Learning from the impact of Covid-19 on international elections

Learning from the impact of Covid-19 on international elections

Today marks six months until polling day on 6 May 2021, when elections will be run across England, Scotland and Wales against the background of the coronavirus pandemic. Voters will elect representatives for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the London Assembly and local councils, as well as police and crime commissioners, the Mayor of London and a number of other local and combined authority mayors. This will be one of the busiest and most varied election days in recent British history, as it will include the polls postponed from May 2020 because of the pandemic.

We have been closely monitoring the impact of Covid-19 on elections around the world, to learn lessons from countries holding polls during the pandemic and to make sure that our elections will be safe for those participating – whether as voters, campaigners or administrators. This week has of course seen the eyes of the world on the United States presidential election, but there have been many other international elections from which we and the electoral community as a whole can draw best practice.

The first thing to say is that, while the pandemic is sadly still very much with us, the virus is at least now better understood, and the measures needed to provide for the safety of voters have become clearer. Increasingly, therefore, the trend has been away from postponement and towards pressing ahead with scheduled elections. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), an authoritative voice on global elections, at least 80 countries and territories held national or subnational elections between 21 February and 1 November.  Elections were postponed in 73 countries or territories in the same period, but in at least 39 of these cases postponed elections have now been held.

The second key lesson from the global picture is that countries have sought to adapt and expand existing models of voting rather than try new and untested systems at short notice.  For example, elections in South Korea in April, widely credited as a success, saw voters make greater use of the existing facility to vote in advance, easing pressure on polling places on election day itself.  Similar scenes were seen in many states in the lead up to polling day at the US elections, as record numbers turned out to vote in advance or to return postal ballots. In New Zealand, advance voting was already an established practice, but reached record levels in their recent successfully held general election.

We are better placed in the UK than many countries in this context, as we already have well established and thought through provisions for forms of advance and absentee voting in the UK, through postal and proxy voting, with protections in place to guard against abuse of these systems. In responding to Covid-19, we and the sector will be raising awareness amongst voters of these options, alongside in person voting.

As with other countries holding elections, we will be ensuring that polling stations are safe places to vote, with measures such as physical distancing, regular cleaning, careful ballot handling protocols and the wearing of face masks by voters and polling staff. Our international monitoring has underlined the importance of consultation with relevant public health bodies ahead of polls, to ensure the right safety interventions and guidance are in place.  There is also a need for clear and early communication to voters about the voting process and how they can exercise their various voting options in order to minimise public confusion, to assure voters that their preferred method of voting will be safe.  A good example of such communications can be viewed from the Eden-Monaro by-election in Australia

Organisations managing elections throughout the world have also had to provide additional training to poll workers, as well as hiring additional staff in order to implement health and safety provisions.  This has been a challenge during these times, but initiatives such as Power the Polls in the USA have helped to ensure that sufficient resource has been available so that election processes can be carried out. Innovation in training has been required, with much of it moving online. The use of drive-in training in America was an innovation that caught our attention.

With all this in mind, the Commission has recently worked with the whole electoral community to develop objectives for well run-elections in the current public health context. These relate to the needs of voters, candidates, campaigners and administrators. As we look to 2021, we will be using these objectives to assess and test policy options and implementation approaches, and continuing to work together to deliver a successful set of elections in May. What the international examples tell us is that this can be done effectively, both keeping safe voters, campaigners and those running the elections, and ensuring continuing trust in the integrity of the electoral process. May 2021 will be a challenge, but it is one we are confident we and the sector can meet.