It is possible to hold elections in a pandemic, but we have to start planning for them now

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Posted on the 15th September 2020

This is a guest article from Sarah Birch,  Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.

Elections are by their nature complex logistical exercises. During a pandemic, holding an election will be more complicated still. Though the UK polls scheduled for May 2020 were postponed, elections are expected to take place in 2021 for many local authorities as well the Scottish Parliament and the assemblies of Wales and London. Given the current uncertainty over the trajectory of COVID-19, it is important to begin thinking about how the UK might cope with elections held under pandemic conditions.

The recent British Academy report on How to hold elections safely and democratically during the COVID-19 pandemic’ suggests several measures that can be taken to ensure that elections are both safe and democratic.

One lesson from this report it the importance of electoral administration remaining transparent. The UK is fortunate in having administrative procedures that are generally accepted as being of high quality. Ensuring that this remains the case and that the public retains confidence in electoral processes, is vital in delivering credible elections.

In order to accomplish this, there are several things that electoral authorities can do. They can undertake widespread consultation well in advance of polling day on any special measures that are put in place to sanitise polling places and safeguard voters. This consultation should reach out to vulnerable and hard-to-reach groups to ensure inclusivity.

It is important that electoral authorities are accountable as well, and that voters have access to a robust complaints system so that if things go wrong, those in charge of an election can be alerted promptly.

Accountability also demands that records are kept of all meetings relevant to electoral administration, and that the work of electoral officials is overseen by vigilant elected bodies – Parliament, regional assemblies, and local councils.

In addition to delivering a transparent, inclusive electoral process, those running elections need to make strenuous efforts to communicate to voters what they are doing. During a pandemic people are likely to be nervous about voting, and they need to have a clear idea of what to expect when they get to the polling station. They also need to be reminded of alternatives such as postal voting.

In addition, electoral authorities must develop the capacity to react rapidly and decisively to counter any pandemic-related misinformation or hate speech that may be disseminated on traditional or social media in connection with electoral procedures.

As far as the organisation of the election is concerned, measures must be in place to protect all personnel involved, and consideration should be given to relying less heavily on older polling staff. The average age of UK poll workers was 53, as of 2017, with two in five over the age of 60.[1] It would make sense for UK local authorities to seek actively to recruit poll workers from a wider range of age groups.

It would also be helpful if there were more polling stations in parts of the country that are sparsely populated, to avoid the unnecessary mixing of voters from different places who probably would not otherwise come into contact with each other.

All these measures will cost money. A recent comparative analysis of countries that have held elections during the pandemic shows that the additional cost of all the measures required to ensure an election is held safely can be as much as eight US dollars per voter.[2]

Such measures will also require careful advance planning. If bespoke legislation is required, this needs to be passed in ample time for electoral administrators to make the necessary adjustments to their working practices. The UK has a history of legislating for elections late, leaving returning officers with too little time to prepare for polling; it this happens in advance of the 2021 polls, it will do a huge disservice to electoral administrators and voters alike.

The experience of nearly three dozen countries around the world has shown that it is possible to hold both safe and democratic elections under pandemic conditions. It is perfectly possible for the UK to do so also, should the virus not be under control by May 2021. But if this is to be achieved, it will require rigorous advance planning, costing and communication. Now is the time to start this work.

  1. A. Clark and T. S. (2017). ‘Poll Workers’, in P. Norris & A. Nai (eds.) Election Watchdogs: Transparency, Accountability and Integrity, New York: Oxford University Press, pp 144-164.
  2. E. Asplund, T. James and A. Clark. (2020). ‘Electoral officials need more money to run elections during Covid-19’, Democratic Audit, https://www.democraticaudit.com/2020/07/14/electoral-officials-need-more-money-to-run-elections-during-covid-19/

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