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Elections during COVID-19: Considerations on how to proceed with caution

March 18, 2020 • By Ingrid Bicu, Peter Wolf

With more than 70 national elections scheduled for the rest of year worldwide, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is putting into question whether some of these elections will happen on time or at all.  

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The rapidly evolving situation has generated severe disruptions on multiple layers of society, with important impact on the political life, placing world leaders in the position of making rapid critical decisions based on information that emerges by the hour. 

In such a situation, the constitutional and legal parameters should be carefully navigated. The day-by-day ever-developing advice of epidemiologists and public health officials must be considered. Public concern of actual or perceived politically motivated abuse of the postponement must be taken seriously. Any attempt by an incumbent government to “undemocratically” extend its own mandate must be mitigated. 

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) identified a series of key considerations and recommendations to make informed decisions, based on an analysis of  the current evolutions worldwide and on Institute’s previous comparative studies on elections in crisis situations and its Electoral Risk Management Tool.  


Assess risks and implications 

The main objective of electoral processes is to deliver credible electoral results. Credibility is achieved through technically well executed electoral process, broad participation and trusted results that infuse legitimacy in elected officials. 

Depending on the degree of disruptions generated by the COVID-19, organizing elections can be very difficult or even impossible. For example, the production and distribution of ballot papers, voting booths, seals and other supplies needed during the process can be seriously affected by the measures imposed for limiting the spread of the virus. Furthermore, there is a high likelihood that poll workers may fear infection or get infected and therefore not assume their critical roles. Shortage of (qualified) poll workers may lead to technical shortfalls.  

At their best, democratic elections are characterised by high turnout and equal levels of participation across different segments in a society to avoid that the outcome of an election is unevenly shaped by some groups over others. There is a risk that the decision of continuing to hold an election as originally scheduled, despite pandemic outbreak, could undermine their overall legitimacy by reducing voter turnout.  Yet with the need for limited exposure to large groups and social distancing, ccitizens might be less likely to leave their homes to vote because of their health concerns and that of their family members.  

There is also a major risk that those deterred from voting would be disproportionately from the older age groups or those with underlying health conditions. The legitimacy of the contest may therefore be undermined by unfair restrictions placed on certain segments of the society and thus by their uneven participation.  

In-person out-of-country voting can prove particularly challenging in terms of both organizing elections abroad and exercising the voting right by the citizens due to potential restrictions imposed by the host countries. This would also contribute to undermining the legitimacy of the elections.  


Consider alternative solutions 

Health and safety routines can be incorporated into election related procedures, to protect election staff and voters. If public health instructions are meant to avoid gatherings and proximity to other persons – as in the case of COVID-19, participation becomes more difficult in a polling station-based election, where the act of voting requires the physical presence of those expressing it.   

Special voting arrangements that allow citizens to remotely cast their votes–through postal, Internet and mobile technology voting–can certainly reduce possible health or security hazards connected to the requirement of voting in-person.  Implementing or further developing alternative voting methods should therefore be considered, while also assessing their logistical implications and feasibility in the current circumstances.  

If alternative methods for remote voting are adopted, voters will need to be informed and educated about how and when to use them. In a complete lockdown situation, such as that being imposed by numerous nations in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, an information campaign should be tailored to reach voters through both traditional (TV and radio) and online media.  


Create an inclusive decision-making process 

While the COVID-19 pandemic brings unique dimensions to decisions about holding or postponing elections, many aspects of the decision-making process are typical to any national emergency. In many countries, the constitutional provisions during the state of emergency include the postponement of elections, but there are also states where the first does not necessarily imply the latter. Decision-making is more straightforward where constitutions or laws clearly spell out the conditions under which elections can be suspended or postponed. Even in these cases, however, there is normally a broad degree of interpretation in the application of the guidelines.  

Similar to other crisis events, interagency consultation and communication mechanisms that include electoral and public health authorities should be put in place to carefully weigh public safety and security risks, constitutional constraints and procedures, and democratic implications.   

In extreme circumstances such as the ones triggered by the current COVID-19 in many countries, holding elections might divert human and material resources from more urgent, potentially lifesaving activities. 


Safeguard democracy  

Elections are the opportunity for citizens to either reconfirm, or remove and replace, an elected representative or government.  A decision to postpone an election suspends political rights, and as such undermines the social contract between a government and its citizens.  

Essentially, both proceeding with elections while the COVID-19 pandemic is not contained or postponing them entail risks for decision makers. While the latter may be the most feasible and responsible option from the public health perspective, the decision may open for other risks to materialize. Governments need to allow for clear pathways that guide how existing institutions and actors can proceed during the extension period, and when the normal electoral routines will be reinstated.  


More on COVID-19 and Elections:  Global overview of COVID-19 : Impact on elections


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About the authors

Ingrid Bicu
Seconded National Expert (PEA Romania)
Peter Wolf
Principal Adviser, Elections and Digitalization
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