Ways to Overcome the Challenges of COVID-19 in Election Management

Ways to Overcome the Challenges of COVID-19 in Election Management

By Jack Vanderpump

It is perhaps an understatement to now say that the the entire world has been seriously impacted by the outbreak and spread of Covid-19, and that the world of elections is no different. While this is undoubtedly true, this has been said since March. Many countries in response to the outbreak decided to postpone elections for a year in the hope of being able to run an election clear of the pandemic. This hope is now fading as it appears that the pandemic will be around longer than many had first thought, and that running an election during a pandemic will be unavoidable for many democracies. It is with this in mind that the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies (ICPS) and the Association for World Electoral Bodies (A-WEB) decided to co-host a virtual roundtable last month on the topic of ‘Ways to Overcome the Challenges of COVID-19 in Election Management: From a Policy and Technological Perspective’. The roundtable was kindly hosted by Seung Ryeol Kim, Advisor to Secretary General, A-WEB, and included the following speakers: Damir Kontrec, Vice-President of the State Electoral Commission of the Republic of Croatia; Dr. Staffan Darnolf, Senior Global Advisor, Electoral Operations and Administration, IFES; Simon Verdon, Chief Executive Officer, Democracy Counts; and Unwoo Ha, Deputy Director, Legal Affairs Division, National Election Commission of the Republic of Korea.

The following article will provide a summary of the event, highlighting many of the topics discussed, and reflect on some of the concerns noted by participants and members of electoral management bodies (EMBs) in discussions with us subsequently.

One of the major themes of the discussion was the legal implications of holding an election during a pandemic. Unwoo Ha from the Legal Affairs Division within the National Election Commission of the Republic of Korea set out the ways in which their electoral commission attempted to ensure the April Parliamentary elections were held safely. The emphasis was placed on flexibility, and in particular reinterpreting existing clauses in a way that allowed the commission to make the changes it deemed necessary to promote the safety of the electorate. Regardless of whether this model is preferable for other electoral commissions, Korea’s decision to not introduce legislative amendments was an aspect of the small amount of time between the outbreak and holding the election. Within existing legislation, the commission were able to find the scope to push a number of significant changes through, however. Overseas voting was expanded with votes counted at diplomatic missions for the first time, instead of being sent to Korea (which wasn’t possible due to the cessation of international flights at the time). Legislation concerning early voting was used to allow patients confirmed with Covid-19 and medical staff – who would normally have to vote on election day – to vote in eight special polling stations. A ticketing method previously used in Korea, whereby those who arrived before the poll closes but hadn’t been able to cast their vote yet due to queuing delays, was utilised to guarantee suffrage to home quarantined and vulnerable voters. The latter group were instructed to arrive just before the poll station closed and then entered the polling booth after the regular voting period had ended.

While the Korean Republic was able to exercise substantial flexibility, a number of limitations were unavoidable with this method. Stricter prohibitions on remote voting, for instance, meant that a number of voters who could either not leave their homes due to having Covid-19 related symptoms or were overseas in a country that restricted movement were subsequently disenfranchised. Unwoo Ha in reflection on the unsurmountable issues they faced, made the distinction between voting domestically – which is “relatively controllable, predictable and negotiable” – and voting abroad – where a lack of sovereignty makes the process “uncontrollable, unpredictable and non-negotiable”.

The event also reflected on the recent Croatian Parliamentary election, which was held in July. The pandemic had two impacts on the election. Firstly, it shifted the date upon which the election was held. And secondly, it led to the use of a number of novel methods during the election. Both changes – like the aforementioned South Korean example – didn’t require any legislative or constitutional changes. The new election date remained within the constitutional limits of when a new election needed to be held, and therefore the decision – which was taken by the President – was a political one, and not within the competency of the commission. Likewise, the procedural and technical changes to the electoral commission’s normal operation were permissible under already existing legislation and regulations. Even without passing an amendment, the electoral commission had the competency to instruct poll workers to wear masks at all times and to procure the necessary levels of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitiser. The electoral commission were also able to introduce procedures to ensure the franchise of those voters who had Covid-19 or had to self-isolate. The electoral commission sent staff members to their residences, and a trusted third party designated by the voter would fill the ballot on their behalf ensuring that the poll worker and the Covid-positive voter never came into direct contact.

In both the South Korean and Croatian example, the elections were held during a pandemic, were largely considered successful and safe, and did not require any legislative changes. This is both convenient for governments preoccupied with a public health emergency, but there is also reason to believe that this provides systemic advantages for these democracies in the long term. IFES’s Dr Darnolf stressed that amending laws, adjusting regulations and updating procedures to cope with the challenges of Covid-19 could result in a “rush-job” that increases the integrity risks associated with our democracies.

These integrity risks consist of the risk of systemic manipulation, malpractices and fraud. Systemic manipulation usually refers to the use of domestic legal provisions and/or electoral rules and procedures that run counter to widely accepted democratic principles and international standards, and that purposefully distort the will of voters. Democracies therefore must be careful that any legislation that is pushed through to alter electoral arrangements, under the proviso of protecting voters from covid, is not done for either malign reasons or provides the scope and ambiguity through which abuse of the electoral system can occur. Even if the amendments are not at risk of intentional malfeasance, knee-jerk amendments could increase the risk of malpractice. New regulations that, for example, require poll staff to carry out new tasks could result in breaches of duties of care if the necessary training is not provided beforehand.

Regardless of whether an electoral commission and national government do make changes to electoral legislation, there are a range of new technologies and private sector solutions that could aid in the management of the pandemic while minimising the aforementioned systemic risks. In regards to the former, EMBs could look to embrace e-voting methods and online registration to reduce the amount of physical contact points, and use social media more extensively to improve communication concerning changes to electoral procedures, as well as increase assurance in the safety of the system more broadly. There are also a range of private sector solutions whose utility has increased during the pandemic. Democracy Counts CEO, Simon Verdon, made a strong case for the increased use of online training, flow simulators and digital portals for staff, citizens and candidates. Flow simulators can provide a simulation of poll stations during election day to show where bottlenecks may appear, how to guarantee socially distanced queuing, and inform poll station managers about how many tables and booths are needed. Online portals have the benefit of removing the physical contact that would normally be encountered during registration and with the use of paper poll cards, while also supporting greater use of absent voting. It can also help keep citizens informed in real time, show important health and safety guidance and incorporate national track and trace systems. Online training will be perhaps the best method to ensure staff compliance with new safety measures, and thus reduce systemic risks associated with malpractice. Such training removes the risk and logistical issues associated with large training groups during a pandemic, and content can be customised quickly in response to emerging issues and procedural changes. All of these methods can reduce systemic risks, while improving the confidence of both the electorate and staff in the safety of the operation.

In preparation for an election during the pandemic, electoral commissions and national governments will have to consider a number of options as they weigh up a balance between the safety of voters and the democratic rights of citizens. ICPS and A-WEB’s event raised another aspect that our democracies will have to be conscious of – quick and short term changes that expose our democracies to big systemic risks in the future. The two experiences of Croatia and South Korea may not be applicable to all democracies, but it does illustrate the range of options available in the field of election management during the current period. Finding flexibility in the existing body of electoral laws and procedures, while using new technologies, could pave a path that ensures the safety of citizens, guarantees their franchise, and doesn’t expose our democracies to systemic risks.

This paper was authored by Jack Vanderpump, a Policy Lead at the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies. For more information or any questions, please get in contact at jack.vanderpump@publicpolicyexchange.co.uk

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