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Issues, Challenges and Protocols for Conducting Elections during COVID-19 : Sharing Country Experiences

SPEECH DELIVERED:
21 Septiembre 2020

 

Thank you so much for having me and thanks to the organizers, the Election Commission of India and A-WEB for this very timely webinar and the enlightening discussions. 

As some of you know, International IDEA is the only intergovernmental institute solely dedicated to advancing democracy worldwide. And we are very proud to count India as one of our founding and most important member states, just as we are grateful for the great cooperation we have established both with the Election Commission and A-WEB over the years.

As for the topic of the conference, it couldn’t be more relevant for anyone working on democracy related issues. For us at International IDEA, this probably is THE topic of the year.

Electoral processes have been part of our DNA since our foundation 25 years ago, but seldom has what we do proven so relevant as in these challenging times, where the entire world had to adapt to the new reality of Covid19 – including all the millions of people planning, executing, safeguarding and participating in elections.

Discussions and decisions around elections and Covid19 are not easy. They are indeed proving fraught in many countries. The good news is that nine months into this pandemic, the decisions made by countries around the world as to whether to hold or postpone elections have left in their wake considerable evidence and experience. We are now in a much better position to distill trends, identify lessons, spot remaining challenges and develop policy recommendations.

 

Let me start with some trends and figures.

At the beginning of the pandemic, in March and April, the electoral calendar was dominated by postponed elections, many uncertainties and questions such as:

  • Can elections be held safely for voters and without leading to further spreading of the virus?
  • Will incumbents abuse the difficulty of holding elections to extend their mandates?
  • Will the increasing number of postponed elections lead to longer term legitimacy deficits? And how long will it take to recover from this deficit?
  • If elections can be held, will they be credible? Will turnout suffer?

The uncertainty of whether to hold elections or not was also reflected by our elections database which confirmed that since last February roughly 70 countries and sub-national entities decided to either hold or postpone their elections.

Five or six months later, the discussion has shifted. We are now seeing a clear trend from postponing towards holding elections, although with mitigation measures.

We have seen many examples of resilient and resourceful election management bodies and citizens who have adapted to new conditions in short timeframes.

We have seen how efforts to build consensus around decisions about the electoral process, efforts to strengthen special voting arrangements, efforts to effectively communicate the safety measures adopted, have resulted in high voter turn-out and renewed trust in the electoral system.

But we have also seen cases where governments have ignored due-process and attempted to use this pandemic to play fast and loose with electoral rules, to extend their time in office, thereby leading to political polarization and compromised electoral processes.

And here I would like to zero in on some of the lessons learned.

 

The first lesson is the importance of political consensus in sustaining decisions made on the electoral calendar and procedures.

The decision to hold or postpone elections in the midst of a pandemic needs to be based on public health considerations, considerations related to low voter turnout and the potential damage to democratic legitimacy, and of course considerations on the constitutional provisions supporting such decisions.

Considerations also need to be given to how, when and where to cast the vote – in other words the duration of the voting period, the location of voting centers, and of course the necessary measures to protect electoral integrity and the sanitary precautions during the pandemic.

Each of these decisions is a potential source of political friction and of efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral result. It is therefore essential that all these decisions are supported by broad political agreements. This was the case in the successful parliamentary election last April in South Korea, but it was not, for example, in Poland. There, the government’s attempt to ram down the throat of Parliament a half-baked proposal to go for a fully postal Presidential election in a matter of weeks, while curtailing the prerogatives of the electoral authorities, ended up in an acrimonious political discussion and in a decision to postpone the election, which finally took place in late June and July. This is the kind of controversy that countries need to avoid.

 

The second lesson has to do with Special Voting Arrangements and the need to enable various modalities to cast the vote, which is what my colleague Antonio Spinelli described earlier.

The traditional method of crowding millions of voters, polling station members, party representatives, and observers into voting centers within a few hours presents obvious public health risks in the midst of a pandemic.

However, special voting arrangements, such as early voting, mobile voting, postal voting and online voting have to be assessed based on their ability to uphold the integrity, transparency and legitimacy of the elections.

Introducing them too fast and without broad stakeholder buy-in is problematic.  Broad support, reasonable timelines and ideally already existing legal frameworks and prior experience with Special Voting Arrangements have proven important success factors.

In addition, clear, widely disseminated communication and protocols to inform the voters about the new procedures have become essential and have also shown to be favorable for electoral turnout during the pandemic.

In South Korea, for example, the April election which contained all elements described above, resulted in the highest voter turnout in three decades, in part due to the provision of postal voting and additional electoral days, during which more than a quarter of the electorate voted. None of this, it must be said, was improvised: it was planned into Korean law long before the election.

In the current conditions, the price you pay for the weakness of Special Voting Arrangements is a precipitous drop in turnout. And I’ll give you one recent example from my region of the world, Latin America, where, by the way, no country allows for postal voting for residents or for early voting. A few weeks ago, in the Dominican Republic, despite the stringent safety measures adopted by the authorities, electoral participation decreased 14 points when compared to the previous presidential election.

