How to hold elections safely and democratically during the COVID-19 pandemic

by Sarah Birch, Fernanda Buril, Nic Cheeseman, Alistair Clark, Staffan Darnolf, Susan Dodsworth, Larry Garber, Roxana Gutiérrez-Romero, Tanja Hollstein, Toby S. James, Vasu Mohan and Koffi Sawyer

2020
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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. These innovations also represent opportunities for strengthening electoral practices and making them more resilient to a variety of other risks.

This 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, interinstitutional collaboration, feasible and effective election observation, and the risk of electoral violence.

The analyses indicate that there are a large number of things that electoral practitioners can do to hold elections safely under pandemic conditions. Most of these are techniques that have been employed previously in some form, and we caution against the introduction of entirely new and untested approaches at the current time. The most useful innovations are those such as widening poll-worker recruitment, inter-institutional coordination and hybrid election observation that build on existing practice.

The analyses also highlight the importance of not losing track of the need to bolster the transparency, accountability and security of electoral practices. Far from there being a trade-off between making elections safe in pandemic conditions and achieving these other aims, we argue that efforts to maximise electoral integrity and to preserve electoral peace will also help to ensure that democratic elections can be safeguarded from the risks associated with COVID-19.

Our principal recommendations fall into three categories: those targeted at electoral administrators, those aimed at election observation organisations, and general recommendations that are relevant to administrators, observers and electoral assistance providers.

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