Lessons learned from Lithuania's pandemic election

By Laura Matjosaityte

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many election organizing issues around the world. From 21 February 2020 until 21 February 2022 at least 80 countries and territories across the globe decided to postpone national and subnational elections due to COVID-19. However, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, some countries held elections as usual.

Lithuania is one of the countries that held elections during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a parliamentary republic with elements of a semi-presidential system. Legislative powers are exercised by the 141-seat unicameral parliament (Seimas) elected for a four-year term. Parliamentary elections are under a mixed electoral system whereby 71 MPs are elected in single-mandate constituencies under a majoritarian system, and 70 MPs - in a nationwide multi-mandate constituency under a proportional system with the preferential vote.

According to the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania (Article 57), a regular election to the Seimas should be held every four years, meaning that an election was mandated fro October 2020. After a brief political debate about Covid-19 impact and the risks for voters and the whole voting process, a decision was made by the President to hold the parliamentary elections on 9 April 2020 – six months before the election day.

A very dynamic epidemiological situation and the pessimistic forecasts of experts, encouraged stakeholders to find an optimal solution and to react flexibly and quickly, ensuring that not only the elections but also all people participating in the voting process would be secured from the dangers of a global pandemic.

Given the fact, that elections in Lithuania had never been held under an emergency situation (let alone a global pandemic), the first step in this process was to make amendments in the legislation. The practice of other countries that also ran elections during Covid-19 (for example, South Korea, France) were analysed very carefully.

After being fully acquainted with global practice, the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) proposed, and the Ministry of Justice prepared, all-inclusive amendments in legislation, which paved the way for the necessary changes to ensure voting was held under safer conditions.

The Parliament approved the legal amendments in June 2020. The amendment extended early voting from two to four days. Voters could cast votes in any of the 73 early voting centres established in municipalities and other places from Monday to Thursday before each round. More than 170,000 voters voted on days of early voting – this compared to 75, 00 in 2016 and only 50,000 in 2012. The working hours of the commissions were also extended by one hour: voters were able to vote in advance days starting at 7 am until 8 pm. This helped to regulate voter flows and avoid congestion, especially in municipalities in large cities. At the same time, it enabled voters to plan their time, arrive comfortably to the place of their choice, and fulfil their civic duty. The circle of voters entitled to vote at home was also expanded to include two additional groups of people: people who take care for the disabled at home, and voters in self-isolation due to Covid-19. As before, during these parliamentary elections, voters aged 70 and over who cannot work due to illness or disability were able to exercise their right to vote at home.

In those countries, where it wasn't possible to organize directly voting abroad in embassies under internal restrictions or regulations, there was a possibility to organize voting by post.

Legal amendments included electronic voting for voters abroad and in self-isolation due to COVID-19. Alternative voting methods, focussed on allowing vote at a distance – not personally in a polling station – may have further decreased the danger for voters’ health. However, it was objectively impossible to implement such a decision five months before the elections. Technology may have also strengthened electoral processes if carefully considered and implemented, but this process shouldn't be rushed due to the high risk of failure. A first negative experience can turn electoral stakeholders against technology, and then regaining the trust can be very difficult. In the light of this legal regulation, the OSCE election observation mission pointed out, that to safeguard the stability of law, fundamental amendments of the electoral system, should not take place within a year before the elections, which in this case was made with internet voting.

The CEC prepared and confirmed special regulations for organizing elections during the Covid-19 pandemic. The regulation provides that all persons (members of the electoral commissions, voters, and observers) present throughout the stay in the voting premises wear respirators or face masks and keep hands hygiene. Safety measures (face masks and disinfectants) intended for the voters were placed in a visible place of the polling station.

Under the regulation, municipalities also ensured additional premises where a person was temporarily isolated if he felt signs of the upper respiratory tract. Members of the electoral commissions, who had fever or signs of upper respiratory tract infection were immediately dismissed from work.

To avoid voters' confusion and the intersection of voter flows, the places of the entrance and exit were marked. The directions of the voter's movement, where it was possible, were also marked. On voting days, the rule to keep at least one meter distance between voters was introduced, and each voter wore a nose and mouth covering.

If in a polling station the number of voters on the voter list exceeded 3,000, the polling commission had the opportunity to open additional premises. If there were more voters at the polling premises than were allowed, newly arrived individuals were asked to wait outside.

In the polling station premises, it was not allowed to distribute any printed information leaflets (including those printed by the CEC). Inside the booths, only candidates lists were placed, and the surfaces were regularly cleaned and disinfected. The distance between polling booths was two meters.

Taking into account the layout of the premises, members of the electoral commissions had to sit down at least two meters apart. If members of the electoral commissions wanted to talk for more than 15 minutes, they had to leave the premises and continued the conversation outside the polling station premises.

No less than 12 hours before the opening of polling stations, after the end of the voting, and before the beginning of votes counting polling premises were cleaned and disinfected. Indoor premises were ventilated at least once per hour. Frequently touched surfaces (i.e., voting booths, pens, ballot boxes, and other items) were regularly (at least every two hours) cleaned and disinfected. Voter list liners were cleaned and disinfected each time after use.

Each voter was asked to bring together with him a personal document (passport, ID, or other personal documents with a photo), a face mask, and have their own pen. For those who forgot to bring writing instruments, multiples were provided at the voting table, which was periodically disinfected by members of the electoral commissions.

The CEC used election volunteers to ensure the safest environment possible inside and near polling stations. These civilians provided assistance for election organizers to help regulate the flow of incoming voters, take care of the elderly or disabled persons who have arrived at polling stations, and direct voters who have already voted to the next exit (if equipped), or otherwise help to avoid voter confusion inside the room and prevent visitors from the virus spreading.

