The coronavirus pandemic is causing an unprecedented disruption in elections worldwide. Regardless of whether countries are holding or delaying elections, the decisions are having a major impact on the political fortunes of incumbents and challengers, as well as on voter participation. To ensure the credibility of electoral processes while maintaining public health, some governments are testing or expanding new systems—such as proxy voting and mail balloting—while political parties and civil society organizations are conceiving new ways to engage voters. However, despite these efforts, low voter turnout, unequal campaign conditions, and limited domestic or international observation threaten to cast a shadow on the legitimacy of elections. The unfolding political consequences of these widespread disruptions and new innovations are enormous and are just starting to be understood. National governments and election aid providers will need to up their game to reduce the disruptive effects and ensure that 2020 does not become the year when elections were thrown fundamentally off track.
Election Delays May Be Good for Public Safety but Risky for Democracy
Nearly one hundred election events—primaries, by-elections, referenda, and municipal and national elections—have been delayed globally this year. Many of the delays are legal and justified for public health reasons. However, some delays have raised complicated legal questions and triggered politically driven disputes between ruling and opposition parties. In March, when France had to decide whether to proceed with municipal elections for 35,000 mayors, there was significant opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a delay, with a major opposition leader calling it a coup d’etat. The government ultimately gave in to holding the first round of elections as scheduled and legally mandated, but a delay of the second round of elections required a new law to extend the term of current mayors.
In other cases, opposition parties have raised concerns that incumbents are using delays to prolong and further consolidate their power. For instance, the political opposition in Ethiopia recently leveled such charges at the ruling party after the government postponed general elections—the first competitive elections since mass antigovernment uprisings upended its authoritarian regime in 2018—and extended Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s term by up to one year. Opposition leaders have strenuously opposed the delay, arguing that the current government’s authority will soon be illegitimate and that a more inclusive caretaker government is urgently needed.
Similarly, when Bolivia’s interim government announced a two-week election delay in May, many political stakeholders viewed the move as a cover for Interim President Jeanine Áñez to extend her time in power. Bolivia is simultaneously dealing with a significant virus outbreak and deep political conflict and uncertainty following its highly contentious 2019 elections that prompted nationwide protests and forced the exile of former president Evo Morales. But a new September election date negotiated by the Supreme Court and ratified by Bolivia’s parliament now provides some assurance that Bolivia’s political limbo may soon be over.
Worryingly, in other countries, a lack of concern about indefinite delays reflects profound cynicism about elections as a mechanism for meaningful change. Jordan was scheduled to have parliamentary elections by the end of the House of Representatives’ constitutional term (April 30), yet the prolonged delay has garnered little public attention. In Syria, parliamentary elections have been postponed for a second time. With many citizens confronting serious public health risks and economic misfortunes, elections may be viewed as merely an exercise for reinstating the same leaders and policies that have little impact on improving their lives. Such public malaise is a warning sign for advocates of democratic elections, particularly if citizens express a willingness to trade away timely elections for more effective economic policies at the hand of a strongman.
Lack of Public Events Dampens Voter Participation, Giving Incumbents an Edge
The coronavirus has already had a significant impact on both voter registration and voter turnout. Under normal circumstances, while voter registration and related public education campaigns are usually the responsibility of election management bodies, in practice, civil society organizations and political parties play a huge role in conducting awareness raising and outreach on voter registration, as well as in helping voters to register. In-person voter registration is particularly critical for reaching communities that are traditionally marginalized from political processes—ethnic or racial minorities, women, youth, and people with disabilities. These efforts often involve door-to-door canvassing or public events, as well as the registration of voters during the activities of trusted institutions like churches and schools.
Since the coronavirus hit, such public events have all but disappeared. Civil society groups and overwhelmed election officials have not found effective substitutes for in-person voter registration or voter education methods. The impact is already apparent in the United States, where voter registration for the November general election is down significantly. Organizers are trying out online methods and phone banking, but these approaches are not reaching many parts of the voting-eligible population, particularly marginalized and minority communities and those living in countries without reliable internet, cellular service, or technology.
For some countries, these challenges are further compounded by preexisting plans to deploy new technology for voter registration. Election officials in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire were already in the midst of adopting new biometric voter identification (ID) systems, which require in-person registration with election officials. In Ghana, where the biometric ID system is slated to be used for the December 2020 polls, voter registration ground to a halt and put the compilation of a new voter list more than two months behind schedule. The legitimacy of the voter register is often disputed during Ghana’s elections, and the procedural delays will make this even more likely this time. The delays will surely impact final voter registration levels, as well as the Election Commission’s ability to meet other election deadlines.
For many countries that have held elections since the coronavirus outbreak, voter turnout on Election Day has been severely depressed. France implemented social distancing and hand sanitizing measures for its March 15 first-round municipal elections, and voter turnout still dropped 18 percentage points to its lowest-ever participation rate for municipal elections. Deeply concerned about the implications of low voter turnout, the French government allowed voters to vote by proxy for the second round of municipal elections. Meanwhile, in the United States, thirty-four states have authorized mail balloting, either through absentee voting mechanisms or universal vote-by-mail systems. But even with these changes, voter turnout has been less than or equivalent to voter turnout in past primaries. One reason is that provisions to enable overseas citizens to vote are lacking in many cases. In Mongolia, where in-person voter turnout for its June 24 parliamentary elections was high, no provisions were made for its 8,000 citizens stranded overseas, many of whom requested an electoral delay to accommodate their participation.
