Like it or not, elections have been held and will continue to be held despite COVID-19 – and the pandemic will continue to leave its impact.
Some elections and referendums in the EU in 2020 were postponed while others were held regardless of the pandemic [see full list]. Last December, Romanians voted in a general election. In January, Portugal held presidential elections.
More elections are upcoming, in particular in the Netherlands (general elections 15-17 March), Bulgaria (general elections 4 April), the second round of the postponed French regional elections – possibly in June, and, of course, the German general election on 26 September.
The Council of Europe, the oldest European organisation specialised in elections, made an unusual communication. It’s based on a quote from Albert Camus novel ‘The Plague’ (1947), which tells the story of a plague sweeping the Algerian city of Oran, at the time under French rule.
“Habits! … When what’s needed is imagination”.
The Council of Europe hinted that we need to be imaginative when it comes to elections.
Despite their poisonous context, the US elections did make proof of imagination, with a record number of voters, in excess of 65.6 million, having cast postal votes.
Postal voting existed in the US before COVID-19, while in the EU, only a handful of countries (Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain) have such a practice, and only Germany and Austria appear to use it on a wide scale. In Germany, 29% of the electorate voted by post in the 2017 general election.
Elections held in a classic way, with paper ballots, tend to have had a low turnout in the COVID-19 period. In Romania, despite the high political stakes of the 6 December general elections, the turnout was around 33%. In Portugal, the turnout for the presidential elections in January was 39%.
Generally speaking, COVID-19 has been an accelerator of digitalisation, more specifically for online education and teleconferences. It is only logical that it should become an accelerator for e-voting – or at least introduce new options for voting from a distance.
We are curious to see what other countries might learn from e-voting champions such as Estonia. Each Estonian citizen possesses an electronic chip-enabled ID card, which allows the user to vote over the internet. In the 2019 parliamentary elections in Estonia, 43.75% of all participating voters cast their vote online.
Indirect e-vote (using machines in polling stations) is an obvious step in the right direction for those who have used only paper ballots, but it looks outdated already. In Bulgaria, voting machines will be partly introduced for the first time, but the same detractors who are against the vaccines say that the machines will be an instrument for mass contamination…
Voting with a mask should not be a second-class vote. Let’s indeed use our imagination to prepare for the coming votes – for the sake of democracy.
And of course, COVID-19 will impact voting results because voters will judge the politicians by the way they had handled the crisis. But that is a different matter. It could be the subject of another Brief.
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Look out for…
- Munich Security Conference 2021 virtual event with Biden, Merkel, Macron & Co.
- High-Level EU Presidency conference on the EU’s Strategic Compass
Views are the author’s