her or his weight in gold can tell you that constituent services is central to their tenure and re-election. That’s what they are elected to do – advance the interests of their communities and meet the needs of their constituents. But given the vastness some of the consular areas, as is the case here in the United States, counselors need the resources to accomplish their service. Currently, counselors rely on their personal means to communicate with their constituents and attend events to represent the CPC. Considering that the position is neither compensated nor does it have an expense account, in vast areas such as the Washington, D.C. Consular Area, this becomes an impossible task, if voters are to have proper representation. The D.C. consular area covers the nation’s capital and 26 other states – from Maryland to Texas.

This is the equivalent of 1,549,278.71 square miles. By comparison, the square mileage for Portugal is 35,655. In terms of population, just under 182,000,000 million people reside in this area. In comparison, the 2021 estimated total population of Portugal was 10,263,850 million. Needless to say, this makes efficient and effective representation of the voters extremely difficult – if not unattractive to many. No one should be deprived of their Constitutional right to participate in public life because of limited financial means. The recommendation made was to establish an operational budget to cover travel, lodging and communications expenses. With this resource, counselors can truly fulfil their public functions effectively.

Code of Ethics – Lastly, the CPC can also benefit from a code of ethics. A government without the trust of its people is one that is short lived. To instill faith in the system, a government must be accessible, responsive and transparent. Its members must be held accountable to the highest of ethical standards. While the CPC has non-partisan elections and its members serve gratis and the role of counselor – is rather limited – relatively speaking, its members can be an exemplary model of public servants and held to the highest of ethical standards.

Q: As a Portuguese citizen living abroad, who feels underserved by the Portuguese electoral process, how far are you willing to go with your revindications?

A: “Revindication” means the demanding of the restoration of something taken away or retained illegally. Neither is the case here. Perhaps the word “affirmation” is a more appropriate word here. We are merely petitioning the government and our representatives to fulfil their obligation and ensure that rights guaranteed under the Constitution are enforced. We are asking for an affirmation or recognition of our rights. We are asking to be treated equally and the same as all other fellow Portuguese citizens eligible to vote.

We are Portuguese. As in the “Age of the Discoveries,” we always go as far as we need to. No ocean is too big nor too deep. True to that adventurous spirit, we also have been on an incredible journey. In this case, there are a number of ways to achieving our collective objective and we are taking them. We have been making an appeal for public support in our respective communities within the Portuguese Diaspora, engaged the media and public interest groups in Lisbon and here in the US. Lastly, we are pursuing legislative and constitutional options as well. It will take some time and continued effort, and I think we have both. But most importantly, we have the constitution on our side. It’s just a matter of time before we see the reforms we are seeking. They are just, right and legal. They benefit all of the electorate and Portugal.

Q: How do you remember growing up in the United States as a Portuguese American and what inspired you to get involved in such project?

A: Having been born in a country at the time governed by a dictator of an autocratic and fascist regime, that forced many Portuguese families to involuntarily depart our beloved homeland, you get to appreciate the hallmarks of a democracy – freedom, liberty and free and transparent elections. Growing up in the United States and having the ability – the right to participate – in a democracy made me value these rights even more.

In addition, the inefficiency of the Portuguese electoral system was made even more apparently lately during to recent elections. In the immediate aftermath of the results of the October 6, 2019 Portuguese Parliamentary Election and the more recent Presidential Election of this past January 24, 2021, it was evident that legislative corrections were direly needed to mitigate the administrative deficiencies with mail-in ballots and the alarming extremely high rates of voter apathy and abstentions.

Q: Did you ever participate in a Portuguese election by voting? 

A: Like many Portuguese abroad, I was ecstatic to vote recently for – in my case – for the first time in a Portuguese national election. However, it was devastating to have my ballot returned – due to lack of postage – not on the part of the voter – but the system. Despite contacting Lisbon, the Portuguese Embassy here in Washington, D.C. and national civic-minded Luso-American organizations, I have yet to have my vote counted or an answer as to what corrections have been implemented, to avoid future disenfranchisement of voters casting their ballot by mail. This was just unacceptable for me. We were disenfranchised. That’s morally wrong and unconstitutional. Change needed to be had.

Voter participation and ballots are the lifeblood of Democracy. When so many Portuguese citizens are deprived of their right to vote and other constitutional rights – in this day and age – a serious question of legitimacy arises, which challenges the foundation of our Portuguese blooming Democracy.

Changes in a Democracy are designed to be painfully slow. They require discussion and consensus. Yet, I remain confident and hopeful that reforms will come. With additional refinements to the electoral system, Portugal can continue to be a beacon of freedom and liberty where voters – all voters – have equal rights, which only strengthens our pillars of Democracy.

Reviewed and updated 24/04/21

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(*) Carolina Matos, is the founder and editor of the Portuguese American Journal online. She was the editor–in-chief of The Portuguese American Journal, in print, from 1985 to 1995. From 1995 to 2010, she was a consultant for Lisbon based Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD). She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts and a Master’s Degree in English and Education from Brown University and holds a Doctorate in Education from Lesley University. She was an adjunct professor at Lesley University, where she has taught undergraduate and graduate courses. In 2004, Carolina Matos was honored with the Comenda da Ordem do Infante D. Henrique, presented by Jorge Sampaio, President of Portugal.

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