Elections and COVID-19: how can next May’s polls go ahead safely and democratically during a pandemic?

Elections set to take place across the UK in May 2020 were postponed for 12 months due to COVID-19. Election administrators and policymakers now have less than eight months to prepare for the possibility of holding polls during a pandemic. Sarah Birch, co-author of a recent British Academy briefing on holding safe and democratic elections during COVID-19, discusses the key obstacles to a successful poll and offers some recommendations for making sure the May elections are fair and safe.

An election requires the largest peace-time mobilisation that any state has to undertake. Even at the best of times, this is a major administrative feat. Conducting an election during a pandemic is far more daunting still, as electoral authorities have to consider the health of voters, polling and counting staff and campaign organisers, together with the health of democracy. 

If an election is to serve democratic aims, it is hugely important that it is both fair and seen to be fair. Those running elections while COVID-19 remains a problem must clearly safeguard the process in terms of the health of those involved; they will also need to ensure popular confidence in procedures that will in some ways be different from what voters are used to. 

Any change to normal practices is bound to attract attention, and potentially suspicion. The recent British Academy report, How to hold elections safely and democratically during the COVID-19 pandemic’, indicates that there are several things that electoral authorities can do to make sure that COVID-specific measures work.

If the pandemic has not been vanquished by May 2021, these suggestions may be of use to elected representatives and administrators in Scotland, Wales, London and local authorities across England, all of whom will be making arrangements for polling. These recommendations are also relevant to countries around the world that are preparing elections over the coming months.

Firstly, it makes sense for electoral authorities to use strategies that are part of their existing toolkits, rather than trying out completely new ideas (such as internet voting) that cannot be tested properly in the time available. The UK has extensive experience of postal voting, so this is a tool that can be relied on and potentially promoted for wider use. 

It will not make sense to implement other changes to the electoral system at this point, such as the proposed introduction of ID at UK polling stations. Pandemic-related measures will be challenging enough to develop, introduce and communicate, without the government also trying to roll out a whole new way of voting.

Secondly, it is important that any special measures put in place to ensure safe voting are adopted in a transparent, accountable and inclusive manner, with consultation and buy-in from the public. Such measures must also be well publicised with comprehensive voter information campaigns that reach out to all sectors of the electorate, including hard-to-reach groups. In the UK context it is especially important to contact communities where English is not the first language, as some of these groups have been found to be particularly susceptible to the virus.

Thirdly, careful thought needs to be given to safeguarding those running the election, from canvassers to poll workers and counting personnel. In many countries, election staff tend to be older than most employees; this is the case also in the UK, where a recent study has found the average age of poll workers to be 53. In this context, it would be wise to consider ways of recruiting additional younger staff to help run elections, thereby balancing the age distribution. This will be especially important if polling is held over several days so as to enable social distancing, which has been considered in several jurisdictions. A longer voting and counting period entails increased risk to poll workers. The best way to address this challenge may well be to hire more staff so that none of them needs to remain at a polling place for more than a single day.

Fourthly, electoral observers play crucial roles in monitoring and safeguarding electoral standards in new and old democracies alike. Under pandemic conditions, it may be necessary to rethink how electoral observation works. For example, international election observer groups could potentially use remote data collection technologies, and work in coordination with non-partisan domestic groups that are able to deploy observers in their local communities. In the UK, there is less of a tradition of domestic election observation than in many countries, but it is common for political party members to observe vote counting. Social distancing requirements may make it necessary to place cameras at counting tables and webcast the count via live video streams, with two-way communication systems in place to ensure that observers can raise issues of concern.

It is also important that voters have a clear picture of how the electoral process is going to work. In particular, they need to understand that no election anywhere is perfect. All elections are affected by some degree of fraud and manipulation, even if this only involves a small handful of votes among millions. The public must have a realistic expectation of how voting will be carried out, such that isolated instances of wrongdoing cannot be exploited to discredit the entire process. The media and civil society organisations have vital roles to play in conveying these messages and dispelling unfounded allegations of widespread fraud.

In short, electoral safety and democracy need to go hand in hand; both require careful planning to deliver inclusivity, transparency and accountability. 

Given all these challenges, some might wonder whether it makes sense to hold election at all under pandemic conditions. We now have the experience of elections and referendums held in approximately three dozen countries that suggests the answer is generally ‘yes’. When distancing and sanitary measures in polling stations have been accompanied by measures that have been proposed to reduce health risks, such as polling over multiple days and/or the use of postal voting, elections have generally been successful, provided there has been a robust strategy for communicating with the electorate.

That said, electoral authorities and politicians need to be willing to increase electoral budgets to fund the additional cost of COVID-proofing elections. One comparative study found that this cost can be as high as US$8 per voter. In the UK context, the pandemic has hit local authorities hard, and many of them are having to trim costs to save money. It is not realistic to expect them to bear the burden of the additional measures that will be necessary to safeguard elections without an influx of funds from central government. Given the importance of credible elections to democratic legitimacy and stability, extra spending in this area is a priority.

All these considerations point to the fact that elections held under pandemic conditions will require additional commitment and resources. But provided this is factored in, and provided inclusive planning is carried out well in advance, there is every reason to believe that elections can be held safely and democratically during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main danger posed by the pandemic is undoubtedly not that of preventing elections, but rather that of electoral arrangements not being planned sufficiently far ahead, not being communicated sufficiently well to the electorate, or not being properly funded. Even in ‘normal’ times, UK elections are often beset by late changes to rules and polling arrangements that are rushed. This is typically not the fault of local returning officers or the Electoral Commission, but rather that of central government, which has been known to make regulatory changes very close to the start of the electoral period. If the UK is to conduct polling while COVID-19 remains prevalent, plans need to be put in place now to enable dedicated electoral administrators to do their jobs.

The conclusions and recommendations in this blogpost are based on analysis and findings contained in the recent British Academy briefing, How to hold elections safely and democratically during the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the author

Professor Sarah Birch is Professor of Political Science at King’s College London.