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Adapting elections to COVID-19: five key questions for decision makers

May 19, 2020 • By Toby James
Image Credit: National Election Commission, South Korea

The global spread of COVID-19 has already profoundly impacted the health and welfare of citizens around the world. Decisions being made about how elections are run during the pandemic will have a further profound effect, shaping the health of democracy in the future.

Many policymakers have responded to the pandemic by postponing elections, with at least fifty-five countries and territories between February and May 2020, rescheduling the polls. Postponing an election is not quite as undemocratic as it sounds but others have forged on by trying to adapt elections to the pandemic—or are actively trying to find ways to do this. This has included proposals to hold all-postal elections in Poland, encouraging early voting in South Korea or the use of protective clothing by electoral officials in Israel. A coalition of US academics have set out proposals for fair elections in November 2020.

Decisions are usually best made to suit local circumstances and pressures. There are some universal questions that we can ask about the running of elections, however. In a recent book on Comparative Electoral Management, I set out a framework for evaluating the running of elections. This framework is set out in full in Chapter 4, which is free to download here (p.61-71). This framework can also be used to consider the merits—or otherwise—of the reforms being put forward.

The starting point is that elections are not entirely different in nature to other public services such as schools and hospitals. Some of the tools that have been used to assess them can therefore be adapted to assess how elections are run. At the heart of the electoral process, however, is democracy. David Beetham’s focus on a democratic society as one where the key principles of political quality and popular control of government are achieved therefore provides a normative anchor for how we should assess the electoral process. The framework sets out five dimensions of electoral management that are essential for democratic ideals (Figure 1 and Table 1).


Figure 1: The PROSeS Framework. Source: James (2020: 61).



Table 1: The PROSeS matrix for evaluating electoral management. Source: James (2020: 66).


Firstly, we should focus on the decision-making processes in place for electoral management bodies. If decisions are going to be made due to COVID-19, the question is not just what decision is made, but how that decision is made and by whom? Good electoral management requires that these decisions are not just made behind closed doors by senior electoral officials—or that a small clique of politicians dictate new rules from Parliament. There should be widespread consultation and public involvement. In emergency situations the extensiveness of public deliberations can often curtailed by time, but a wide variety of stakeholders should be consulted and a digital society now enables calls for views from the public, focus groups and public polls. The probity of the decisions made and accountability mechanisms in place should be considered too.

Secondly, the resourcing of any reforms is vitally important. A decision, for example, to switch from holding elections in person at a polling station to rely on mail-in ballots is going to have a major consequence for staffing levels, working practices, postage and printing costs. Who is going to pay for this? When? Do electoral officials have sufficient financial resources, staff and equipment to implement the reforms? The sufficiency of this funding is vitally important so that electoral officials don’t find themselves with cash crises during the electoral process—or find themselves with unfunded blackholes afterwards. We should expect the unexpected. The availability of contingency funds is therefore vitally important too. 

Thirdly, the quality of services to the citizen have an obvious importance. ‘Put the voter first’ is a common mantra for electoral services around the world—but there is a major risk that the service provided will be compromised during these difficult times. Convenience is critically important. Information about how to vote should be readily available and the process as simple and streamlined as possible. Accuracy is critical. The pressures on electoral officials will be immense, but there should be no compromises when voters consider whether their vote had been counted. Putting the voter first also means enforcing the rules against them and their fellow citizens. If polling stations are required to close at 19:00, then they should close at 19:00. If postal votes need to have been received by a certain date, then that date should be absolute. 

Fourthly, the likely effects of any COVID-19 reforms should be mapped against service outcomes. The service outcomes for private companies are usually profit, share value and revenue. When it comes to the implementation of the electoral process service outcomes are no less relevant. They would include voter turnout. Elections held during a pandemic are likely to be hit by a drop in turnout because citizens might be reluctant to travel to the poll and there is therefore a strong case for compensatory mechanisms to ensure inclusive elections. Electoral officials, of course, are unable to shape this key metric alone as it depends on many factors. But how the election is run is one of them. The accuracy and completeness of the electoral register are essential for well-run elections and many countries rely on the canvassing of properties to keep registers accurate. However, South Africa was amongst many countries to have to suspend voter registration initiatives in response to the pandemic leaving the register likely to be affected. How reforms might shape the volume of rejected ballot papers, levels of electoral fraud, possible service denial or ignite violence all need measurement and consideration too.

Fifth, stakeholder satisfaction is crucial to the electoral process. Citizens are one obvious stakeholder and their satisfaction with any reforms that are made should therefore be considered and monitored. Satisfaction amongst parties and civil society is crucial for ensuring support in the democratic system and is likely to require cross-party working. Often forgotten is the level of staff satisfaction amongst the electoral officials on the ground. Staff satisfaction matters for instrumental reasons. The effects are commonly thought to include improved retention and performance. There are also moral reasons: organizations have a duty of care towards their employees—especially where there could be physical risks to their health during the pandemic.

There are no easy solutions for policymakers through these logistical and moral mazes when decisions have to be made within short time frames. It is clear, however, that the election will affect all citizens, civil society groups and political actors. Better decisions will therefore be made where the decision-making process is as inclusive and consultative as possible. And anchoring decisions against democratic principles is imperative.


Disclaimer: Views expressed in this commentary are those of the author, who is a staff member of International IDEA. This commentary is independent of specific national or political interests. Views expressed do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.
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About the authors

Toby James
Visiting Academic at International IDEA
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