Research Paper: How Can EMBs Manage Turnout During a Pandemic?

How Can EMBs Manage Turnout During a Pandemic

By Jack Vanderpump

Global politics has been defined in 2020 by its attempt to deal with a deadly virus. This is no different for the work carried out by electoral management bodies (EMBs) across the globe, as they deal with the challenge of how to manage their respective elections in the middle of a pandemic. The ongoing public health crisis has impacted elections across the globe in a variety of ways. Not only has it led to the postponement of elections in over 70 countries , it has also resulted in lower turnout in elections that have continued throughout the pandemic. France’s municipal elections that were carried out between March and June, recorded a historically low turnout of 40%, compared with 63.5% in 2014. Elections in Mali, Iran, Australia and several US states, have similarly suffered with low turnouts and a high number of abstentions. This issue could be existential for many states. If the pandemic leads to low turnout in elections over the next year, then there is a serious risk that it would damage the legitimacy of the winning party and by extension the electoral democracy itself.

In examining the topic of electoral turnout during pandemics, this article will reflect on a recent virtual roundtable held by the International Centre of Parliamentary Studies (ICPS) of the same title, as well as interviews we have had with our members and members of dozens of EMBs. Throughout these conversations and events, the consensus has been that EMBs need to be able to give voters the confidence to go out and vote, and staff the confidence to do their jobs. This can be seen in three challenges in particular.

Firstly, EMBs need to ensure that polling stations are safe places for voters to cast their ballots. This will be in large part achieved by the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) to all staff, and, if possible, to voters as well. In the Kentucky Democratic presidential primary (where around 500,000 cast their vote), the state provided 5,000 masks, 4,000 gallons of hand sanitiser, 5,800 face shields and 20,000 gloves for poll workers. However, this won’t be simple for many EMBs. Kentucky still required support from the state government to procure the necessary amounts of PPE, and that was the case even as it cut its usual number of 3,700 polling stations down to 170. Budgetary issues and high global demand for PPE will therefore be big obstacles for many EMBs in their efforts to make polling stations safe.

Secondly, there is the issue of how will those who are confirmed as having, or suspect they have, Covid-19 vote in upcoming elections. It is unlikely that the virus will disappear in the near future, and so provisions will have to be put in place by EMBs to enable those with the virus to vote. The creation of separate spaces for such voters to cast their ballots will have to be set up, while testing temperatures and carrying out medical assessments will also have to be considered.

Thirdly, provisions need to be put in place to ensure that electoral staff feel safe to work. This isn’t just a hypothetical concern, and EMBs have to realise that it won’t just be voters who are scared. In March, the Ohio primary was postponed as hundreds of workers dropped out at short notice with concerns about catching the virus, despite the Ohio Election Commission’s efforts to send protective gear and cleaning equipment. In a warning to all EMBs, this was a clear illustration that simply providing PPE will be insufficient to alleviate poll workers’ fears of getting infected. Other electoral commissions have subsequently taken a more employee-centric approach to dealing with the pandemic. This has included testing of thousands of members of staff, and investing in the infrastructure to allow staff to work from home, whether that includes the purchase of new laptops, setting up VPNs, or utilising technologies like Zoom.

Our members have also raised concerns about polling staff being intimidated by voters, especially if they are attempting to enforce safety measures like wearing masks and social distancing while queuing. Electoral commissions and their respective states will need to establish safe practice in polling stations as a public safety issue, treating it in the same way as seatbelts. With this issue, and like most of the issues raised above, effective communication will be key to making sure both voters and staff feel safe, and that turnout isn’t too greatly affected by the pandemic. EMBs will need to constantly communicate their responses ahead of the election, explain how they will ensure safety during the election, and make voters familiar and comfortable with the measures being implemented. In the Dominican Republic , for example, these efforts appear to have worked. Among people who stated they were very likely to vote, 69% had been exposed to the EMB’s public safety campaigns, whereas only half of those who were unlikely to vote were aware of them.

The use of e-learning tools could provide an effective way to ensure that staff are well trained in best practice both from a safety and operational perspective as well a public relations standpoint. Online training courses have inevitably become far more popular during the pandemic, but their value will probably extend beyond contingency planning. Simon Verdon, CEO of Democracy Counts, highlighted how such courses can quickly deliver training that is consistent in its quality and that is more agile than traditional training courses. Both facets could be vital as the pandemic throws up previously unknown issues.

EMBs and governments do have a number of options at their disposal which could help to address the issues mentioned and improve turnout. The option that has been taken by several states has been to postpone the election until the pandemic has been subdued. This, however, raises constitutional issues, and the public are far from unanimous in their support or opposition for this option. According to Professor Michael Bruter from the London School of Economics, about 73% of the voting population in the US are against postponing November’s election, and President Trump’s recent comments suggesting that he is considering postponing have further polarised the matter. Yet, such attitudes are not homogenous across demographics or even countries. Professor Bruter’s research has shown that in the US, a majority of 18-24 year olds are in favour of postponement, as are those considered particularly vulnerable to the virus. In the UK, a swift decision to postpone the May 2020 local election for a year was met with little fanfare.

