Should We Have Elections During The COVID-19 Pandemic?

The expert advice throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been to socially distance oneself from others (or to self-isolate in cases when diagnosed or suspected of the virus), to avoid sharing equipment which others who have come into contact with the virus, and to maintain personal hygiene standards. Voting booths contradict at least these first two pieces of advice, yet it seems undemocratic to not vote, even in such cataclysmic times.

Various countries and localities around the world are facing this unprecedented crisis between public health and the democratic process, and all are reacting in different ways. Some states in the U.S.A. have postponed their primary elections to prevent the spread of the virus. Despite a nation-wide lockdown, France did hold their mayoral elections, yet voter turnout was extremely low (56% of voters abstained). Upcoming local elections in Queensland, Australia (where voting is compulsory) will still be held, with the option of telephone votes being available to some voters. None of these solutions are satisfactory. Whilst postponing elections is probably the best outcome in terms of public health, the postponement of too many elections for extended periods could set a precedent and put democracy in jeopardy. On the other hand, maintaining elections puts the general population at risk of contracting COVID-19 (even if there are options of telephone vote in nations with compulsory voting) and also does not rigorously maintain the democratic process if too many people abstain from voting.

Of course, there are ways to minimise the risk to people voting. In countries such as Taiwan, for example, there are temperature gauges to measure the temperature of everyone entering a public area. For those who have a temperature that is too high, they cannot enter the said area, and will oftentimes have to undergo virus testing. Big data is also currently working to “track down infected persons and map the cases to show the sources of infection” according to Foreign Policy. Whilst this has been extremely effective to stem the spread of COVID-19 (Taiwan only had 67 cases on the 16 March), these measures are not desirable in the case of elections. Firstly, although this would prevent the spread of COVID-19 when voting, it could also prevent many people from voting and be used as a means of voter suppression. If someone is turned away from a voting booth and is instead taken to hospital, they will not have a chance to vote. This is a troubling scenario in any society. There is also the issue of the government tracking its citizens. Although the tracking is useful to prevent the spread of disease, it could have worrying effects on freedom of movement, especially if governments continue to use this technology after the epidemic. This is without mentioning the fact that most countries do not have the same infrastructure and resources as Taiwan (they are much better prepared after the 2003 SARS outbreak), and therefore could not feasibly enact these measures.

In order to both alleviate public health issues and to safeguard democracy, any solution to the question of continuing elections during the COVID-19 pandemic must allow elections to continue without large gatherings of people. Voting technology is not advanced enough in most societies to use the internet to vote without the fear of hacking. However, most countries already have some form of postal vote system in place. These systems are usually used exclusively for those who are unable to attend an election in person, whether due to ill health, lack of mobility, or travel. In these unstable times, postal voting must be extended to all. However, the postal system may not be properly equipped to handle the votes of entire populations (whether they be local, state-wide or national). It may be necessary for elections to be postponed for a month while a comprehensive postal voting system is organised, but the fairly limited timeframe to coordinate this system minimises any danger posed to a democratic society. During this time, protocols to protect those counting the votes must also be organised. Simple actions such as ensuring that no one counting the votes is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, that counters are not placed too close together, and that they wear gloves when counting the votes could save lives. Perhaps casual workers who are losing hours of work through no fault of their own due to lockdowns or other drastic business measures could be employed to count the votes.

Democracy and health should not be mutually exclusive concepts, no matter how dire the situation is. Ensuring a postal vote for all citizens allows democratic processes to continue without risking the health of everyone wishing to fulfil their democratic duty.