Elections during Covid-19

Whilst the world is trying to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, the normal functionality of most states is taking a back seat. That includes elections and democratic processes. The challenge for all leaders is to ensure that emergency measures put in place for times of crisis are rescinded as soon as they can be and normal democracy and personal freedoms are once again allowed to flourish.

So far, at least 20 countries have had elections postponed and more decisions are needed all the time. A few have tentatively named new dates in the autumn, but most are as yet un-scheduled. Some ballots have struggled on, but it has become clear that this will not be possible for much longer. Elections which had hoped to get under the wire, such as France’s local elections, have been pushed back. In the first round, the government asked voters to stay three feet apart and bring their own pens. Despite these and other measures, turnout dropped from 63% in 2014 local polls to 45%, prompting President Macron to postpone the second round. 

And yet there remain a few polls which may still take place. According to International IDEA, “elections in South Korea (15 April 2020), Russia* (public vote scheduled for 22 April 2020) Bolivia (3 May 2020), New Zealand (19 September) and Romania (late 2020) are being held as originally scheduled despite concerns related to COVID-19.”

(*Note that the Russian vote has now been delayed).

The decision for lawmakers is how they can balance democracy with the health of their populations. Can mitigation measures be put in place to allow an election to go ahead, or will it put the health of voters and poll workers at risk? And is there a risk that one section of the population – typically older people – will be less inclined to vote, thus affecting the legitimacy of the outcome?

Reading the expert scientific opinion, we know that the virus can be spread by sneezing and coughing and by social contact. It is yet to be shown how long the virus can live in the open air, but places where large numbers of people can be expected to gather are at risk and such comings together have been banned in many states. Facemasks and disinfecting might help, but probably not enough to ensure that busy polling places are not without at least a degree of risk. And it would not be practical to ask every person to wear a mask or to wipe down all surfaces between each voter.

Even if it were possible, the level of concern among voters would be significant and would surely affect turnout – a factor that is not in the interests of any candidate, nor of democracy.

In those cases where elections have happened regardless – often in a country’s early stages of dealing with Covid-19 – various mitigation measures have been tried. For instance, in Israel, special polling places were set up for roughly 5,500 people self-isolating and these featured plastic sheeting and poll workers in protective gear.

Postponing elections is an easier option, but it has a significant impact on the democratic legitimacy of those who stay in office longer. And in many countries it is simply not legal to extend terms. Over the past few years, the annual survey of the state of democracy in the world has shown a small degree of backsliding. One of the tenets of a democratic society is that elections are held regularly and freely. Postponing them obviously risks this and so must only be taken as a last resort. In cases such as North Macedonia’s parliamentary elections slated for April 12th, the delay is less important as these were early polls in any case. Postponing them until the originally scheduled date in the autumn might not have a significant impact on the democratic health of the country.

One might also argue that the democratic deficit created by postponing local and mayoral elections for a year is not huge as these are less powerful positions. But it may still be the case that a postponement is unconstitutional. In an emergency session of parliament on 15th March 2020, Austria passed the ‘COVID-19-Law’. The law does not mention elections, but allows for far reaching restrictions to public life, including bans of assembly for more than five persons. Local elections scheduled for 15th March in Vorarlberg and for 22nd March in Styria have both been cancelled. Indefinitely postponing elections is not in Austria’s Constitution and its election laws prescribe: “In the event of circumstances that prevent the beginning, continuation or completion of the election, the election administration can extend the election or postpone it to the next day.” If a new date is not pencilled in soon then it may be that such instances will result in court fights.

Another case of concern is the vote on a new constitution for Chile due to be held on April 26th which has now been postponed to the autumn. This vote was the outcome of many years of protests about the Pinochet-era constitution. Instead of voting to replace widespread restrictions to personal freedoms, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced a 90-day “state of catastrophe” to confront the growing outbreak. The move gives the government extraordinary powers to restrict freedom of movement and assure food supply and basic services. The military is permitted to intervene and uphold order when necessary. A significant test of every country’s leadership will be how restrictive the measures are that they feel they need to put in place and how soon they can start to ease them. 

And what of the November election for the US President – the most powerful elected office in the world? There couldn’t really be a serious debate about extending this term of office because it would fall immediately into an argument about President Trump himself. But if there could be an objective discussion, where would that end up if the virus was still having a major effect on American life? And how do we even get to the November elections which are reliant on a series of primaries to determine presidential and down-ballot candidates?

Various suggestions have been made about alternatives to the normal voting rules and procedures, but the oft-touted concept of all-mail voting does not come without significant risks. In particular, fraud, or the potential for it, is much higher based on the experience of the UK.

The idea of implementing an all-mail ballot is an attractive one, but comes up against significant barriers in the US context. Chief among these is that elections are a devolved responsibility with states and counties having their own laws and procedures. Just 34 states have a vote by mail option and the federal government cannot mandate its adoption. That is not to say that states might not choose to provide such a choice where they currently do not, or to expand it where it is currently limited, but such action comes at a price – both financial and logistical. One state that will be trialling an all-mail vote is Maryland where a special election is to be held on 28th April. 

