Elections during Covid-19: is voting in person a thing of the past?

Economy

Economic News

13 Aug 2020
Text size +-
Recommend

With the world’s gaze increasingly trained on the upcoming US elections, emerging economies are also grappling with the question of how to facilitate voting in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organisation, at least 69 countries and territories had postponed national or subnational elections as a result of Covid-19 between February 21 and August 11. Some 53 have gone ahead, but usually in a modified format or following a delay.

Risks and rewards

The pandemic has given rise to two main risks related to electoral processes.

On the one hand, if voting goes ahead largely as normal, it could pose a considerable public health risk. As a result, voters may be unwilling to turn out. For instance, the second round of Mali’s legislative elections, held on April 19, saw a considerable drop in participation relative to the same phase of the previous election.

On the other hand, measures intended to mitigate this – such as expanding remote voting, or indefinite postponement – can become politicised. A prime example of this is the US, where the discussion around postal voting has precipitated a partisan conflict. Likewise, the suggestion that November’s presidential elections be postponed has met with strong resistance.

Moreover, risk mitigation, including enhanced health and safety measures, can lead to significantly higher costs. For example, prior to July parliamentary elections, the National Election Commission of Sri Lanka estimated that they would cost up to LKR7bn ($38.6m) more than the previous elections due to Covid-19, with LKR1bn ($5.5m) to be spent on health equipment alone.

In some countries with less developed administrative infrastructure – among them Myanmar and Pakistan – citizens are traditionally required to ink their thumb or forefinger on an ink pad after voting as a fraud-prevention measure. In the context of Covid-19, however, enforcing this could create a serious risk of infection, and new solutions will have to be found.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to elections during Covid-19. However, a bespoke blend of measures could address some of the main challenges. 

It was observed that a switch to postal voting resulted in an uptick in voter participation during recent elections in the German state of Bavaria. Similarly, by expanding early voting options and implementing a code of conduct for voters, South Korea was able to drive an 8% increase in voter turnout for its elections in April, relative to the previous ballot in 2016.

In other countries, lockdowns have ruled out political rallies, meaning that campaigning has largely been done online, as was the case in the run-up to the elections in Singapore on July 10. However, in such cases, smaller political parties may lack the funds to compete with established players in online campaigns. 

More broadly, the shift online tends to favour incumbents, given that challengers have fewer opportunities to engage with voters. Incumbents may also benefit from increased media attention as a result of their handling of the pandemic, although this has the potential to backfire.

Voting goes digital?

One of the most salient commonalities of elections during Covid-19 has been a broad-based shift online, seen among political parties and electoral authorities alike.

For example, earlier this month the Electoral Commission of Ghana introduced a digital queue-management tool to ensure social distancing during voter registration. The country’s presidential elections are set to go ahead as scheduled in December, amid assurances from authorities.

Although postal voting remains the most common form of remote voting, digital solutions are on the rise.

However, approaches involving electronic voting bring their own set of issues. Online solutions must come with a series of cast-iron guarantees related to transparency, accuracy and security. If not, they can potentially lead to mistrust among voters and disputed results.

In countries with limited or unreliable ICT infrastructure, digital approaches are more complex to implement and sustain, and political parties with a strong voter base in poorer or rural areas stand to lose out.

Some have suggested that in such contexts voting could be tied to popular mobile payment technologies. While this solution would not be without challenges, it may give voter a more direct sense of participation in democratic processes.

In addition to short-term solutions, online voting can potentially offer long-term gains if implemented effectively, by increasing involvement, making leaders more accountable, improving the transparency of processes and enabling political parties to connect more directly with younger people. If well received, some new approaches could prove useful even after the pandemic wanes.

Covid-19 Economic Impact Assessments

Stay updated on how some of the world’s most promising markets are being affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and what actions governments and private businesses are taking to mitigate challenges and ensure their long-term growth story continues.

Register now and also receive a complimentary 2-month licence to the OBG Research Terminal.

Register Here×

Product successfully added to shopping cart

Read Next:

In The Americas

Covid-19 and Latin American agriculture: can innovation overcome the...

Although the coronavirus pandemic has created significant challenges for the Latin American agricultural sector, it has also created opportunities for innovation and the expansion of home-grown...

In Economy

¿Cuál será el impacto de la reforma laboral de México?

México ha instaurado una nueva ley laboral, en un esfuerzo por racionalizar las disputas industriales y mejorar la protección de los trabajadores.

Latest

Covid-19 and Latin American agriculture: can innovation overcome the...

Although the coronavirus pandemic has created significant challenges for the Latin American agricultural sector, it has also created opportunities for innovation and the expansion of home-grown...