By Leandro Querido
The world is sailing uncharted waters. Uncertainty has taken over all aspects our lives, which are now in disarray. Within this context, people and institutions are adapting. As far as Transparencia Electoral is concerned, we are focusing our attention on what is happening with elections.
Approximately 50 elections have already been postponed worldwide. Regional elections in Spain and local elections in England and France were delayed. Elections in Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile and the Dominican Republic have also been postponed.
Surprisingly, South Korea held legislative elections on April 15 that saw record-breaking voter turnout. Meanwhile, the United States is still moving forward with the primary elections, although with some calendar alterations.
Transparencia Electoral has carried out a series of virtual conferences with election authorities and experts from election technology companies. This has allowed us to gather valuable information on what the immediate future holds for the world of elections.
The first consideration is related to the strength of election institutions. Just as a solid health institution has a better chance to fend off the virus, it is reasonable to expect that a country with robust electoral institutions is in better condition to adapt to this new and complex scenario. It is worth remembering that, traditionally, many Latin American election authorities have had enormous difficulties holding elections under normal circumstances, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic being two recent examples.
Technology is an essential ally in adapting to the new conditions. Election technology adoption began in the region some time ago and has slowly but steadily gained ground. The pandemic may now accelerate this process that has, up to this point, focused on the logistics and distribution of electoral material, voter identification, and processing and transmitting results. The problem now, however, originates with the crowds. Thus, the discussion has now moved to preventing crowds in vote centers to preserve the health of the staff that makes elections possible, from authorities to polling station personnel.
This problem may be approached from two perspectives: one related to structure, the other related to content. While the first one requires the reform of current rules and laws — this is carried out through specific channels — the second one refers to measures that can be implemented by the electoral authority.
Traditional elections are based on manual processes, where paper, physical contact, and the voter’s presence itself are emblematic features. Today we confront the need to revise this model.
An electoral process occurs in three phases: the events before, during and after the election day. These three phases are comprised of at least 53 stages, and 29 of these involve some level of physical contact that could potentially bring infection. This would compromise the safety of the election, as well as the health of the staff and voters. As we will see, many of these stages are susceptible to changes aimed at avoiding or reducing the possibility of infection.
Currently, not all elections are completely manual. We found successful experiences that, through innovation and the preservation of electoral integrity, have changed the paradigm of elections. Estonia is an inspiring success story. Their remote electronic voting system was implemented 15 years ago as an alternative to manual voting with paper ballots. In the 2019 elections, 44% of citizens voted via the internet using their PC or smartphone. Estonians voted successfully from 145 different countries, defying Russia’s threat to interfere with the technical integrity of the process. It’s important to note that Estonia did not eliminate the manual vote. The remote electronic vote is just one more option for citizens, an additional service to the voter that is being used more and more with each election.
There have also been interesting developments on our continent. Mexico’s manual vote model is cumbersome, causes long lines and crowds, and provides late results, which forces polling stations staff and authorities to carry out dreadful tasks. Nevertheless, Mexicans abroad will be able to vote in a more secure and friendly way. The National Electoral Institute (INE, for its acronym in Spanish) has developed an electronic vote system so citizens residing abroad and registered in specific states can vote remotely for their respective governors in the 2021 regional elections. This represents a substantial change that will divide the waters among voters that will vote as if they lived in the 19th Century and the ones that made it into the 21st Century.
In the deep federalism of the United States, there are experiences of all kinds. The most innovative experiences are those related to early voting, which allows citizens to vote days or weeks before election day. This initiative dramatically reduces voter crowds and allows the voter to either go to a specific polling station or vote by mail. It has proven to be effective and its use is also in the rise. In the 2016 presidential election, almost 40% of the voters in the United States voted early. For the 2020 election, voting by mail will be possible in 35 out of the 50 states (70%). Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Utah now allow voting by mail in all elections.
The pandemic has increased this trend and a special federal fund to finance the growing demand of voters to vote by mail is currently a topic of debate in the House of Representatives.
Going back to the original issue. In how many stages of the electoral process can we consider initiatives to reduce the potential for contagion? For the stages preceding election day, we must consider new protocols with respect to voter registration, polling stations evaluation, electoral material storage and logistics, accreditations, parties and candidates registration, ballot manufacturing and storage, training of polling stations staff and voter education. Also, during election day changes can be introduced to improve conditions in logistics and distribution, voting methods, voter authentication, vote counting, closing process, tally preparation, audits, verification of results and, ultimately, results transmission.
Maintaining social distancing guidelines at the polling station will be crucial. Thus, gathering information about each polling station and creating protocols to enforce distancing will be key. Other alternative measures that can be implemented to reduce contagion spread include reducing the number of voters in a polling stations at a given moment, training and evaluating temporary election personnel, and incorporating technology for voter registration and authentication. The accreditation of electoral observers can also be done through technology platforms based on ID validation, biometrics, and profile images that are interfaced with official databases. During the printing of ballots and storage and distribution of material, disinfection mechanisms (such as ozone injection) can be used in operational areas, and other comprehensive protocols can be established. Additionally, acrylic screens can be incorporated in voting booths. Booths can be equipped with disposable markers for ballots, UV lights and, of course, masks, gloves, etc.
Another possibility is to implement the digitalization of tallies so that processing centers do not need to handle potentially contaminated material. Alternative methods, such as early voting, either by mail or through the internet, must also be considered.
Finally, after considering all the variables and alternatives, we go back to the start. All these changes must always be implemented preserving electoral integrity, which is directly related to the health of democratic institutions in each country. This is the real challenge as possible scenarios are divided again into two categories: those countries that implement positive, innovative changes to hold elections, and those countries that take this opportunity to further undermine true competitiveness and political rights. Democratic breakdown is also a dangerous virus that is going around.