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Catalan Referendum

Can Catalans Be Arrested for Voting in Their Independence Referendum?

The Spanish government claims Sunday's referendum is unconstitutional. So what happens to the Catalans who go vote anyway?
Gustau Nicarino / Reuter

This article originally appeared on VICE Spain

On Sunday the 1st of October, millions of Catalans plan to vote in a referendum to decide whether Catalonia should split from Spain. But the Spanish government has promised to do everything it can to stop what it considers to be an unconstitutional vote. Ten million ballot papers have been confiscated, and Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, confirmed that hundreds of police officers will be deployed at polling stations to prevent the vote. Meanwhile, the Catalan regional government promised that whatever happens, the referendum will take place.


The standoff escalated over the past few days, while the country is waiting for Spain's constitutional court to rule on the legality of the referendum – a decision that might not come before Sunday. On the 24th of September, exactly a week before the vote is scheduled, thousands of people gathered on the streets of the Catalan capital of Barcelona to demand it takes place. And the next day, Spain's attorney general José Manuel Maza said that if it actually does, he can't rule out the possibility of the president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, being arrested.

But what will happen to Catalans who will try to vote on Sunday? Could they be arrested too? Our colleagues at VICE Spain – based in Barcelona themselves – spoke to criminal law expert José Manuel Fontes to find out what could happen if they vote in the referendum.

VICE: If Catalans vote on Sunday, could the Spanish government arrest them or punish them in some way?
José Manuel Fontes: In theory, the government cannot punish you for voting, because the right to vote is protected by our constitution. But the referendum itself is currently under investigation by the constitutional court, and the rules that normally regulate an election have been suspended. So until that decision is announced, voting is neither legal nor illegal.

If the court doesn't decide on this before Sunday, can the government physically stop people from getting to the polls ?
As I said, the constitution protects the right for people to vote, but that doesn't mean the government is obliged to listen to the results of the referendum. If the court decides before Sunday that it's unconstitutional, then you can call it whatever you like, but it won't be a referendum. So it's not clear what the government could do – or what the point of taking action against voters would be.


Can police demand to see my ID card at the polling station?
No, not if you're just there to vote. But that changes if, while you're there, you take the opportunity to start insulting the police, incite violence or do something else that's illegal.

Millions of ballots have been confiscated ahead of Sunday's vote.

So if a police officer asks to see my ID, I can refuse?
It's a bit more complicated than that. If an officer in uniform asks to see your ID while carrying out his or her duties, you have to show it. That's the law, and if you don't comply, you could be arrested. But as long as you're just voting and don't do anything illegal, that shouldn't happen.

Is it different for Catalan government officials who go vote?
No, it doesn't matter what job you have – voting is a personal act and it's legally protected. But if the referendum is declared unconstitutional, government officials could face sanctions if it turns out they're helping to organise or promote the referendum in any way.

If that happens, could volunteers working at the polling stations be arrested?
The people working at polling stations are randomly selected by the local government, so they are obligated to be there. It would make no sense to arrest them or punish them in any way when they get there.