The COVID-19 pandemic arrived at a difficult time for democracy, in the midst of a resurgence of authoritarianism around the world and a 14-year democratic decline. Countries scheduled to hold elections were forced to decide whether to hold them as scheduled or postpone them. In both cases, countries have grappled with how to administer elections as safely as possible, while addressing the multitude of new issues the pandemic has presented, i.e. how to include the votes of those that are quarantined, how to avoid a spike in cases, how to handle campaigning, how to avoid politics and manipulation of new election processes, how to identify resources to finance additional expenses such as personal protective equipment, sanitizing polling places, and maintaining security, and how to be as transparent and inclusive as possible in decision making. Since the pandemic began, 75 countries and territories have postponed elections, more than 95 have held elections as planned, and more than 45 have held elections that were initially postponed. Important lessons have been learned over the last several months about how to deal with these and other issues so that the integrity of elections might be preserved.
South Korea was one of the first countries to hold an election during the pandemic, voting for 300 members of its National Assembly on April 15, 2020. By most counts, the election can be considered a model for other countries. In addition to effectively containing the virus early on, the government encouraged the use of pre-existing special voting arrangements (SVA) such as early voting and expanded voting by mail, as well as made special polling facilities available in hospitals and medical centers for those who became ill after SVA application deadlines had passed. Officials communicated extensively about the measures they were taking so that citizens would feel safe about participating. They made resources available to hold elections safely, and were fortunate that by the time election day arrived, South Korea’s virus curve had been low for about one month, which also gave citizens confidence about voting, resulting in the highest voter turnout in three decades. On the other hand, Poland’s government used its majority in the Sejm to ram through an expansion of voting by mail, without broader discussion or consensus, in an effort to hold its May 10 presidential election. Ultimately they were forced to postpone the election until June 28, and even then they were rushed. While the elections went relatively well with high turnout, it was a messy and contentious process. The Dominican Republic, which did not establish SVA effectively for its July 5 national elections, experienced a drop of 14 percent in voter turnout compared with its 2016 presidential elections. Iran and France held national elections in September, when COVID-19 cases were increasing, also resulting in decreased turnout.
While the context is different in every country, a number of lessons can be gleaned from the data that has been collected from those elections that have been held since the pandemic began. First it is critical that there be political consensus around the decisions related to holding elections, including when, where and how to hold them, as well as the measures needed to address pandemic concerns. This consensus will need to be reached among entities that may not be accustomed to working together, such as the election commission, the ruling party, and the opposition. Second, the earlier the planning begins for holding elections the better. Rushing new measures can not only confuse voters, but also give the appearance of manipulation of the process. Third, serious thought must go into SVA, including voting by mail, early voting, and mobile voting. Again, these cannot be rushed, as it is important to establish protocols to ensure that the integrity of the election process is protected. Fourth, communication and transparency are vital to ensuring confidence in the process. Voters must be educated on any new methods of voting that are available to them and understand what safety protocols will be required of them if they go to the polls to vote under pandemic conditions. Fifth, the ability to obtain financial resources to meet the safety requirements for holding an election during a pandemic and to provide alternative methods of casting a ballot is very important. Sixth, the timing of a postponed election must be carefully considered. If COVID-19 cases have been rising as an election approaches, it will likely affect turnout, while the opposite will likely mean increased turnout. Seventh, it cannot be assumed that all elections will have lower voter turnout than in the past. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has compiled a voter turnout database that shows that voter turnout was actually higher in approximately one-third of the elections held during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared with the average turnout in those countries’ elections from 2008-2019. SVA and improved communication can help increase voter turnout even under these challenging circumstances. Eighth, election observation is possible to conduct, though embedding long-term observers is much more difficult than observing the day of elections. For long-term observation, it is necessary to train local observers so that they are able to provide impartial assessments of the legitimacy of an election.
While early on during the pandemic, it was legitimate to err on the side of postponing elections, going forward countries should do everything they can to hold elections as scheduled, as enough lessons have been learned to make it possible to conduct elections safely and effectively. Recommendations for the U.S. administration and Congress to support the holding of elections globally during the COVID-19 pandemic include:
- Taking advantage of this crisis to make improvements in election processes, especially with regard to inclusion, but also with regard to improved communication, strengthening political consensus, and better use of resources.
- Reviewing and updating norms and laws related to emergency decrees and health and safety restrictions to make sure the transparency and integrity of elections are still protected.
- Making use of the research and comparative data that exists related to elections that have been held during the pandemic, and incorporating it into decision making.
- Identifying those new elements of holding elections during a pandemic that should be maintained after this crisis is over, such as the use of SVA to achieve the highest level of inclusion possible, full transparency and communication about election processes, and the use of local election observers.
- Encouraging international NGOs to coordinate their efforts to support the holding of inclusive, transparent, legitimate, and safe elections during this and future health crises.
* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.