A Path Forward for Elections in the Age of COVID-19

  • Wallis Stanfield, So Yeon Kim

The COVID-19 pandemic poses serious challenges to democracies around the world, and particularly for countries preparing to hold elections in 2020. Serious questions over whether the conditions imposed by the pandemic will distort the democratic process are being tackled around the world, with governments looking to one another for best practices as they make decisions on how best to proceed.

South Korea offers an admirable model for how to hold an election amidst this unprecedented challenge. On April 15, South Korea saw its most impressive voter turnout in nearly three decades—a mere two months after the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. The nation’s transparency, coordination and consistency in messaging provides a roadmap for other democracies struggling to implement public health measures while also holding elections and other civil proceedings.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

Proactive planning by the National Election Commission delivered an efficient and safe process.

The National Election Commission’s (NEC) effective and proactive planning over the course of COVID-19 resulted in a smooth, safe and organized election day in South Korea. From the beginning of the outbreak, the NEC never considered postponing the elections, adapted swiftly to the developing situation and provided almost-daily updates on their plans and safety measures for voters.

After tabulation on April 15, the national assembly election turnout reached its highest peak in nearly 3 decades at 66.2 percent.  Almost half of those votes were cast outside of typical Election Day hours and through a variety of mechanisms the NEC provided, including mail-in ballots; early voting at disinfected polling stations; special voting times and locations for quarantined voters; shipboard voting for those at sea; and hospital polling sites for the nearly 3,000 South Koreans receiving COVID-19 treatment.

Eyewitness Report: IRI Associate So Yeon Kim

IRI’s local program associate, So Yeon Kim, cast her vote in Seoul on April 15. That morning, she waited in line for about 30 minutes with other voters, all of whom wore masks and stood six feet apart from each other. As the line grew, an election official checked the temperatures of each person to ensure all were healthy. If a voter had a temperature higher than 99.5⁰ F, they were taken to a separate polling space that was disinfected after each voter exited. When Kim reached the front of the line, the election officials required her to sanitize and cover her hands with gloves. Although she had to show her voter identification card before entering the polling station, she was not asked to remove her mask. With confirmed COVID-19 cases decreasing and precautionary measures in effect, Kim and other South Koreans felt safe and empowered to cast their votes.

Lessons Learned: Prevention Doesn’t Necessarily Require Postponement

South Korea’s successful election can be attributed to the nation’s proactive steps to preserve the democratic process while promoting public health guidelines. As an NEC official said, “Under the theme of ‘disinfecting as much as possible is the best election management,’ the NEC will do its best to prevent the spread of the infection by strengthening cooperation with related agencies so that all voters can come to vote safely.”

Globally, a number of other democracies at various stages of development will face this dilemma as they assess their own capacity for crisis management and election implementation. Effective coordination will be imperative if governments want to hold regularly-scheduled elections while also safeguarding citizen needs and concerns. Preventative public health measures – such as providing personal protection equipment to election officials, sanitizing voting booths or expanding voting options to minimize risk of transmission – can mitigate the safety risk to voters so that elections can proceed, while measures to expand access can help to prevent real or perceived disenfranchisement.

South Korea shows us that with the right approach citizen voices can still be heard – even if they have to wear masks to do so.

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