For the sixth time since devolution in 1999, voters in Wales have the opportunity to participate in a Wales-wide election, with all 60 seats of the Welsh Parliament in play. Elections across the UK were postponed last May due to COVID-19, but the ones set for this spring look like they will go ahead. Toby James and Alistair Clark argue that Wales has taken significant steps to ensure that voters are able to participate in a safe and fair election.
To postpone or not to postpone? That has been the question facing elections scheduled for May across the UK. All of these contests are important, but those being held in Wales have a special importance for Welsh citizens. They will have the opportunity to elect all 60 members to the Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament). It will be the sixth general election since devolution in 1999 – but the first time that 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to take part.
The pandemic, however, has led to arguments about whether elections should be postponed. There is a health argument for postponement. Restrictions have been put on many aspects of life in order to prevent the spread of the virus. But the quality of the election can also be compromised by the pandemic. Restrictions on campaigning might be in place, such as bans on leafleting, which smaller parties have complained are unfair on them. So what should be done?
The evidence from around the world
As part of an ESRC-funded research project, we have been tracking how elections have been run around the world since the pandemic began, in collaboration with International IDEA and the Electoral Integrity Project. We have published case studies that have described the experience on the ground, alongside data on the measures put in place to make elections COVID-safe.
Many countries did postpone for a while. Elections have been postponed in at least 75 countries since last February. But at the same time, over 100 eventually held their contests. Proposals to postpone elections are at first glance associated with undermining the democratic process and denying citizens their right to vote. Postponements, as was shown in a recent article in Election Law Journal, are not all just power grabs by would-be dictators or incumbent governments. They can be for multiple different reasons, and there is a humanitarian case for postponement where there is a threat to human life.
Amid allegations of widespread voter fraud from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the American public has turned its gaze to the maintenance of voter registration lists. John Lindback and Mary Stegmaier provide an overview of the challenges posed by the US’s decentralized voter registration system, and discuss reforms that are already underway to improve the accuracy of voter rolls.
Officials who administer elections in the United States find themselves playing defence this year. In recent months, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has frequently charged that the American elections system is rigged against him. While Trump has offered no concrete evidence of systemic fraud, his repeated claims have created a perception problem. US elections officials have responded by emphasizing that studies do not support his allegations, and by citing the decentralised elections system among the 50 states and the multiple safeguards against hacking voting machines. But, elections officials will acknowledge that one part of the system – voter registration – is flawed.
The American elections system differs from many other democracies in ways that make maintaining accurate voter registration lists a challenge. The US lacks a tool that most other countries use to determine voter eligibility – a centralised, national registry of citizens. Many countries use their national registries as the basis for voter lists at each voting precinct, which means that citizens are automatically registered to vote. When voters show up at their precinct polling station, they present their national ID card, and if this matches, they are issued the ballot. In contrast, the US has no national registry of American citizens nor is there a universally issued national identification card. Instead, to be eligible to vote, Americans must first take the initiative to register with their state and provide the basic identifying information necessary to determine where they are entitled to cast a ballot. Each state and the District of Columbia maintain its own voter registration rolls – a decentralised system that contrasts with the centralised system used in other countries. Further, because election law in the US is largely made at the state level, the states vary in their voter ID requirements and registration deadlines. For this election, 10 states and the District of Columbia will allow people to register to vote on Election Day; the rest maintain deadlines that range from a few days to a full month in advance of the election.