Voters at risk were advised to arrive during voting hours in the morning, that is, from 7 am to 9 am when there were fewer people at the polling stations. It was also advised not to bring other non-voting persons to the voting table, try not to interact, and keep a safe distance of at least one meter from members of the electoral commissions and other voters.

For voter identification, each voter was asked to present the identification document. If the member of the electoral commission had doubts about the voter identity, he had the right to request a voter to take off the protection measures for no longer than ten seconds.

During the process of voting at home, members of the electoral commissions and observers wore established levels of safety measures, carried disinfectants with them, and regularly disinfected their hands. For voters voting at home, election documents were provided at the door of the voter's residence, and voting took place outdoors or in the staircase of an apartment building. All voters at home, regardless of the reason why they vote at home, had a duty to wear safety measures.

To ensure the safety of members of the electoral commissions and observers', votes were counted in large open areas, making sure that a safe distance of at least 2 meters between members of the electoral commissions and observers was maintained.

To ensure a smooth electoral process the CEC collaborated with other state and municipal institutions. One of them was the Ministry of Health. The collaboration occurred in many forms, such as joint press conferences, coordinated communication campaigns, discussions about legal amendments, training for members of the electoral commissions, and ensuring safety measures.

There was a coordinated action plan drafted before the start of the communication. A few weeks before the elections a live broadcast press conference was organized with the presence of representatives from the Ministry of Health and the Lithuanian Forum of Disability Organizations. Aiming to instruct members of the electoral commissions on how to wear personal safety measures properly, to ensure the whole voting process is safe, and to prevent the way for the spread of the Covid-19 infection, qualified representatives from the Institute of Hygiene were invited into the training sessions. They shared practical advice with the members of the electoral commissions and subsequently advised them on relevant issues. Each member of the electoral commissions was granted a right to make a Covid-19 test free of charge after the early election and on the election voting day.

In addition, the CEC collaborated with the Government of the Republic of Lithuania, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Interior for safety measures. The total number of the safety measures required for the elections was huge and to buy them legally was possible only under a public procurement procedure that could take about six months. Considering an emergency and under the CEC request, the Government assumed the responsibility of providing the CEC with safety measures (including masks, gloves, disinfectant fluid, etc.). This decision has enabled the CEC to get as many safety measures as necessary and to ensure that they would reach polling stations on time. If the CEC had to buy the whole massive amount of the safety measures individually, it would have been a huge risk that the safety measures would not have reached the polling stations on time, and not in sufficient quantities.

Considering the rapidly changing epidemiological situation, the CEC was looking for solutions for voters who were in self-isolation. During the first round, voters who were in self-isolation were required to vote at home. Following the CEC’s request, the Ministry of Health allowed self-isolating voters during the second round to vote in special drive-in polling centres which were set up in four municipalities for runoff parliamentary election. Quarantined voters were able to leave their place of self-isolation for two hours on October 19–22 (early voting at second round) and drive to special early voting stations if they wore facemasks and followed other safety guidelines. Voters arrived alone in their vehicles as instructed, and they wore face masks and dropped their votes into ballot boxes. Voters stayed inside in their cars while voting.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, special attention was given to informing voters about safe participation in the elections. There was an information campaign organized about safe participation in the elections for voters. Information to voters was disseminated through various communication channels: on the national and regional radio and television and regional press publications; outdoor screens; in the information services of the four largest Internet portals, in banners; on radio broadcasts and screens at checkouts in supermarkets; in cinemas; television screens, websites and social screens of state and municipal institutions network accounts; on public transport screens; on social networks (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube).

There were video clips prepared inviting voters to arrive at polling stations with a voter kit for the election: a personal identity document, a face mask, and a personal pen; on safe voting in elections and voting opportunities for voters in self-isolation (voting at home and voting without getting out of the car at special polling stations); an audio clip reminding of observing social distance; videos in which famous people of the Republic of Lithuania are invited to come to the polls and vote safely during the pandemic; banners reminding voters of a voter set collection, etc.

In order to ensure the right of voters with hearing impairment to get all information about the ongoing voting process, each voting day press conference was translated into the gesture language. The translator was also asked to be present at the final press conference after the election day, where were the official preliminary election results, early and election day voting summary was announced.

Partly, because of the COVID-19 pandemic the political campaign was restrained, and candidates couldn't reach the electorate, the main part of the advertisement was made on traditional media and online, also in posters, billboards, and banners. Candidates refrained direct contact - door-to-door canvassing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Taking this into account, the CEC with Baltic News Service (BNS) organized a series of press conferences of political parties, where each political party had a right to present their election programs. The CEC collaborated with the national broadcaster that shared informational videos about election day made by CEC and organized debates of candidates. A debate organizing services have also been purchased from a commercial TV broadcaster. Translation into gesture language was provided in all discussion programs. For the first time, the candidates had a right to use the opportunity to participate in discussion programs remotely.

In summary, it can be noted that the Covid-19 pandemic brought not only new challenges but also a lot of different opportunities to make the election process more accessible to the public.

This article was authored by Laura Matjosaityte, chair of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) of Lithuania from 2018-2021.

Forthcoming Events

Sponsorship and Exhibition Opportunities

If you’re interested in promoting your company, products and/or services at our events, please drop us an email and we will contact you directly. Alternatively, please call
+44 7821 863613 for more information.

How to Book

+44 (0) 20 3137 8648