Voting During COVID-19: What Scares People the Most?


Dominican voters in New York City mark their ballots during out-of-country voting for the 2020 general elections.

by Fernanda Buril

Since COVID-19 became a public health crisis, it has impacted elections around the world in several different ways. Not only has the coronavirus forced election postponements in nearly 70 countries and territories to date, it has also considerably decreased voter turnout in many countries that decided to move forward with polling. France’s first-round municipal elections on March 15, for example, recorded a historically low turnout at 45 percent, despite the preventive measures put in place by the French government. The second-round elections on June 28 recorded an even lower voter turnout of 40 percent, even as France reports lower number of daily new infections. Mali’s and Iran’s parliamentary elections, primary elections in several U.S. states and local elections in Australia, where voting is compulsory, also recorded higher abstention levels than usual.

Although certainly not the only reason, the fear of being infected at polling stations can drive this low level of participation. Understanding voters’ – and poll workers’ – fears of going to the polls amid the COVID-19 crisis is crucial to help election management bodies (EMBs) address these issues, not only adjusting electoral procedures but also communicating better to the public what is being done to protect their health. With nationwide surveys on this topic now conducted in three countries in three different continents, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has some preliminary insights into voters’ main concerns.

IFES’ pre-election surveys were conducted in Serbia,¹ the Dominican Republic² and Nigeria³ during the month of June. Questions covered respondents’ overall levels of concern about the impact of COVID-19 and more specific concerns about Election Day. It is important to highlight that, when the survey was being conducted, Nigeria and the Dominican Republic were seeing their daily numbers of reported cases increasing, whereas Serbia was experiencing a decline. These different patterns might have contributed to the variance in levels of concern about the impact of COVID-19 on the health of respondents and their families. On a scale from zero to 10, with 10 being extremely concerned, Serbians averaged 5.32, whereas Dominicans (8.53) and Nigerians (8.67) reported much higher levels of concern. Also worth mentioning is the fact that, in all three countries, women reported being more concerned about COVID-19 than men did, which indicates that the virus’ negative effect on voter turnout could be stronger among women voters.

Chart depicting levels of concern about COVID-19

In all three countries, respondents’ top two concerns related to gatherings. More specifically, voters perceived that people being too close to each other while queuing and permitting too many people inside the polling station at the same time were the main threats to voters’ safety. These issues were rated as more threatening by respondents than, for instance, lack of masks, lack of disinfectant, poll workers not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) or general uncleanliness of the polling station.

Chart depicting voters' concerns in the Dominican Republic

Chart depicting voters' concerns in Nigeria

Chart depicting voters' concerns in Serbia

Ensuring a safe physical distance while queueing and voting inside the polling stations, not surprisingly, was among the top two priority measures for EMBs to take according to survey respondents in all three countries. The other measure preferred by respondents was the provision of masks by EMBs to all voters. Although this second measure might appear surprising as the lack of such equipment was not seen as a top threat by respondents, this prioritization might indicate that voters are generally aware of the importance of wearing masks and do not expect EMBs to not be able to provide them.

While only preliminary, these survey results indicate some of the potential factors that could increase both trust in the safety of elections and voter turnout. One of these factors is straightforward and refers to the provision of PPE, especially masks, to voters. Although some EMBs might find it difficult to secure funds and arrange the logistics to provide such supplies, they should pursue this measure – or alternatives such as encouraging the use of cloth masks. Doing so would reduce the chances of voters showing up without masks and posing risks to others, which is a reasonable concern.

The second and perhaps less obvious insight from IFES’ data is that voters’ previous experiences waiting in long lines and voting in crowded spaces are likely contributing to their fears of contracting COVID-19 during electoral activities. Instructions issued by EMBs to voters asking them to maintain a certain distance from one another, while helpful, might not be enough to minimize these fears. And as recent elections held amid the pandemic have shown, compliance with distancing guidelines is far from ideal. Assigning and instructing poll workers to exercise a stricter control of queues and of the flow of voters inside polling stations could minimize violations while incurring virtually no additional costs to EMBs.

Finally, even if EMBs adopt these and other important preventive measures, they cannot wait for voters to see them only on Election Day, as by then voter turnout will already be affected. EMBs will need to consistently work to understand voters’ fears and communicate responses ahead of the election, explain how they will ensure safety during the process and make voters familiar and comfortable with the measures being implemented. In the Dominican Republic, for example, these efforts seemed to yield positive results. Among people who responded they were very likely to vote, 69 percent had been exposed to the campaign “Put your mask on and vote,” whereas only half of those who said they were not planning to vote were aware of the campaign. In addition to efforts made by the EMB, voters, poll workers and observers also must understand their responsibilities during the process and the importance of complying with all preventive measures.

COVID-19 has taken the lives of more than a half million people worldwide. It is a serious threat, and voters’ fears are not unfounded. At the same time, the purpose of holding elections is to make voters’ voices and choices heard. If voters cannot participate, the legitimacy of results can be compromised. It is thus a crucial responsibility of EMBs to create a safe environment that minimizes any public health risks and seriously addresses voters’ concerns, especially those of at-risk groups.

The surveys were made possible with support from the United States Agency for International Development partly through the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS) and UK aid. Established in 1995, CEPPS pools the expertise of three premier international organizations dedicated to democratic development: IFES, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. CEPPS has a 25-year track record of collaboration and leadership in democracy, human rights and governance support, learning from experience, and adopting new approaches and tools based on the ever-evolving technological landscape.

¹ Sample size = 1,002 respondents (adults 18 years or older), margin of error ± 3.25%

² Sample size = 807 respondents (adults 18 years or older), margin of error ± 3.45%

³ Sample size = 1,500 respondents (adults 18 years or older), margin of error ± 2.53%

  Dominican Republic Nigeria Serbia
Fieldwork Dates June 25-29, 2020 June 13-20, 2020 June 4-6, 2020
Sample Size 807 respondents (adults 18 years or older) 1,500 respondents (adults 18 years or older) 1,002 respondents (adults 18 years or older)
Mode Face-to-face (100%) Telephone (92% of interviews) and online (8% of interviews) Telephone (80% of interviews) and online (20% of interviews)

Fernanda Buril is a senior research officer at IFES' Center for Applied Research and Learning.

Published on July 29, 2020.

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