There is little doubt, by now, that the novel coronavirus pandemic is a threat not only to health and the economy, but also to some of our democracies. In order to fight the spread of the virus effectively, governments have to restrict civil rights. Some are becoming excessively good at it.
Emergency powers sometimes fit into the plans and desires of would-be autocrats in search of an opportunity to grow stronger. This is done at a rapid pace and is creating growing concern. To give just one example, calling Mr. Viktor Orban a dictator, once an expression relegated to informal conversation, is now becoming mainstream (see The Economist coverage on April, 2nd vs. April, 23rd).
But there is another problem that plagues even countries that remain committed to liberal democracy: how to hold elections. Elections can be quite robust: polls have taken place during wars, famines and civil unrest. But this kind of crisis is peculiar. Elections bring people together in various ways and bringing people together will surely bring about disease.
Let us walk through the options.
Business as usual
This one is the most clear-cut case. Running elections during a pandemic increases the health risks for participants and society at large. Since people will realise that, they are likely to come to the polls in smaller numbers, undermining to an extent the very legitimacy of the process. France played brave and saw it happen.
Delay the elections
An obvious strategy would be to delay the elections until a better moment arrives. Mostly, such plans suppose that the virus would be less… viral during the summer months. But this is just untested theory yet.
Also, playing with the elections date can be politically and constitutionally complicated. Some constitutions require elections to happen before a well-defined moment.
Even where it is constitutionally possible, delaying elections at will may still give governments the power to pursue improper political gains. Even when they do not give in to temptation, opposition parties may feel that they do.
One easy way to lower the risk posed by elections seems to be to keep the polls open during more than one day. Thus, there will be greater social distancing, especially if people are advised to come to the polls in different days, according to their name or any other random characteristic.
But other problems remain. People will still need to be in close proximity to those who are part of the elections committee, will still use pens and stamps.
Those who handle the pens, stamps and ballot boxes will be particularly vulnerable. Keeping the polls open during more than one day might actually have a discouraging effect on these people, even though, statistically, they are at no greater risk.
Multi-day elections would also be relatively novel since, typically, countries are more than happy to close the polls the same day they open them. Romania has tried this approach a few times, particularly when referenda required a quorum to be considered valid and people were reluctant to meet that quorum.
Vote by (physical) mail
In such a scenario, postal workers would deliver the ballot papers to the citizens, making sure that everybody who has the right to vote gets one authenticated piece/ set. Then, so to speak, the mailbox would become the ballot box. (Multiple similar arrangements are possible)
Mail voting is regularly done in the case of citizens who live abroad, or who are unable or sometimes unwilling to come to the voting booth on election day. It is considered safe in the United States (though president Trump recently disagreed). But in the UK a judge ruled in 2005 that “the system is wide open to fraud and any would-be political fraudster knows that”, adding that he could find “evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic”, according to the BBC.
Scaling up such a system would create major logistical and security problems. Can postal companies and services cope with such pressure? After all, they are continuously losing market share to more agile competitors. Supposing the deed can be done, the mail worker may choose not to deliver the postal sacks from areas where people tend to vote “the wrong way”.
Americans have voted by mail in record number in the recent US elections. The same was also planned to take place in Poland, already arousing suspicions of a familiar combination of authoritarian slide, ill-prepared policies and malevolent intentions. The same was also planned to take place in Poland, already arousing suspicions of a familiar combination of authoritarian slide, ill-prepared policies and malevolent intentions.
However, even if postal voting were possible and secure, it may be unconstitutional in many countries. After all, nobody wrote a constitution with a pandemic in mind.
Even if constitutional, postal voting is not necessarily safe from the coronavirus. Citizens would have to be identified by the postal workers and few institutions in Eastern Europe would accept identification without some form of handwritten signature. That makes postal workers potential super-spreaders. It also makes them potential victims. It is worth remembering that in some East-European countries postal workers are essential for delivering pensions, utility bills, and generally keeping remote places connected to the world.
Voting by Internet
Large scale Internet voting is logistically easier (possibly, maybe, we do not really know). But all the other problems of postal voting come back to us with a vengeance. People would still need to identify themselves when they get some form of “electronic right to vote”. The process would be ripe for spreading the virus. It also could be unconstitutional in many countries.
