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Society and communities

Viral democracy: Covid-19 and elections

Elections are a mainstay of democracy, which provide the primary mechanism through which political leaders are chosen and held to account. Elections aggregate citizen interests at different levels of electoral unit (local, regional, and national), branch of government (executive and legislature), and timing (mid-term, primary, and general). The rise in the number of democracies (despite a recent backslide) since the 1970s means that any given year has seen a very large number of elections across all continents of the world.

According to the latest figures for 2020, 28 countries have had national elections in which more than 88 million people have voted. Between now and October 2020, the world will see more than 30 national elections and many more elections at the local and state level, while all eyes are on the United States presidential election, to be held on 3 November 2020.

The January outbreak and subsequent global spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has claimed more than 250,000 lives [as of 6 May 2020]. Government responses to the pandemic have included lockdowns restricting freedom of movement, social distancing measures to reduce community transmission, and severe restrictions of economic freedom, the combination of which may have significant implications for the conduct of genuine elections for the foreseeable future.

The electoral cycle involves a number of elements relating to planning (review, reform, and strategies), conduct (training, information, and voter registration), and management (nominations, campaigns, voting, and results), which may all be severely affected by measures adopted by governments in response to the virus. Currently, travel restrictions affect 100 countries and any relaxation in any of these measures will vary according to the vagaries of the pandemic and the political contexts in which is spreads.

The combination of the pandemic and measures to address it raise a number of key questions relating to the conduct of elections. First, the virus itself could discourage voters from casting their votes and affect overall levels of turnout. In the United States, 14 states postponed their primaries: Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wyoming, as well as Puerto Rico. Wisconsin, on the other hand, held its primary in the midst of the pandemic.

"Already, in the United States, the Biden campaign is appealing to voters remotely, while the national party conventions will be unlikely to take place in their normal format."
Professor Todd Landman

The Republic of Korea voted on 15 April and set out measures so that voters were able to participate in the election without safety concerns. Most impressively, the turnout of more than 66% was the highest in the last three decades. In Mali, in a very complex situation, first round elections were held on 29 March, the day its first coronavirus death was announced with very low turnout and its second-round was held on 19 April. France cancelled its second round of local elections due to be held on 29 March, and turnout in the first round on 22 March was much lower than in the last election.

Second, the consequences of formal postponement varies by regime type. For example, in full or ‘flawed’ democracies (Democracy Index 2019), postponement can lead to intensifying, e.g. in US, France, Italy, and Poland. In the US the outbreak has plunged the 2020 political campaign calendar into uncertainty. The political discussion on alternative voting methods has become a partisan political dispute.

In Poland, under virulent political polemics on 6 April, the parliament voted to conduct the next presidential elections completely through postal voting or to delay the date of the election, if necessary. Both decisions by parliament require approval from the Senate. In hybrid systems with some presence of electoral processes, postponement can lead to increased political uncertainty and undermining of the rule of law.

In Bolivia the pandemic emergency overlaps with the political crisis triggered after the controversial elections in October 2019. On 21 March the elections (3 May) were postponed. The electoral administration body sent to the parliament a proposal for the new elections to take place between 7 June and 6 September. The parliament will decide on the new date when the confinement measures are lifted. In elected authoritarian regimes, postponement can create a power vacuum, abuse of power, and the abuse of state of emergency measures, which further consolidate authoritarian rule.

Third, many elements in the electoral cycle may be affected. Voting operations on election day and campaigns in the run up to an election can be disrupted. Already, in the United States, the Biden campaign is appealing to voters remotely, while the national party conventions will be unlikely to take place in their normal format. Training and voter registration can be affected, as has been in the case in the Wisconsin primary. There is also speculation that the November presidential elections could be postponed.

"The bedrock of democracy is truly at stake as such measures are considered."

These and other challenges require a set of solutions that will need to be in place relatively quickly as the uncertainty of the virus continues. There are online and mail solutions for training, registration, and voting itself, each of which has a number of problems that need to be overcome, and that will be subject to the influence of political self-interest from political parties and candidates. Any online solution faces problems relating to information security, the threat of cyber attacks, and hacking, as well as questions over the integrity of the results, as was seen during the Iowa caucuses before Covid-19. Postal voting, while used for absentee ballots, has become highly contentious in the US, owing to the belief that such a system may be biased to particular party affiliations. Online and mail voting can generate mistrust in elections and the rejection of an unfavourable outcome (in these systems, the full secrecy of the vote is not guaranteed).

Quite apart from the technical details relating to the conduct of genuine and transparent elections, there are additional concerns over public health and public security that require more holistic solutions and inter-agency cooperation at levels that have not been present in pre-Covid-19 elections. The recent popular (and, in some cases, armed) protests against stay-at-home restrictions in Michigan and other states illustrate this intersection of concerns that may well affect forthcoming elections.

There remain many unknowns with respect to the progression of the pandemic and government response. There are clearly no single or simple solutions to the election quandaries we set out here; however, given the number of elections (some of which are very significant for global politics) due to take place under the shadow of Covid-19, make it imperative that solutions need to be found, tested, and legitimacy secured if democratic institutions and accountability are not to be damaged.

All electoral authorities need to focus on a backup plan in case of an outbreak. It is crucial to avoid delaying the election and to incentivise participation under an outbreak. A mixed system method of voting could be a solution. This could be:

a) postal voting for out-of-country people and over 65 people

b) online voting for people with certificate electronic signature

c) standard voting in polling stations under strict safety measures for the rest of people (i.e. polling stations disinfection, social distancing, compulsory masks for voters and temperature checking upon arrival).

The bedrock of democracy is truly at stake as such measures are considered.

After the virus

Read more from our researchers as we reflect on the challenges we face after the coronavirus crisis, as well as opportunities to rebuild a more resilient, fairer society.

Todd Landman

Professor Todd Landman is Professor of Political Science and Pro-Vice-Chancellor with responsibility for the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham.

Luca Di Gennaro Splendore

Luca Di Gennaro Splendore is an electoral expert and senior academic at the Institute of Tourism Studies, Malta.

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