EMBs also have the option of trying to increase the use of postal voting. In the Kentucky primary, where they closed the majority of poll stations, they actually had more votes cast in 2020 than they did in 2016 – an achievement that has largely been attributed to its greater encouragement of postal voting. However, EMBs – especially those with only a limited experience in this field – will have to take care. Commissioner Thomas Hicks, from the US Election Assistance Commission, noted during our virtual roundtable that EMBs will be in a race against the clock to ensure that postal ballots are sent out on time, that the public are given information to be able to fill them out correctly, and that the ballots get sent back, received and counted quickly and as the voter intended. EMBs will have to be vigilant against potential fraud, as they always are. However experience suggests that a far bigger concern for EMBs will be ensuring that the ballots do not arrive too late.

The expansion of early voting has also been discussed as a way to better manage turnout. In the US, for states that allow early voting many polls open two to three weeks early, but some go as far as opening 30 days before the polls close. Opening the polls for such a length of time would help poll stations to enforce safe social distancing as they spread out the electorate across weeks rather than hours. Plus, giving the electorate a better chance of accessing the polls at off-peak times could bolster confidence that poll stations are safe.

Nevertheless, it will be impossible to entirely remove safety concerns about poll stations for as long as this pandemic continues, and that is why there has been a resurgence in interest in electronic voting and registration methods. While some countries like Estonia have embraced e-voting for over a decade now, the vast majority of electoral democracies have not moved online. In Estonia, online voting is the most common way of voting and has been shown to be more cost effective as well. Such democracies will be well suited to managing turnout, but for many countries this won’t be possible. Such options require time to set up. Sy Mamabolo, the Chief Electoral Officer of the South African Electoral Commission, has commented that while he hopes that South Africa could adopt such methods in 2024, 2021 will probably come too soon. Online voting also brings with it a degree of risk associated with the use of technology, which takes time to protect against. E-registration methods are less liable to misuse or interference, but similarly time will be an issue.

Whatever actions EMBs take in response to the pandemic, it is unlikely to please all voters. As Professor Bruter said during our most recent event, “there will be no such thing as a good EMB” during this pandemic. Each EMB will have to make sacrifices. Keeping the electorate safe will often come at the price of keeping the electorate satisfied. Whether electoral democracies decide to postpone elections, increase the use of postal voting, or open polls early, the responses will not be met with unanimous support. This is natural, and part of the course in electoral management, as someone in Florida is not going to have the same preferences as someone in Idaho. In villages where they are likely to know the people they are voting with, opposition to changing traditional methods of voting is likely to be stronger than in cities where voting is less of a community affair.

The lack of a one-size fits all solution to the issues brought up by the pandemic is also heightened by the fact that electorates tend to be sceptical of change and prefer traditional methods of voting. Many within the electorate, especially in an era of disinformation and anti-establishmentarianism, suspect that when politicians make changes to electoral procedures self-interest is driving the change rather than public health. Even those that are open to pandemic-induced reforms, would prefer such decisions to be made by non-partisan institutions and organisations, like an electoral commission or a judicial court. But in the majority of electoral democracies, such changes have to be taken by the politicians, and usually the legislature. As a result there is a tension between changes that the public may want and ways that they can actually be achieved. The political nature of these decisions subsequently risks escalating a public health crisis to a political crisis, and making the pandemic a subsidiary issue of party and political tensions. EMBs will take on a large share of this burden. A number of electoral commissioners have raised the possibility of it taking far longer to count votes and queues causing delays. The longer it takes to count votes, the more the electorate may perceive an unsavoury motive. Ensuring that elections are carried out in a time-sensitive way and also in a way that satisfies the collective experience elections are meant to provide, will be a big challenge to EMBs.

To meet this challenge, EMBs will need to be imaginative. For example, to provide an election that is both a collective experience and compliant with social distancing, sports stadiums in the US have been considered as potential poll stations. Tight budgets – a consequence of states needing to focus spending on health care – will also require EMBs to be more creative in how they allocate their funds as they deal with the extra burdens. In South Africa, money saved by a lack of travel claims has allowed the electoral commission to spend extra on laptops and other work-at-home facilities.

Whatever decisions EMBs make, they will need to be made well in advance of any election, and with that recognition another source of public dissatisfaction lies. In the US, polls suggest that the public would prefer any changes to the November election to be made in September once the health situation is clearer. However, the implementation of new processes like e-registration and an expansion of postal voting, would require a far longer period to introduce.

EMBs running an election in the next 12 months will face a number of challenges in managing turnout. From determining how they should react to the pandemic, to dealing with the electorate’s preferences, to keeping the electorate safe, and to dealing with their own budgetary constraints when faced with greater burdens than ever before, it will be impossible to satisfy everyone. EMBs though are a bastion of our democracies. And as Sy Mamabolo concluded during our roundtable, the Pandemic can either push back the frontiers of electoral democracy, or we can push back against “those forces who seek to use the pandemic as a veneer to close off the democratic space”. EMBs have an important role over the coming months – and perhaps years – to conduct elections that are both safe, and that satisfy and sustain our electoral democracies.

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

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