How should African countries hold elections during the pandemic?

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Although much commentary on the COVID-19 pandemic has described it as ‘unprecedented’, epidemic diseases have broken out periodically throughout human history. If anything, they are likely to become more common in the future, due to the environmental damage caused by human activity. In order to ensure that states, including those in Africa, are not caught unprepared, policy makers should be putting contingency plans in place now.

As Thomas Molony and I have recently argued in a Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) briefing paper, one of the areas that requires attention is the holding of elections during future pandemics. Recent research for the GCRF/Newton Fund ‘African Elections during the COVID-19 Pandemic’ project has highlighted a range of vulnerabilities in African electoral systems that have been exposed by COVID-19.

These have created health risks, legal uncertainty, financial strain, and the potential for the pandemic to be instrumentalised for political gain. Through advanced preparation, African states would not only ensure that these challenges are addressed during future pandemics, but would also make certain that their electoral systems are as well prepared as possible for viral outbreaks at the regional, national, and subnational levels.

Much of the work towards holding elections during future pandemics can only take place once a crisis is underway. The safety protocols that are developed will depend on the exact means of transmission of the new disease and will have to be outlined after this is well understood. Ideally this would occur early in the electoral process, to allow time for consultation and the distribution of any relevant supplies.

As new measures are put in place, effort must also be made to ensure that there is public compliance. This should include voter education initiatives that explain any new stages in the voting process, as well as clear guidelines on how new protocols ought to be enforced.  

Although measures introduced after a pandemic or health crisis is underway may reduce the risks associated with holding elections, it is also essential that some of the preparation is done well in advance. Once a crisis begins, other elements of the response may distract from making provisions for elections. Furthermore, any measures that need to be rushed through at the last minute are less likely to receive appropriate oversight and may be more vulnerable to political instrumentalization.

A crucial starting point is to update electoral laws to better cover all contingencies relating to pandemics and other emergencies. Viral outbreaks force basic decisions to be made, such as whether to cancel or postpone elections in situations where public health may be at risk. There is clear potential for these decisions to be instrumentalised for political gain. It may also be the case that current legislation is not flexible enough to allow for the most appropriate decisions to be made. For example, in some African countries (as elsewhere), constitutions, specific electoral laws, codes of conduct, and Electoral Management Body (EMB) operating guidelines do not allow for delays to the end of government mandates, or for the creation of an interim government during an extension period.

If provisions relating to health emergencies are not in place before a crisis is underway, there may be undesirable delays in decision-making where new legislation needs to be passed, or changes to electoral arrangements may be made without legal basis. The process may also be rushed and not subjected to adequate scrutiny, leaving clear potential for manipulation and undesired consequences.

To reduce confusion, it should also be made clear in advance who will be responsible for drafting and enforcing safety protocols. It is therefore important that African countries update their relevant electoral laws, to ensure that sensible and transparent processes for responding to future crises are established in advance, and properly cross-referenced in all relevant documents.

Funding for elections that take place during health crises should also be considered in advance. The measures designed to reduce the risks of viral transmission during elections come at a financial cost. High-income countries are far better equipped to absorb these costs than low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), even once it is appreciated that the measures applied in high-income countries are likely to be more expensive. This creates a need to provide additional budgetary support for the effective administration of elections, particularly as many LMIC governments, including several in Africa, will be unable to meet this requirement.

Therefore, a mechanism that ensures that adequate resources are provided for LMICs should be introduced. As first proposed by Tanja Hollstein of WFD, this could take the form of emergency budgetary support for EMBs, potentially provided by the donor community. Such a funding arrangement would be difficult to organise at short notice, so it would be sensible to establish it before an emergency develops.

As the budgets of EMBs tend to be fungible, this money could be specifically ringfenced, and only released if an election is taking place during unusually challenging circumstances.

There are a range of other measures that should be considered now. For example, in some contexts, an early shift towards electronic voting may reduce the potential for electoral materials to act as vectors of viral transmission. It may also be prudent to find ways to reduce the number of citizens who travel to cast their votes – something that is relatively common in several African states – in order to limit the potential for elections to increase the geographical spread of any new outbreak.  

With COVID-19 still at the forefront of attention, EMBs, legislators at the country level, and external donors who fund democracy programmes in African countries and other LMICs are yet to give much consideration to future pandemics. However, many of the measures that will need to be introduced cannot wait until a new crisis is underway.

The time to start preparing is now.

Robert Macdonald is a Research Fellow at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

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