The COVID-19 pandemic poses severe technical, political, and social threats to elections. In many countries, the effects of the virus will strain citizen relationships with government and elected officials, intensify political tensions and the potential for violence, disenfranchise voters, and increase conditions for democratic backsliding. Each of these challenges may subvert electoral integrity, with specific impacts on women, senior citizens, and other marginalized groups. These factors elevate the role of electoral oversight techniques and their importance for building inclusion, transparency, and accountability needed to move through the effects of the pandemic.
Where elections are postponed, election observers should advocate for maintaining periodic elections with transparent and well-communicated timelines and updates, with particular focus on monitoring the spread of mis- and disinformation and mitigating against disenfranchisement of vulnerable populations through various measures. Where elections are held, public health measures must be considered based on the recommendations of local health authorities and international bodies that still enable and encourage equal and universal suffrage.
GNDEM has developed guidance on activities members could consider for elections that are expected to take place during the public health crisis as well as transparency and accountability efforts that could occur in the time elections are postponed. We welcome feedback based on the experiences of GNDEM members and will continue to update our guidance during this evolving period.
Elections During the COVID-19 Outbreak:
- Monitoring and advocacy to ensure minimum standards for genuine democratic elections are maintained during a public health crisis. This can include assessing equal and universal access to the voting process; the ability of political contestants to compete and campaign; the ability of voters to seek, receive, and impart accurate electoral information; sufficient recruitment and training of poll workers and staffing of commissions; transparent and credible vote tallying and results transmission; and proper and timely dispute resolution under the current conditions.
- Identify, report on, and advocate for mitigating against barriers to electoral participation that result from the pandemic. These barriers include the effects of added child, elder, and sick care that predominantly fall on women, disproportionate health impacts on people with disabilities and older citizens that may hinder them from voting in person, as well as increased incidence of domestic violence that result from social isolation.
- Conduct civic and voter education around the impact of the virus on electoral processes using social and traditional media, bulk SMS, and other techniques that can bridge the digital divide. Special considerations should be given in environments where shelter-in-place and lockdown orders are in effect or were recently lifted when developing communications strategies as information flow may be different from contexts with greater freedom of movement.
- Please see NDI’s Raising Voices in Closing Spaces guidebook focused on strategic communications planning for citizen observer groups. The guide is structured as a series of iterative practical exercises to help observer groups develop a message frame, identify target audiences, and ultimately develop a robust communications plan around salient electoral integrity issues.
- Advocate for electoral measures that will best safeguard public health and democratic participation, including new procedures and technologies that are appropriate to your country’s level of capacity and other conditions. Decisions to use technologies should be made through an inclusive process, and credible information about how the technology responds to the health situation should be public. Any measures should be assessed on the basis of true need and impacts on enfranchisement of the whole electorate, including women, the older people, and other marginalized populations. These may include online registration with independent voter registry verification and absentee balloting with privacy and integrity safeguards and defenses against technology or logistical failures. On election day, further public health measures, such as social distancing in lines and inside polling stations and making hand washing stations or hand sanitizer available at polling stations, could be combined with democratic participation measures, such as extending voting hours, to encourage more citizens to vote safely.
- Please see IFES’ Guidelines and Recommendations for Electoral Activities During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which includes mitigation tactics for election-related activities, such as campaigning, voter registration, poll worker training, ballot casting, and results tabulation. If elections take place during the pandemic, advocating for and monitoring the implementation of safeguarding measures could be considered.
- Please see International IDEA’s considerations on how to proceed with elections during the time of COVID-19, which outlines how to assess risk, consider alternative solutions, and ensure an inclusive decision-making process around electoral issues, all while safeguarding democratic norms and standards.
- Advocate for open electoral data across various processes and analyze such data to reinforce information integrity and inoculate against disinformation about the pandemic’s impact on electoral processes. Current movement restrictions in some countries as a result of COVID-19 may mean observer groups are unable to safely deploy long or short-term monitors to collect information on the electoral process. However, publicly available electoral data – such as voter lists, candidate registration data, polling official recruitment and training information, polling station distribution, turnout and results data, and registered complaints – can be collected and analyzed safely while abiding by social distancing guidelines. Comparing this kind of information to that of previous elections may also reveal some electoral impacts of the ongoing pandemic, and provide evidence to counter potential disinformation about the virus and its impact.
- Please see NDI’s Open Electoral Data Initiative (OEDI) for online training modules on accessing and analyzing election-related data and advocating for its openness and transparency.
- Bolster media and social media monitoring concerning mis- and disinformation around the virus and policies implemented, including decisions to hold elections, in response which may exacerbate social cleavages, polarization, gender-based and other bigotry that malignly affect elections.
- Mitigate against hate speech and election violence by identifying and reporting on early warning signs and incidents of violence that may occur in light of the pandemic and disenfranchise potential voters (e.g., women, ethnic, racial, and LGBTI populations and citizens who recently returned home from travel).
- Enhance capacities to identify and share information in a timely manner across regions and globally about emerging challenges to and effective practices for safeguarding electoral integrity in light of the pandemic. To this end, we welcome feedback from all GNDEM members based on their experiences during this time.
Elections Postponed due to the COVID-19 Outbreak:
- Advocate for maintaining genuine periodic elections in accordance with set election dates where possible and - where necessary - with limited postponements. Any necessary postponements must be made in accordance with national law and international standards for states of emergency, and new dates should be determined with broad political agreement. The process should ensure that states of emergency and electoral postponements are limited in duration with restrictions limited strictly to those required to address the exigencies of the health threat. It should engage civil society and other electoral stakeholders and encourage a multi-party and an interagency approach to weighing democratic governance risks, the legal framework, and public health and security considerations.
- Identify, report on, and advocate against using the pandemic to gain electoral advantage and/or curtail fundamental rights which are essential to electoral integrity. Incumbent governments may legitimately take credit for mitigating a public health crisis, however, using the provision of health services and other measures to address the pandemic as part of a campaign to gain electoral advantage is an abuse of state resources for political gain, which should be documented through long-term monitoring. Restrictions during the health crisis on the ability to criticize government or elected officials also unfairly tilt political competition as would uneven application of restrictions on assembly and movement if directed disproportionately, including against those who would likely seek to unseat elected officials through elections. These are important points for election monitoring and advocacy.
- Build linkages between election observation groups, health advocacy, and other civil society groups to share systematic election monitoring methodologies. This knowledge sharing can help to assess and mitigate effects of the pandemic in the election context. Linkages should include partnerships with women’s rights groups, including those with an understanding of monitoring and mitigating gender-based violence (GBV), advocacy groups for older people, and other marginalized populations such as people with disabilities that are disproportionately impacted by the public health crisis.
- Employ election monitoring methodologies to monitor coronavirus-related concerns by advocating for and utilizing open data (see OEDI for interactive training modules). This could include monitoring COVID-19 cases, as well as policies and regulations domestically or across borders. Groups may also monitor ongoing electoral impacts through open election data, such as newly proposed calendars, shifts in electoral budgets in response to the crisis, decisions, gazettes and public consultations of the EMB, and political party and/or candidate responses to electoral delays. Such monitoring provides for increased transparency about government responses to the crisis, citizen empowerment through evidence-based and open information, and advocacy for better data and reporting.
- Bolster media and social media monitoring concerning mis- and disinformation around the virus and policies implemented, including decisions to postpone elections, in response which may exacerbate social cleavages, polarization, gender-based and other bigotry that malignly affect elections.