Enact electoral reforms worldwide to protect against future emergencies

Published by  Communications

On 15th May 2023

A polling station sign.
Getty images.

Electoral reforms should be undertaken worldwide, drawing from elections held during the pandemic, to prepare for future emergency situations, according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA). 

In conjunction with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP), UEA’s Prof Toby James has published a book outlining the lessons of holding elections during the Covid-19 pandemic.   

‘Elections During Emergencies and Crises: Lessons for Electoral Integrity from the Covid-19 Pandemic’ is edited by Prof James, Prof Alistair Clark of Newcastle University and Erik Asplund of International IDEA. It features a comprehensive set of 26 country case studies and 8 thematic chapters.   

The book examines how the pandemic affected election quality, what measures were put in place to protect elections, and what worked in defending them. It makes recommendations for how elections can be pandemic-proof in the future. 

Prof James said: “The covid pandemic presented a huge challenge to elections and democracy.  During the eye of the storm, there was little time for calm reflection. There was a need to undertake immediate, short-term responses.   

“With a little distance from the immediacy of the pandemic, now is an opportunity to take action to assess whether elections are ready for future emergencies.” 

The book shows election quality was undermined in many countries during the pandemic. Effects could be seen with reduced opportunities for electoral participation, legal conflicts, and reduced international scrutiny of elections. For example: 

  • There was lower turnout during pandemic elections. During the period 11 March 2020 to 31 December 2021, turnout declined by 4.1 percentage points on average at national contests and by 6.0 percentage points at sub-national contests. 

  • Electoral officials often struggled to receive sufficient resources to run elections – with some elections not held at all to save money. 

  • There were disputes about the constitutionality of elections – such as those surrounding the French local elections in 2020. 

  • There was reduced scrutiny of elections with electoral observation activities often either no longer possible, or much reduced. 

  • Voters were often disenfranchised if they had covid on election day and there was no provision for them to vote. 

The experience was varied around the world, however, with some countries able to avoid the worst possible effects of the pandemic through collaboration and co-operation between key stakeholders.  For example: 

  • Safety guidelines and equipment were widely provided to electoral officials and voters on election day. 

  • Election postponements were made to protect elections. During the first two years of the pandemic elections were postponed in at least 80 countries and territories.    

  • Special voting procedures were put in place to enable citizens to cast their vote such as ballot boxes being brought to homes and hospitals.  

Emergency situations are likely to arise in the future given predictions about increased global warming, potential new viruses, but also other natural disasters such as earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes and floods.   

To be better prepared in the future, the book calls for 11 reforms. These include: 

  • Revising electoral law to clearly specify the circumstances under which election postponement is permitted in emergency situations.  

  • Providing citizens with alternative voting arrangements for emergency situations. 

  • Developing cross-party solutions to running elections – rather than unilateral decisions by governments. 

Prof Clark said: “Those running elections during the pandemic needed to react in real-time, balancing potential contagion alongside the importance of citizens’ democratic rights.  

“This volume combines research from around the world about how countries did this. It draws wider conclusions on lessons learned about holding elections during major emergencies.” 

Erik Asplund said: “Action is needed for policymakers to strengthen their preparedness for another natural disaster, unexpected challenges - but also to strengthen their underlying systems for running elections with integrity.  

“The pandemic highlighted the need for election authorities around the globe to adopt risk management frameworks, resilience-building measures and crisis management procedures to protect elections.” 

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