On top of this, there are a whole host of ways to defraud internet voting. And, very importantly, voting fraud is much easier to scale than in pretty much any reasonable elections scenario.
E-voting may be the future, but, realistically, the technology is not here yet.
Are there any ways out?
Earlier this year Singapore revised electoral districts and promoted measures to ensure that voting was possible during a pandemic. This was read by some as a sign that the government is considering snap elections to capitalise on the success of containing the virus. As the number of infections increased, plans seem to have been abandoned. However, speculation about snap elections were not a cause for public outcry, suggesting that the population is generally willing to trust that the government will be able to organise elections safely (voting is mandatory in Singapore).
Can we, in Eastern Europe, or Europe generally, copy that model? Not really. Singapore is a strong state, some say authoritarian, inhabited by a compliant population that is well familiarised with social distancing from previous epidemics. Europe, and especially Southern and Eastern Europe, are nothing like that. The case of Singapore suggests, nevertheless, that, if the pandemic persists, we might eventually learn to competently live with it to the point where relatively safe elections become possible.
Another theoretical option is sortition, which is randomly selecting people for office. Such means of selecting magistrates was a staple of ancient Athenian democracy and was used later in some Italian Republics. Nowadays it is used sparingly in “citizen juries” selected to advise politicians on issues.
Given a large enough elected body or simple enough responsibilities, it can be argued that sortition ensures representation of relevant opinions at least as accurately as elections, if not better.
However, such a solution precludes the citizens from giving a mandate to elected leaders. It also results, sociologically speaking, in diminished legitimacy and trust. In Romania, for example, after each major election the number of people who believe that the country is heading in the right direction increases. Such moments of optimism would be lost.
Last, but definitely not least, only very few – if any – constitutions in Europe would allow it.
It may well be that the actual response to the electoral challenges of the virus will come, like the virus itself, in waves.
We experience now a wave of confusion. Governments are under political or constitutional pressure to hold elections. But the science about the coronavirus is in flux and new ideas are untested. So, decision-making will include a certain degree of randomness.
And there is ample room for bad decisions. In Poland voting by mail was deemed impossible at such short notice. So, elections were postponed de facto – but not necessarily de jure, because it was too late in the process (it’s complicated).
Next comes the mix-and-match wave. Various means of voting described in this article could be used simultaneously. And each country might have its own combination. Inclusive electoral democracy will pay off: countries that already have more inclusive voting options will have it easier, both from a legal and a logistical perspective.
At least in summer, good mixes stand a chance to deliver good elections. But it will take a while to get everything in good order. After all, for Singapore, which was first to consider holding elections despite the virus, this is not its first epidemic.
And then we hope for an effective vaccine to come.
The considerations above are far from exhaustive. They aim not to be a study in electoral alternatives, but to illustrate the challenges that any such alternative would face.
Not to mince words, we are at a point where democracy kills, because elections kill. When calling an election, governments will know that they are sending people to death just as surely as they know it when they send troops into the fight. But, at least, modern troops are volunteer-based rather than conscripted. Army members choose to risk their lives. But, in an epidemic, citizens who go to vote will implicitly risk the lives of those who do not vote.
This will undoubtedly impact the legitimacy of elections and, by extension, of democracy itself. But resilient democracies can move on. Failed elections are not a proof of failed democracies, but rather of failed public health planning. Once the crisis is gone, democracies can fully recover.
Except where democracy is already plagued by “pre-existing conditions”.
PS When I wrote this article, I said that we were living a period of confusion on what safe alternatives to traditional elections looked like. In a certain sense, we are still there.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, more than 60 countries have postponed elections from the start of the pandemic. But those who did hold them largely abstained from innovation. Behind the plethora of public health measures the same-old same-old kind of action took place: in-person, single-day, come-when-you-like (exceptions exist).
Did it work? For some countries it did but for some others it did not. As the virus will continue to roam among us for months (at least), the discussion is still valid: are governments doing everything to protect the voters? Or are they trying to make choices that are safe for themselves, adhering to the conventional wisdom more than necessary.
An inflexion point may be brought about by the US elections, where extended mail-in voting seems to be the solution of choice. A successful, reasonably uncontroversial process may give the world a signal that alternatives are possible. Anything less may scare government away from electoral innovation.