Friday, 14 August 2020

COVID-19: Elections in times of COVID-19

Pandemic elections

Benjamin Reilly

The vastly different response by states around the world to the coronavirus epidemic has highlighted the importance of two fundamental public goods in determining outcomes. These are: the extent of a given society’s trust between its citizens and their government, and the capacity of those same governments to deliver and enforce appropriate public health responses.

Countries whose governments are both trusted and capable have seen them handle the virus relatively well; those with neither trust nor capacity have seen it spread out of control. On both measures, Australia has emerged well – at least until Victoria’s second wave – and actually better than many people may have expected, given the unedifying decade of weak governance, political instability and merry-go-round leadership we have experienced at the federal level.

At the time of writing, it appears that Australia, along with New Zealand, has joined a number of East Asian democracies – South Korea, Japan and particularly Taiwan – in taking early and effective action against the pandemic.

The fact that all these states had effective health services and were islands or quasi-islands (in South Korea’s case) – and could thus control their borders – was a large part of this success. It is no coincidence this group also comprises the five highest-ranked democracies in the Indo-Pacific, with (unlike China and other autocracies) accountable leadership and a free press which could report on the virus.

To be sure, democracy itself is no guarantee of an effective response to the virus, as the examples of the United Kingdom and the United States have shown. Individualism and personal liberty are the friends of freedom but they are enemies of pandemic control. Effective state capacity and social trust are the key, but are helped enormously by popular compliance and willingness to follow government directives on issues such as quarantine, social contact and travel.

Despite our self-image as a nation of rugged individualists, Australian society is, by comparative standards, one in which rule-observance, law-abiding and compliance are valued. It is hard to escape the conclusion that such more ‘Asian’ characteristics of Australia’s society – which are certainly not shared with other democracies with which we feel comity, such as the United States – help to explain at least some of Australia’s success in combatting the virus to date.

Francis Fukuyama has noted the close links between governance and the virus response:

“The factors responsible for successful pandemic responses have been state capacity, social trust, and leadership. Countries with all three – a competent state apparatus, a government that citizens trust and listen to, and effective leaders – have performed impressively, limiting the damage they have suffered. Countries with dysfunctional states, polarized societies, or poor leadership have done badly.”

While this analysis suggests that whether a state is run democratically is less important than whether it is governed effectively, there is no doubt that social trust and democratic legitimacy are intimately connected.

But the pandemic also presents a major challenge to one element of modern democracy – the holding of mass elections. These same issues of trust, state capacity and social compliance are likely to be critical in determining whether elections can be held safely or, in the worst case, held at all.

Election day represents something that has become rarer and more dangerous in the COVID era – a forum for the mass public gathering of adult citizens taking place at the same time, across the entire country, and which involves their congregation within discrete and sometimes crowded indoor venues as polling stations.

Even if social distancing can be enforced, this kind of activity is, it appears, now inherently problematic on public health grounds. Several responses to this fundamental reality are now appearing around the world.

Delay of elections is one likely response to COVID in less-than-democratic regimes, and already a source of concern given the worldwide democratic recession which has been unfolding for several years. Local elections in Hong Kong, for example, have recently been delayed for a year using the pretext of COVID, but really as a response by Beijing to the growing support for pro-democracy parties.

But even in established democracies, we are likely to see more elections being postponed. For instance, local elections scheduled to take place in England and Wales – including the London mayoral vote – have already been postponed by a year as part of attempts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in the UK. Following advice from medical experts, the British government has decided to hold off holding these elections until May 2021.

A second option is to move towards holding the election remotely, over the internet. In Australia, both Western Australia and New South Wales already offer internet voting for some groups, such as disabled electors. However, due to well-founded security concerns, very few countries have yet taken the step to open up their elections to all voters online. Paper ballots and a paper trail are still seen as essential to election security and providing a post-election audit capacity to safeguard the integrity of results. Even if the virus prompts a rethink, the kinds of investments needed to provide an acceptable level of ballot security and withstand cyber intrusion are likely to be some time in future.

The most realistic option is thus likely to be a renewed focus on voting by mail. In Australia, we have already embraced voting by mail and other sorts of ‘convenience’ voting in large numbers. At the 2001 federal election, less than 10% of Australians voted early. In the 2019 election, 40% of Australians did . This change has been particularly pronounced in rural and regional settings, where, in some cases, up to two-thirds of Australian electors now cast their vote before polling day.

Election experts believe the pandemic and its aftermath will strengthen this trend away from in-person election day voting, meaning early voting will become the way many, and perhaps most, Australians experience electoral democracy. As one recent analysis observed, Australia has now shifted from having a polling day to having a polling period: “This change may turn out to be irreversible; it will be difficult to place restrictions on convenience voting when it has proved so popular.” [PDF, 0.68MB]

These trends are particularly important for Western Australia, as the state most affected by issues of distance and remoteness. In 2011, postal voting was introduced for most local government elections in order to make voting easier and increase turnout from its persistently low levels, which were well below the equivalent for state and national. This shift has indeed increased turnout rates by about 10%, but has also been criticised, particularly in rural areas, for privileging effortless political participation and undermining passionate rural communities whose members will turn out in person, as Kirsten Martinus and I examine in a forthcoming article.

This critique also points to a potential downside of any widespread move towards voting by mail in response to the pandemic: the loss of civic engagement and social capital and broader opportunities for democratic deliberation inherent in this model. Voting by mail today also means voting early, well in advance of polling day, for many electors. Given the point of elections is to choose, the lack of widespread exposure to the election campaign and the debates on policies and ideas is thus particularly problematic.

This makes a widespread swing towards voting by mail problematic in many ways, especially given how compulsory voting has made election day in Australia something of a mass civic ritual – with its famed “ democracy sausage ” of social engagement. If voting by mail diminishes the salience of election day in the minds of the public, and makes it less likely that informed deliberation over policy alternatives takes place, it has the potential to undermine this near-unique strength of our democracy.

These are not abstract concerns. Queensland has a state election due by the end of October. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has already said the election may become the first in Australian history to be held entirely by postal vote if there is a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak. There is also the looming Congressional and presidential elections in the United States this November – which will effectively be a referendum on the Trump presidency and his handling of the pandemic, in a situation in which the virus will likely still be at large and even increasing in some states. And in Western Australia, the next state election will be due in March 2021.

At the time of writing, it seems safe to assume all these elections, particularly the 2020 ones, will be held in the shadow of the pandemic, which means less turnout in person and much more voting by mail, pre-poll and other kinds of absentee voting. Given the likely prominence of postal voting in the US elections this year, it would be prudent to expect at the very least a degree of uncertainty and potential delays in results, akin to the 2000 Bush-Gore election.

However, there is also the potential – lesser but not trivial – for more significant problems than just delayed results. Voting by mail has already become an issue of major partisan division in the US, with Democrats seeking greater voting by mail and the Republicans opposing as part of their ongoing efforts to restrict the franchise. If this continues to November, we may be facing a high-level contest not just to see who wins the election but over the rules of the game itself.

Benjamin Reilly is Professor of Political Science and International Relations in the School of Social Sciences at The University of Western Australia and a Fellow of the UWA Public Policy Institute. His work focuses on democratisation and electoral reform in the Indo-Pacific region.


UWA Public Policy Institute