Democracy and scheduled elections must not become COVID-19 casualties

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

This article, written by GQR Managing Partner Jeremy Rosner and Vice President Jonathan Moakes, was originally posted on Medium on March 23, 2020. The views here do not necessarily reflect those of GQR as a firm.

The COVID-19 pandemic is transforming our lives. School closures. Shuttered restaurants, bars, and clubs. Social distancing. Quarantined nursing homes. Rolling lay-offs. Working from home for many of those still employed. As all of us try to adjust to this “new normal,” there is one change we should not adjust to, and should fight with all our might: efforts to postpone or cancel elections.

It is both anti-democratic and dangerous to change already scheduled voting dates, even in the face of this public health threat. Citizens should not be denied their right to elect their leaders, choose the policies they wish to be governed by, and express their approval or disapproval of their current government. If elections are compromised, other civil and political rights will not be far behind.

This is a year full of elections across the globe. Arguably most consequential is the US election scheduled for 3 November. Other notable contests include Bolivia (May), Ethiopia (August), New Zealand (September), Côte d’Ivoire (October), Georgia (October), Lithuania (October), Tanzania (October), Ghana (November), Croatia (December), and Romania (December).

Already, there have been significant COVID-19 postponements. In the US, the night before the polls were to open last Tuesday, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine shut down in-person voting for the state’s primary, postponing it until 2 June. Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Louisiana and Kentucky have also now postponed their primaries. Local elections in the UK (including the highly contested London mayoral election), scheduled for 7 May, have been postponed until next year. Serbia and North Macedonia have postponed their upcoming general elections until an unspecified date and the French government last week confirmed the cancellation of the second round of municipal elections.

Although there is not good polling on this question in most places, the decisions made to postpone elections seem to have been welcomed by the broader publics, or at least not met with a huge outcry. There is evidence that there was some degree of bipartisan cooperation in the delays of at least some US state primaries, such as in Louisiana and Ohio.

While it is understandable that many voters would be nervous about going out to the local school gymnasium to stand amid their neighbours waiting to vote, we should still be alarmed by the lack of attention postponed elections are getting. Authoritarians and would-be dictators may eagerly exploit the current pandemic to delay what many of them fear most — the exercise of the people’s will. Already, rumours abound in Uganda that President Museveni may exploit the current COVID-19 pandemic to delay next year’s elections — more than a year away.

Even where leaders postpone elections in good faith — purely out of concern for public health — the rescheduling is almost certain to spur suspicions and conspiracy theories among those out of power. Elections sincerely delayed to protect public health may thus nonetheless deeply erode public trust in the whole voting system. That trade-off is not worth it.

Of course, in many electoral systems, like most parliamentary democracies, the ruling party or parties typically have some political discretion over when to schedule elections. More than in places like the US, publics in such countries are more used to election dates being a result of political calculation. But where dates are set by law or constitution, or constrained by long-established custom, it is corrosive to democratic health to change dates or cancel voting, even out of putative concern for public health.

The elections scheduled for 2016 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are instructive in this regard. There, elections were delayed for more than two years due to the Ebola epidemic. By 2016, then-President Kabila had reached the end of his term limit but managed to extend his stay in office until late 2019. Unfortunately, the DRC and its people are even worse off than they were in 2016 as a result.

A nervous President Trump, agonising over the collapse of the stock market, the impact of COVID-19 and the momentum of Joe Biden, may well be contemplating how the current international crisis may give him the opportunity to postpone the general election. In his column on 18 March, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr suggests that Democrats should insist on a guarantee that the election will not be disrupted as condition for passing the broad stimulus bill.

There can be no doubt that governments are right to be concerned about opening polling stations and allowing masses of voters to pass through in the space of a day. However, in this day and age, technology and innovation should enable us to get around the obstacle of not being able to cast a vote at a polling station. Postal voting, absentee ballots, and electronic voting should all be prioritised right now.

In the U.S., Dionne notes that Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden, along with election specialist Rick Hazen of the University of California at Irvine, have proposed that all states offer unrestricted absentee voting and mail-in ballots .And where a country’s system may not allow for these systems at the moment, there should be no reason why adjustments cannot be made to keep voting machines wiped down and people physically distanced as they vote. The same of course should apply for any counting process. While there will be some risks to election workers, it is time to declare them “essential personnel.”

Many will argue it is undemocratic to proceed with elections at a time when many may not be willing or able to vote due to health conditions. But elections are always a measure of voters’ support at a point in time — and always a measure of support only of those voters able and determined to vote. In every country, that is never 100%; even in countries with mandatory voting, it is never a complete census of all the voters. Ballots only come from those who have the physical ability to cast a ballot, and who take the actions necessary to vote. In many elections, bad weather, illness, and working abroad make it difficult for citizens to cast their ballots.

As Jon Meacham noted this past week in the New York Times, there is a long history, at least in the US, of elections proceeding despite national crises: federal elections went ahead during the War of 1812; during the Civil War; during World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918; in 1932, during the early days of the Great Depression; and during World War II. In the latter case, millions of Americans were serving in the military and it is estimated that only a third of them participated; yet, the voting went forward. It is not ideal when some voters will face bigger hurdles than others in casting their ballots. But this is far outweighed by the bigger danger of not holding a scheduled election.

Natural disasters have also not prevented elections proceeding in the past. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard of the US one week before the general election. Although both presidential candidates stopped campaigning, the election went ahead. There may well be instances where a short postponement may be in order, such as in Nigeria where the 2019 elections were delayed by one week because of security fears resulting from Boko Haram’s threats to disrupt polling. However, this should be a vanishingly rare exception, not a first remedy.

The holding of scheduled free and fair elections is sacrosanct. Democracy depends on it. COVID-19 has already forced so many changes in our world, and we will all need to sacrifice a great deal going forward to pull through this pandemic together. What we cannot sacrifice is democracy. If we allow this invisible enemy to impose that casualty, COVID-19 will have won this war.