 

The third lesson concerns the enormous impact of communication by the electoral authority. In the Korean case, once again, the authorities made a splendid effort to communicate not only the availability of expanded voting mechanisms, but also the strict sanitary protocols that would be applied to minimize the possibility of contagion in the voting centers. The latter contributed to creating the perception that voters were not confronted with the harrowing decision between exercising their most basic civic right and protecting their health.

 

All of this leads to a fourth point: resources. The pandemic forces us to adopt measures that reduce the risks of contagion, which range from the availability of masks and other protective materials, to the opening of more voting centers and the extension of the voting period. If you want proper elections, you have to be willing to give more financial and human resources to the electoral authorities.

 

None of this guarantees success. This is because there is a fifth, crucial factor: like so many other things, successful elections ultimately depend on controlling the pandemic. Holding elections under quarantine conditions is inherently impossible.

Furthermore, the evidence shows that the moment of the contagion curve in which a country is found has a decisive impact on electoral participation. The increased participation in South Korea owes much to the fact that the election took place when the number of infections had been stabilized for more than a month. By contrast, elections held amid growing outbreaks, for example Iran's parliamentary elections in February, or France's municipal elections in March, saw dramatic drops in voter turnout.

 

So far, so good. Now let me highlight some of the remaining challenges connected to holding elections during the pandemic:

To begin with, we need to be aware about the risk for disinformation, particularly in a time when the population is overwhelmed by the huge amount of data and information - often contradictory – related to the pandemic. Hence, it is of critical importance that EMBs consolidate a trust-based relation with voters and other stakeholders, and make sure they remain regarded as a primary, reliable source.

Then there is the impact of the pandemic on out of country voting arrangements. Asia is a continent with a significant number of migrant workers. Organising overseas voting capacity was already difficult for some countries prior to the pandemic. For example, a country like Nepal, with a very significant diaspora, has no option for overseas voting, despite the fact that even a Supreme Court ruling has been issued to the effect. Yet, due to the pandemic, even countries like South Korea had to further limit out of country voting to mitigate infection risks.

But there is more. Organising election observation has also become more difficult. Under pandemic conditions, observing the polling day has been problematic, but doable.  In a country like Mongolia domestic groups protested initial restrictions, but eventually were granted access to all polling stations. Longer observation efforts, encompassing the campaign period, has proven more difficult. As international observation missions cannot be deployed at all or are only deployed in a very limited scale, it is likely that independent and better trained domestic observers will gain prominence. This is a trend that was underway before the pandemic but will almost certainly accelerate as a consequence of it.

 

To conclude, I would like to leave you with a few final thoughts linked to the lessons and challenges I’ve just described.

As a general observation, I believe that this pandemic has proved how important respecting the due process, engaging in evidence-based decision-making, seeking consensus with political opponents, protecting the free flow of information, and nurturing the open engagement between government and society – all of them defining elements of a working democracy – are in times of crisis. In order to deal with this pandemic, and to prevent the next one, we need more and better democracy, not less. Listening to the siren’s song of authoritarian solutions is exactly the wrong prescription.

When it comes to elections, it is essential that we protect the capacity of countries to hold adequate elections. Elections are often the only safety valve for political systems subject to extraordinary levels of stress. And that’s why the question of special voting arrangements matters so much. I am convinced that what we now call “special voting arrangements” will soon be regarded as just “voting arrangements.” They are here to stay. Citizens everywhere are demanding that elections are adapted to fit the new societal, technological, environmental and political transformation our world is undergoing.

There is an important agenda that we’ll have to tackle to upgrade normative frameworks to accommodate new and better procedures to cast votes. But this needs to be done being mindful of the local context and infrastructure. More importantly, any attempt to introduce or expand special voting arrangements needs to tackle head on the question of trust in the electoral process. The transparency and integrity of special voting arrangements will have to be fiercely protected, lest the legitimacy of the electoral process writ large is put at risk.

This requires systematic planning, suitable security safeguards, adequate training and consultation with key electoral stakeholders to obtain their crucial buy-in and trust.

I certainly hope that together we’ll continue to learn from this pandemic. On behalf of International IDEA, I pledge to you our best effort to continue developing the databases, reports, briefs and toolkits that can support, guide and strengthen electoral processes during these difficult times. That’s our most important responsibility.

I encourage you to make use of the comparative, global expertise that is available – but I also plea to you to help us build this body of knowledge, by sharing with us and the international community your success stories, your challenges and the lessons you’ve learned. This is what we’re all doing here, at this event – shaking off our perplexity in the face of the challenges that have been thrown at us, to find the glimpses of truth that can help us navigate these uncertain times.

If we put our minds to it, we can transform the current crisis into a catalyst for change and a unique opportunity to rethink and reform elections for the future.

Nothing less is called from us. In this season of darkness, we have a duty to protect democratic values, practices and institutions. The best way to do that is to prepare them for the new world that will emerge from the ashes of this crisis. This will take creativity, inquisitive spirit, and willingness to learn from all countries around the world. And I take as International IDEA’s role, that of being an instrument to speed up that learning, to turn lessons into actions, to help you expand the frontiers of what’s possible, and thus renew the unextinguishable promise of democracy.   

Thank you.