Expression Of The Will VS. Safety: Through A Pandemic To Democracy
The COVID-19 crisis presented numerous challenges to the world. A safe and fair election is one of them.
The next local elections in Ukraine are to be held during the coronavirus pandemic. They are scheduled for October 25. However, what does this mean under current circumstances? How should one stand in line and fill out ballots safely? And whose experience should our country look to? Here is how expression of the will of the people and quarantine are combined in Ukraine and other countries.
How is this all going to be in Ukraine?
The parliament has appointed local elections for October. To date, the Central Election Commission has only come up with proposals on how they can be conducted.
First, every polling station should have antiseptics, disinfectant wipes, non-contact thermometers, provided by local authorities. Those visiting polling stations should use masks or respirators. The stations’ workers should wear protective clothing, with goggles or plastic face shields and also wear masks. This, too, should be provided by local authorities. Also, all voters should have their temperature measured. Those having it above 37.2 C, or those showing signs of an acute respiratory infection, are requested to refrain from visiting the polling station. Nevertheless, separate special voting booths for those with symptoms of acute respiratory diseases will be set up. The premises should be aired out at least every two hours, or, better yet, all the time, and wet cleaned every 4 hours, accompanied by disinfection of railings, chairs, door handles, etc. Basically, of everything that can be touched by a visitor. The cars used to transport the ballots should also be disinfected.
COVID-19 patients will also have the opportunity to vote in specially equipped polling stations directly in medical institutions. It is not yet very clear with regard to persons in self-isolation. It is suggested that they vote at their place of residence. However, this will require submitting an application and a medical certificate to a precinct election commission by 20:00 last Friday before the election. How exactly the persons forced to stay at home should submit such an application to the PEC is not yet clarified in the proposals.
If a polling station is housed in an educational institution, classes may be canceled on the day after the voting, if the election commissions need more time to disinfect the premises.
However, such norms are only proposals. To be implemented, these conditions have to be approved by the Government.
Apart from the usual epidemiological advice from the WHO and the MoH, voters were given some new ones, such as using their own pen, not bringing children to the polls without necessity and spending less time at the polling stations.
How did the voting go abroad?
Fifty countries and regions have held elections since the beginning of the year. With their approach differing everywhere, overall, the countries followed the recommendations of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. That is, they looked for alternative ways of voting and provided their citizens with the necessary hygienic and protection means. Mostly, the states tried to limit contacts between the voters and polling station workers, and protect vulnerable groups.
For example, during the parliamentary elections in Singapore last month, the first 4 hours were “reserved” for people over 65, and additional polling stations were opened to avoid congestion. In Malaysia, extra polling stations were also opened, and the number of observers reduced, but only during preparation for elections. No such restrictions were applied on election day.
In South Korea, early voting was allowed, as well as mail voting, which until then only the citizens abroad could do. Special voting booths with additional protection were put up for patients with COVID-19 and persons in self-isolation.
The second round of municipal elections in German Bavaria took place entirely by mail. For this purpose, the citizens were sent letters with ballots to their address of residence, which they had to appropriately mark and send back by a specific date and time, or hand over directly to the designated persons at the post offices.
Elections are to be held in New Zealand on September 19. Voting will be allowed through an online app that has so far been used only by the citizens abroad. And also by phone, when a desired candidate or party is communicated to a designated contact person (before the pandemic, this option was available only to people with disabilities). The authorities are also considering more traditional options such as expressing the people’s will by mail or the expanded use of mobile ballot boxes. It should be noted that from early August, the number of new daily cases in the country did not exceed five, with some days with zero new cases. However, new clusters of the disease have now been spotted in the country.
Pandemic against democracy. What are the risks?
To start with, postponing an election may be seen as an attempt to usurp power leading to conflict between the government and the opposition. According to the Committee of Voters of Ukraine report, a change in the date of the presidential election in Bolivia gave rise to a political conflict in the country. The opposition representatives accused the interim president of trying to retain power by postponing the election, and unwillingness to set new voting dates.
In Ukraine, local elections may be postponed if more than half of the country ends up in the “red zone”. However, this is only a statement made by Chief Sanitary Doctor of Ukraine Viktor Liashko, not an official condition.
Even if the election date does not change, quarantine remains. Quarantine restrictions reduce the candidates’ possibilities to conduct traditional pre-election campaigning – including personal meetings. For some voters, such meetings could be a major source of knowledge about a political force. New online campaigns need to look for who to focus their online advertising on. Research says, that the voters not previously interested in politics through television or the Internet will have few ways to obtain up-to-date information. Then how can they assess those they are electing?
Also, if online campaigning is poorly regulated, there is a risk of some extra advertising on the day of silence and non-transparent funding of these campaigns.
Besides, in the case of high incidence rates, voter turnout may be meager. Consequently, the results may be unrepresentative.
For example, in Ukraine, one election stage was held in the pandemic. On March 15 this year, a few days after all-Ukrainian quarantine was announced, an MP was elected in single-mandate constituency No.179 in Kharkiv Oblast. Some quarter of voters showed up for the vote – 27%. While in previous years, the turnout was higher, with 44% in 2014 and 55% in 2012.
An increase in the number of violations is also possible. With fewer observers at the polling stations, more abuse is likely to occur. Therefore, it is difficult to determine how transparent and fair such elections will be.
For example, in Mongolia, observers were initially allowed to work in some polling stations for only 2-4 hours instead of the usual 14. However, after protests of the Coalition for Fair Elections, the ban was lifted almost everywhere.
However, to date, there are no reports of significant election violations related to the coronavirus restrictions in various countries, including reduction the number of observers.
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