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Elections, democracy and Covid-19

Voters queue to cast their ballots early in the 2020 US Presidential Elections in Fairfax, Virginia, 30 October. Credit: EPA / JIM LO SCALZO

As Americans cast their votes in the US, we look at the challenges Covid-19 poses to an integral democratic process.

How do you hold an election during a pandemic? In the months since the spread of Covid-19, many countries have grappled with this question. And at a time when populations across the globe are witnessing an erosion of their freedoms, tools intended to protect democratic rights are under more scrutiny than ever.

Elections and Covid-19. Although more than 60 countries have postponed voting since the start of the pandemic, dozens have gone ahead, using measures such as increased postal voting and enforced social distancing at polling stations.

Some have been praised - in South Korea’s legislative elections in April, voter turnout was high at 66 percent, and there was no increase in Covid-19 cases.

But elsewhere, factors such as low turnout, the proliferation of misinformation on social media, declining trust in governments, and the eruption of violence - all major topics in the months leading up to today’s election in the United States - have caused concern.

A question of legitimacy. In countries such as Burundi, concerns over the virus resulted in extremely low turnout, leading citizens to question the legitimacy of election results. Rushed changes to electoral systems have also caused problems - in Poland, where elections were delayed and postal voting expanded, there were reports of Poles abroad not receiving their ballots in time to vote.

There are also worries that the pandemic has given leaders the opportunity to manipulate elections for their own gain. Mass protests in Serbia in July were linked in part to widespread outrage at the landslide victory of President Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in elections widely viewed as undemocratic, with turnout below 50 percent. Clashes also broke out in Belarus in August after President Alexander Lukashenko announced he had won a landslide victory in an election rife with accusations of vote-rigging.

Rather than manipulate results, many countries, including Armenia and Nigeria, have postponed elections indefinitely, which is also a major concern.

Democracy in crisis? The state of elections in 2020 has been taken by some as symptomatic of democracy more generally. A study by the Swedish research institute V-Dem found that 89 countries have experienced an erosion of their democratic freedoms since the start of the pandemic, with election delays being one of many cited examples, alongside excessive use of emergency powers and limitations on media freedoms.

“Countries that were already healthy democracies have been able to handle this pandemic relatively responsibly and measures have been taken to preserve freedom and democratic norms despite the exceptional circumstances,” explains Sebastian Brack, head of elections and democracy at the Geneva-based Kofi Annan Foundation, which works to help countries strengthen the legitimacy of their electoral processes as well as address the political challenges that undermine elections.

“But for countries which were already going in a more authoritarian direction, the pandemic has provided a fantastic excuse to curtail civil liberties, crackdown on opposition parties, sometimes delay elections without any new date set, or organise elections in very questionable conditions, so that the result is not credible. So the pandemic has clearly been very bad for democracy,” he adds.

What does this mean for the United States? The US has not been exempt from the problems faced elsewhere. Electoral authorities across the different states have increased postal voting, reporting record pre-election turnout, and introduced new measures to protect the health of poll workers and voters on election day.

But when so much of political life has moved online, the spread of misinformation surrounding this year's election has been seen as one of the biggest challenges to the democratic process - a challenge many technology companies such as Twitter and Facebook have been focusing on in the run -up to 3 November.

A major concern is that, if the election result is tight, President Donald Trump may not accept it - most likely backed by his opposition to postal voting, which was expanded due to the pandemic but which he has frequently attempted to discredit as increasing fraud. “This is a scenario which we are regularly confronted with in many of the fledgling democracies that we work in, but it's more surprising in an established democracy,” says Brack.

The future of elections. The pandemic has highlighted how easily the legitimacy of elections can be called into question. Last month, the Kofi Annan Foundation released guidance on how to hold elections with integrity during Covid-19, balancing concerns for voter health with the health of democratic institutions. But Brack explains there is no quick fix for the underlying problems that have been exacerbated in recent months.

“I think this has been a wake-up call for some countries which had become complacent. The pandemic and the way it has been handled has increased the questions and doubts in their institutions,” says Brack.

“The real fixers of our democracy don't lie in technology,” says Brack. “They lie in more inclusive societies where we make sure that there's a more equitable distribution of wealth and also a more participative political system.”