As an international election observer for more than 20 years, I know also that taking ballot papers out of the confines of the polling station carries a significant increased risk of fraud. And in a large election with many contests, there will be a significant rise in spoiled ballots and voter confusion in cases where there is not an official on hand to explain the process to those who may be unsure.

Such problems are exacerbated where the vote by mail is not obtained through choice but is universal. In the UK we trialled this over several elections between 2000 and 2002. The aim was to raise turnout in years which traditionally had low participation rates. The problem was that ballot envelopes are easily identifiable and can be taken by someone other than the intended voter. This happened chiefly where the voter had moved on or was not interested in voting and is an even bigger concern in multi-occupancy dwellings where residents have access to the mail of others. Where a voter has applied for a postal vote, they are more likely to raise the alarm when it does not arrive on time. But where they might not be expecting their vote to arrive in the mail, they may not know it is missing – particularly if they are someone who is less inclined to vote in the first place.

The other issue we faced in the UK was of unscrupulous campaigners stealing votes, pressuring voters and even creating ‘fraud factories’ to open up completed ballots and change them if they were not cast to the liking of the criminal parties. 

With accusations of electoral fraud common in the US in recent years, even the possibility that this might be happening would be enough for candidates from across the political spectrum to throw accusations. This would damage trust in democracy and the credibility of those declared the winners.

Whilst in the UK we continue to allow postal voting on demand, we have tightened the system significantly. The all-mail election experiment was abandoned and the signature and date of birth of all postal voters are held by election officials with every returned ballot having a signed declaration which is checked before the ballot envelope is included in the count. It is a long and costly business with an impact on personal privacy and also leads to some valid votes potentially being excluded. But it is considered the fairest balance. Campaigners in the US have already made this a point of contention with some arguing for ballots without a perfect signature match to be counted.

That is not to say that all-mail ballots cannot work. The Swiss use such a system and there are few, if any, accusations of fraud in that country. But it should not be thought of as a risk-free option for the USA or elsewhere, even in these extraordinary times. 

Technological solutions such as voting using text messaging, via the internet or by telephone were also trialled in the UK and found to have significant security risks. In a country where foreign agents are accused of having sought to disrupt the last election, it would be foolish to consider introducing more opportunities for hacking. The only country that routinely uses internet voting for public elections is Estonia and they have invested billions over many years into hardware and software to improve the security of the vote. The chances of any other country doing so for an election due in the next couple of years is negligible.

Inevitably, there is no easy solution to this challenge. Postponement, all-mail and technological solutions each have their benefits but also significant drawbacks. The debate to identify the least problematic option or options should continue. But it will only be successful if accepted by all parties and candidates as the best alternative.

UPDATE: International IDEA has now produced a technical paper looking at the options for holding elections.

Reading List: 25th March 2020

The EU Council of Ministers has given the go ahead to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. The move had been delayed following an objection from President Macron of France in December.

Opening accession talks is a long way from the countries actually becoming members of the EU, but it is a hopeful sign for countries which have already made substantial economic, social and political reforms with a view to membership.

 

In an expected move, President Vladimir Putin has announced that the ‘public vote’ on changes to the constitution will be delayed from its 22nd April date due to the coronavirus. It will now be held ‘at some future moment’.

The constitutional reforms were announced by President Putin in January and the original proposal would have prevented him from seeking another term in office after 2024. However an amendment tabled in the Duma proposed to wipe the slate clean and allow Putin (and Dmitry Medvedev, the only other living President) to serve a further two terms.

 

The UK’s Law Commissions have produced a report on changes to the rules governing elections and campaigning. Among the suggestions they make is for all political adverts to carry the equivalent of the imprint that paper campaigning materials must carry. This sets out who is responsible for the publication.

The commissions also suggest changing the rules on postponement of elections to give returning officers more powers in the event of floods and other natural disasters. They also want to see electoral paperwork made mroe simple.

 

The Return of Maybe

AvoskaWhen Russians tell fairy tales, they don’t start with ‘Once upon a time…’ they start with ‘Maybe…’ as in ‘Maybe there was this world where the King had three daughters…’ The word they use for maybe is Avos’ (авось)

During the Cold War, most goods, even many basics, were hard to come by in soviet countries and if you saw a line at a shop then you joined it because there was likely to be something rare at the end of it.

You started each day with the feeling that ‘maybe’ you would see something you needed or was worth buying. So you carried with you a little string bag that was lightweight and folded up to fit in a small coat pocket. This was an Avos’ka (авоська) – a Maybe or Perhaps bag – and carrying it expressed the hope that maybe you would find something to put in it.

Are we due to start coping the Soviet shopper? After the waves of panic buying supermarkets have bare shelves where flour, pasta and beans should be. And while much of our time is spent at home, most of us are still out and about for work or for a bit of exercise.ClE6IJcVEAA3Y1B

And if you pass a shop, there is the temptation to pop in just to see if they have something you have been missing for ages. You aren’t setting out to go shopping – but you aren’t going to miss the opportunity to buy a rarity if you see it.

