Press Office

Elections during COVID

Innovative measures needed to safeguard elections during COVID-19

Published on: 19 August 2020

A Newcastle University political expert is among the authors that have contributed to a new briefing which considers how to hold elections during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Ensuring safe and democratic elections

How to hold elections safely and democratically during the COVID-19 pandemic outlines the ways that national and regional governments around the world, including in Israel, South Korea and Malawi, have effectively tackled COVID-related challenges during elections.

The briefing – involving Dr Alistair Clark, Reader in Politics, Newcastle University –  has been published by the British Academy and follows a roundtable discussion held as part of the Academy’s ‘Shape the Future’ policy project.

Led by Sarah Birch, Professor of Political Science at King’s College London, the briefing draws on existing experience of elections held during the COVID-19 pandemic and previous health crises to address five areas of vulnerability: inclusive and accountable electoral management, poll worker safeguarding, inter-institutional collaboration, feasible and effective election observation, and the risk of electoral violence.

Dr Clark said: “COVID-19 has created serious difficulties around holding elections worldwide. This is about more than whether elections should be cancelled or postponed. It is also about the potential for spreading the virus among voters and election staff, the ability of health and election authorities to work together to mitigate such risks, and the potential for electoral violence during the pandemic.

“The democratic implications are potentially profound and this briefing provides a range of important evidence-based insights from around the world, with recommendations to ensure elections continue to be held in challenging circumstances.”

Creating resilient democracies

To safeguard elections during the pandemic, the authors recommend:

  • Electoral administration during the pandemic should be transparent and accountable, with measures to ensure that voters and vulnerable groups are consulted, that they have access to a complaints system, that records are kept of all meetings, and that the work of electoral administrators is overseen by the legislature
  • Electoral administrators must provide accurate information about the voting process and monitor social media for misinformation and hate speech
  • Polling stations should be widely distributed to reduce the mixing of infected and non-infected individuals from different geographic areas and poll workers must be protected through advance planning that prioritises their safety
  • Electoral officials should establish working arrangements with health authorities and bodies formed to handle the pandemic while maintaining political neutrality and seeking to build consensus around political decisions
  • In adapting to pandemic conditions, election observers should look for new ways to harness technology and build stronger partnerships between domestic and international groups. In this way, election observation can be permanently improved
  • In parts of the world with a history of significant electoral conflict, elections may be at increased risk of violence during the pandemic, and practitioners should ensure that measures are employed to enhance electoral security in contexts where disruption is likely before, during and after polling day.

These innovations also represent long-term opportunities for strengthening electoral practices and making them more resilient to a variety of other risks.

Professor Sarah Birch, Professor of Political Science at King’s College London, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic poses major challenges for those charged with overseeing electoral processes, but the innovative ways in which practitioners are addressing these challenges indicate that elections can be safely held even under pandemic conditions. Such elections may be more expensive than normal, but the democratic value of elections will in most cases make polling worthwhile, even in difficult economic circumstances.”


Press release adapted with thanks to the British Academy




Latest News