The impact of COVID-19 on European democracy

One far-reaching and lasting shift as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic is on how our elections are conducted, writes Pierre Peytier.
Press Assocation

By Pierre Peytier

Pierre Peytier is Deputy Head of Mission at the European Network of Election Monitoring Organisations (ENEMO)

26 May 2021

There has been no shortage of ballots this past year, with key elections in Germany, the US, and the Netherlands to name a few. They have all faced challenges in the context of the health crisis.

Lawmakers have had to devise strategies for limiting Coronavirus transmission at polling stations, while, at the same time, encouraging participation.

Most democracies have risen to the challenge, but not all without issue - as evidenced by the Trump narrative that mail-in ballots were evidence of fraud in the US presidential election.

My colleagues and I at the European Network of Election Monitoring Organisations (ENEMO) have spent the past year watching and analysing the effects of the pandemic upon Europe’s democracy.

We have monitored key ballots, across heavyweight economies such as Germany and the US, as well as in more fragile states, of the ex-Soviet bloc, including Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. What have we learned?

First, voter turnout is only marginally down on pre-pandemic levels. We found that, even when the world first embraced lockdowns as a means of countering transmission, voter engagement remained steady.

In Georgia, for example, turnout was up 4.2 percent on the country’s previous election. A similar story was reflected in Moldova, where we found an uptick of 1.6 percent.

However, this was not a reality across the board. In Kyrgyzstan, turnout fell by 2.3 percent in their disputed presidential elections. And, in Ukraine, this went further, with a significant fall of 9.8 percent compared to the prior elections.

“Elections during the pandemic have become less about accepting that fewer people will be able to vote and more about re-igniting and finding new ways to tap into voter commitment to voting and enfranchisement”

The issue, we found, became not how scared people were of voting, but how flexible conditions were made for their voting. Elections during the pandemic have become less about accepting that fewer people will be able to vote and more about re-igniting and finding new ways to tap into voter commitment to voting and enfranchisement.

Second, the existing challenges to democracy have accelerated during the pandemic. Many campaigns have moved their activities online, which means that social media giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, are playing a larger role, creating new potential for disinformation.

In Ukraine and Georgia, for example, we found pro-Russian campaigns routinely distorted information online.

This atmosphere of distortion and fake news has grown exponentially – as evidenced by the fact that in Moldova, 28 percent of people now believe that COVID-19 was created in a laboratory in the United States, while 39 percent hold the view that it was a creation of a team of scientists in China.

Misplaced speculation about where deadly diseases have come from has been evident in previous health crises throughout history, and it’s hardly surprising to find pro-Russian sources placing the United States at the heart of such conspiracies.

The rapid growth of such conspiracies, though, should warrant our concern. Our over-reliance on online content the past year has given oxygen to fake news.

It is imperative that national governments and lawmakers take steps to combat this explosion and ensure that voters can access accurate information not only during election campaigns, but day to day.

Perhaps a closer cooperation between state bodies and social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and greater transparency regarding paid-for and advertised content could work towards better accountability and trust.

“Voter turnout is only marginally down on pre-pandemic levels. We found that, even when the world first embraced lockdowns as a means of countering transmission, voter engagement remained steady”

Likewise, civil society actors, NGOs and journalists have a crucial role to play when it comes to fact-checking and disinformation, to enhance the digital literacy of citizens and propose ways to better flag fake news.

The role of national public oversight bodies (such as audiovisual media councils or other supervisory bodies during elections) should also not be neglected by states, as social media is an extensive area which requires proper monitoring capacities and resources.

And last, which perhaps comes as no great shock, we found that the most vulnerable in society have been the most affected by the pandemic.

Across the globe, vulnerable groups have become central to government campaigns, such as shielding. This group, which includes those that have been in quarantine, self-isolation or hospital, were least likely to vote, according to our analysis.

We attribute this to a fear of transmission, either en route to or within polling stations themselves.

As infections soared and the need for isolation and quarantining grew, we found that authorities often struggled to ensure that that the needs of public health were balanced with democratic rights, including the right to vote.

However, this can be addressed by the provision of separate ballot boxes which was implemented in Ukraine as well as creating special polling stations in hospitals/medical facilities to enable ill voters to vote.

Whether it is making access to voting easier, tackling misinformation or doing more to assist vulnerable groups, there is considerable work ahead for lawmakers.

Reassuringly, in all of the countries we analysed - Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan - various stages of electoral reform are in play and positive changes could be made relatively easily.

However, the challenge for governments everywhere will be adapting to events, quickly, so people can stay engaged with the democratic process.

Though the pandemic will eventually end, the challenges to democracy and elections will persist.

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