In some cases, governments intentionally proceeded with elections, knowing reduced turnout may serve their purposes of remaining in power. As of July 26, at least thirty-one countries had held national elections or referendums as originally planned. Benin held local elections in mid-May despite facing an opposition boycott and widespread concerns over the risks posed by the coronavirus. Even with mandatory face masks and social distancing measures, voter turnout was abysmally low—less than 10 percent in opposition-dominant areas. Parties allied to sitting President Patrice Talon are expected to benefit from the depressed turnout after a similar outcome in Benin’s 2019 parliamentary elections. In that case, key opposition parties failed to qualify after a new election law created strict new party registration criteria. Voter turnout was only 25 percent, and supporters of the president won all of the parliamentary seats.
Voter participation in elections is an essential barometer for the legitimacy of an electoral process. Low registration and Election Day turnout levels may cause some parties and candidates to question the credibility of elections, as well as the governing mandate of the winners. Where countries maintain high coronavirus infection rates, election officials need to take all the necessary steps to maximize voter participation during the entire election process. This requires providing safe alternatives to in-person voting, as well as appropriate public health safety measures where in-person voting is necessary or preferred.
Swift Changes to Election Administration Require More Planning and Poll Worker Training
South Korea’s handling of its April 15 national elections garnered international praise for effectively ensuring public safety while enabling the full participation of millions of voters—including those who were infected with the virus and were living in quarantine. Election officials modified Election Day procedures to accommodate health screenings, social distancing, and sanitizing equipment and physical spaces. But citizens also felt confident in the process because they trusted their government’s overall pandemic response.
Meanwhile, in the United States, several successive primaries have highlighted the difficulties of making significant changes to election administration in the midst of a pandemic. In the U.S. cities of Baltimore and the District of Columbia, primary voters experienced long lines and wait times due to fewer open polling stations and, in other cases, an inability to recruit enough poll workers. Georgia rolled out a new voting system in its primary without adequate training for thinly staffed poll stations. In addition, voting machine failures in parts of the state resulted in severe problems with voting, counting, and results transmission. The combination of expanding absentee voting, implementing early voting, and introducing new voting technology in an environment where election officials could not be in physical contact with one another highlights the extraordinary stress the pandemic has placed on electoral administration and the urgent need for more resources for election bodies.
Because significant changes to voting methods will inevitably delay the tabulation and reporting of final results, it will be important to clearly communicate the timelines in advance to voters, parties, and candidates, thereby reducing any concerns about the legitimacy of the results.
With Limited International Missions, Domestic Observers Become More Invaluable
In developing democracies, election observation by outside parties is crucial to ensure the integrity of electoral processes and verify that they meet international standards. But, in recent months, election delays, border closures, and quarantine requirements for international travelers have brought international election missions to a halt. The Election Observation Mission to the Republic of North Macedonia, organized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, was one of the first international missions impacted. The mission deployed on March 1 in preparation for parliamentary elections originally scheduled on April 12, but when political stakeholders unanimously agreed to an indefinite delay due to the coronavirus outbreak, the mission suspended its deployment. For the new election date of July 15, the mission reconfigured into a much smaller footprint without the hundreds of observers as originally planned.
Burundi refused both international and regional election observers from the African Union for its highly anticipated presidential election and required observers from the intergovernmental East African Community to quarantine, which limited their access to the polls. With its history of election violence and human rights abuses, Burundi provides a cautionary tale of how other governments may seek to use the virus to limit independent oversight over their electoral processes. It remains to be seen whether there will be long-term impacts on international election observation as a standard procedure in developing democracies.
The absence of international observers places even greater importance on the role of domestic election observers, who always play a critical part in monitoring Election Day operations, compliance with electoral procedures, and results transmission processes. Increasingly, however, they are also monitoring the polling stations’ implementation of public safety measures. For example, the Coalition for Citizen Election Observation in Mali, a domestic election observer network, used coded SMS reports from 1,500 election monitors to assess the consistency of social distancing and other preventative health measures for Mali’s March 29 legislative elections. Such oversight and reporting are vital for ensuring that election officials comply with public health and safety protocols and for shoring up public confidence in their effectiveness. Governments must refrain from using the public health crisis to obstruct civil society–led domestic observation, which could further limit transparency and citizen confidence in electoral results.
Protecting the Credibility of Elections Begins Long Before Election Day
While countries slated to hold elections this year are paying some attention to how social distancing and other public health mandates will impact Election Day operations, much less attention is being devoted to effects on the broad array of pre-election activities that are crucial for a participatory and inclusive election. Traditional face-to-face approaches to voter registration, civic and voter education, political campaigning, and training for election poll workers will have to be reimagined in ways that don’t shortchange procedural quality and transparency.
More broadly, changes in election operations may affect the legitimacy and effectiveness of newly elected leaders. An election in the time of a pandemic could advantage the incumbent, who may benefit from leading a major crisis response, over the opposition candidates, who may have fewer resources but also need to adjust to new campaign methods. Regardless, low voter turnout—and any public dissatisfaction with the government response to the health and economic crisis—could further erode the legitimacy and governing mandate of reelected leaders. Elections can and do still matter, and those taking place over the next six to twelve months need urgent attention and resources.
In the current context, governments need to provide additional budgetary support for the effective administration of elections. In turn, electoral bodies must invest in voter education campaigns that, with the support of civil society, outline both public safety measures and changes to registration and voting methods. They must also engage in more robust recruitment and training efforts for poll workers and domestic observers and avoid introducing untested technology where possible. International election supporters should prioritize assisting electoral bodies and civil society with each of these efforts. These and other investments are essential for reducing the pandemic’s disruptive impact on elections and helping democracies stay on track in this unusually challenging time.
Elections can be credible during a pandemic, and while a delay may assure a more credible outcome, it is not a guarantee. Ultimately, many of the decisions around holding elections will have grave implications for the future legitimacy of democracies worldwide.