The original avos’kas were environmentally friendly because there were no mass produced single use plastic bags in soviet countries at the time. They weren’t exactly beautiful and they were impractical because small things would fall out and everyone could see what you had – which was usually bread, milk or oranges, or the occasional bottle of vodka.

Avos’kas are long gone in the east, but their time might be coming again with the virus and the lack of goods in the shops. And while I can’t see the original string bags making a comeback, I suspect many will start the habit of carrying one of those ubiquitous jute bags, or even a bag for life, folded away for just ‘maybe’.

North Macedonia delays election. What about others?

Parliamentary elections in North Macedonia have been postponed as a result of the Covid-19 virus. The polls were set for April 12th. The election observation mission from OSCE/ODIHR had already been withdrawn from the country.

The election was called by former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in response to the decision by the EU not to formally open accession talks with his country. French President Macron was believed to be behind the decision to halt the process.

Parties in North Macedonia must now hammer out a deal to decide when and how the elections can be re-scheduled.

With around 70 elections scheduled to take place this year, there will be many debates as to what is right for each particular circumstance. As the US primaries show, even if the main election is not due until much later in the year, problems now can still have a major impact

A paper by International IDEA discusses the challenges faced by those trying to hold elections at this time. They cite the need to balance public (and poll worker) safety with the curtailment of democracy if elections are suspended. But even if elections are pushed through, there is a high risk that many people will not risk going to vote and these may be disproportionately from certain groups. Using new technologies (or even old tech such as postal voting) is certainly on the table, but is very expensive to implement, requires high levels of voter education and opens a much greater risk of fraud.

The UK has taken the decision to delay local and mayoral elections by a whole year. Other countries will seek to delay for a much shorter period – perhaps hoping that circumstances will allow them to proceed in the autumn. Two other options might be to bring ruling parties and opposition together in a government of national unity for the period of the outbreak or to hold elections now, but recognise that these might not be fully representative and hold a fresh election in a year’s time.

Fresh deal on the table in Georgian elections stand-off

It looks like a deal might have been done in Georgia where street protests have taken place to protest at the lack of promised electoral reform. Parliamentary elections are due to take place in the country at the end of the year.

At the end of last year, lawmakers failed to endorse a promised deal which would have moved the country to a purely list based election and ended the mixed member system where 73 of the 150 seats are elected from constituencies. 

Now there are reports that a new deal with a much reduced number of constituency seats – 30 – is set to be proposed to Parliament. And the threshold for parties to cross before gaining seats is set to be cut from 5% to 1%, leaving the way open for many more groups and factions to be represented.

Constituency seats traditionally favour larger parties and incumbents as they are able to build electoral machines in their neighbourhoods. And in more corrupt countries there is increased opportunity to buy votes. Each constituency will have around 66,000 voters under the proposed deal.

Although opening the way to many more groups and factions entering the parliament can be a very good thing, especially in the short term, it can also lead to a much weaker legislature. If it proves difficult to build a majority coalition then the executive is better able to govern without the risk of parliamentary defeat. With the new system, parties know that they only have to have the votes of about 12,000 people to get a seat via the list. That is good for helping minority communities to get a voice, but may encourage factions within the larger parties to break away and form their own parties.

Reading List – 15th March 2020

If you have never heard of the Open Skies Treaty (or fully understood what it means), the possibility that the USA might withdraw is a good excuse to read this short article which explains the treaty and sets out why it would be a mistake for President Trump to undermine it.

 

 

Elections will (coronavirus permitting) shortly take place in North Macedonia and Serbia and are also scheduled for Montenegro in the autumn. Just a month before the first of these, Facebook has extended its political adverts policy to the region.

 

Rather than indicating a definite course of action, amendments to the proposed new Russian Constitution suggest that President Putin is keeping his options open – and keeping oligarchs and the siloviki on their toes.

 

Abysmally low turnout, a six month counting process, rival candidates refusing to accept the result and each declaring themselves the winner. This is the reality of the Afghan presidential election where the US has intervened in each previous contest to declare a winner.

 

Reading List – 2nd March 2020

The Guardian reports on developments in the East African country where power has been dominated by the clan system and where minorities and women have been excluded.

 

The possible impact of the coronavirus on the US election has been raised in a number of quarters. In an op-ed on Wired, Jon Stone suggests that the option of an all-mail ballot in November is not that easy to achieve as US elections are managed by states and counties rather than federally.

However, the very fact that people are thinking about the possible impact and how it can be mitigated this far out from the November polls is encouraging.

 

A court in the USA has ruled that privately owned social media companies such as Facebook and twitter are not covered by the First Amendment – the right to freedom of speech. In a case brought by conservative groups, the court said that the companies have the right to censor material they do not like. I would guess that this one will go to the Supreme Court.

 

Most Americans don’t have confidence in the ability of tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to defeat attempts to interfere in elections, according the Pew Research. But the vast majority also think that it is the duty of these companies to do so.

 

 

This is fairly techy in the detail, but this article exposes the security flaws in the sorts of electronic voting machines which are common in the US. There are also a couple of videos where experts explain how they might go about hacking individual machines or the election server.