Governments should consider innovative measures to safeguard democratic elections from the risks associated with COVID-19, says a new briefing published by the British Academy which explores how elections can be held safely and freely under pandemic conditions.
How to hold elections safely and democratically during the COVID-19 pandemic outlines the ways that national and regional governments around the world, including in Israel, South Korea and Malawi, have effectively tackled COVID-related challenges during elections.
The briefing – led by Sarah Birch, Professor of Political Science at King’s College London, and colleagues – follows a British Academy roundtable discussion held as part of the Academy’s ‘Shape the Future’ policy project.
The briefing draws on existing experience of elections held during the COVID-19 pandemic and previous health crises to address five areas of vulnerability: inclusive and accountable electoral management, poll worker safeguarding, inter-institutional collaboration, feasible and effective election observation, and the risk of electoral violence.
To safeguard elections during the pandemic, the authors recommend:
- Electoral administration during the pandemic should be transparent and accountable, with measures to ensure that voters and vulnerable groups are consulted, that they have access to a complaints system, that records are kept of all meetings, and that the work of electoral administrators is overseen by the legislature
- Electoral administrators must provide accurate information about the voting process and monitor social media for misinformation and hate speech
- Polling stations should be widely distributed to reduce the mixing of infected and non-infected individuals from different geographic areas and poll workers must be protected through advance planning that prioritises their safety
- Electoral officials should establish working arrangements with health authorities and bodies formed to handle the pandemic while maintaining political neutrality and seeking to build consensus around political decisions
- In adapting to pandemic conditions, election observers should look for new ways to harness technology and build stronger partnerships between domestic and international groups. In this way, election observation can be permanently improved
- In parts of the world with a history of significant electoral conflict, elections may be at increased risk of violence during the pandemic and practitioners should ensure that measures are employed to enhance electoral security in contexts where disruption is likely before, during and after polling day.
These innovations also represent long-term opportunities for strengthening electoral practices and making them more resilient to a variety of other risks.
Professor Sarah Birch, Professor of Political Science at King’s College London, said:
“The COVID-19 pandemic poses major challenges for those charged with overseeing electoral processes, but the innovative ways in which practitioners are addressing these challenges indicate that elections can be safely held even under pandemic conditions. Such elections may be more expensive than normal, but the democratic value of elections will in most cases make polling worthwhile, even in difficult economic circumstances.”
Professor Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham, said:
“We must not let COVID-19 be manipulated as an excuse for poor quality elections and democratic backsliding. Malawi and South Korea demonstrate that it is possible to hold elections safely and democratically during the pandemic so long as we innovate. Doing so will also enable us to build back better, creating more robust, inclusive and effective electoral systems for the future.”