Webinar: Administering Elections in Europe During a Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many elections in Central and Eastern Europe being postponed, including in the Czech Republic, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia. While public health remains the priority and the future unclear, there are indications that some of these elections may be rescheduled in the coming months. As the pandemic is unlikely to end in the near term, this raises key questions of if and how election administrators can prepare and hold elections safely during an ongoing pandemic. This also affects countries where elections are scheduled for later in 2020, such as Belarus, Croatia, Moldova and Montenegro.
In partnership with election management bodies (EMBs) and experts throughout the region, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and partner organizations is hosting a series of webinars on planning and holding elections in a pandemic, to complement IFES guidance on holding elections during the current pandemic and how EMBs can best prepare.
The first installment of the series, “Perspectives From Electoral Stakeholders,” focused on the administration of elections. It gathered 140 participants from over 25 countries and featured simultaneous interpretation into Armenian, English, Georgian, Macedonian, Russian and South Slavic language.
In her keynote address, IFES Regional Director for Europe and Eurasia Beata Martin-Rozumiłowicz emphasized the webinar’s focus on administering elections in the current pandemic and how election administrators will have to find the right balance between addressing public health concerns and respecting the importance of electoral processes.
The next presenter was Admir Shabani, head of the Sector for Continuous Training, Public Outreach and International Collaboration at the State Election Commission of North Macedonia. He noted how the electoral preparations started in February but had to be put on hold due to the declared state of emergency. A major concern for the State Election Commission is ensuring a high turnout, and they are preparing for stakeholder trainings, including for almost 35,000 people working in election administration.
Serhii Postivy, a member of the Central Election Commission of Ukraine, noted that postponing the October local elections is not an issue. They will also not introduce new voting technologies due to the risks of doing so. The administration of the local elections will draw on the parliamentary by-election held in mid-March. Responding to a question submitted before the webinar, Postivy acknowledged that the reduced budget for the local elections presents a challenge and that the commission is communicating with the government on this issue.
Karine Grigoryan is president and executive director for the Agate Rights Defense Center for Women With Disabilities in Armenia. She emphasized the importance of inclusion in the electoral process, particularly for elections held during the pandemic. Persons with disabilities may be at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 and must be fully included in the electoral process. In the short term, EMBs should ensure that voter education materials in polling stations are accessible, and in the longer term, they should consider alternative voting procedures to protect voters and election administrators.
Rastò Kužel, executive director of MEMO98 in Slovakia, stressed the legitimacy of and inclusion in the electoral process. Rushing to introduce new tools such as internet voting is problematic as any larger changes require societal discussions to ensure trust in the system. Kužel also stressed the importance of election observation to maintain trust in elections. In one sense, COVID-19 is offering political leaders an opportunity to prove that the political process can be trusted.
During the Q&A session, one participant asked about the involvement of persons with disabilities in election administration, as some persons with disabilities may be at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Karine Grigoryan stressed the importance of EMBs cooperating with persons with disabilities and disabled persons’ organizations to ensure full inclusion in the process. The representatives from the EMBs in North Macedonia and Ukraine were both asked about their staff training approaches giving the tight timeframes and pandemic. Both responded that they are establishing online training approaches as appropriate. Kužel stressed the importance of election observers staying relevant, including if online voting becomes more common in Europe.
The concluding speaker for the event was Staffan Darnolf, IFES’ senior global electoral operations and administration advisor. He is one of the authors of IFES COVID-19 Briefing Series: Safeguarding Health and Elections and presented practical considerations for holding elections during the pandemic. The novel coronavirus can remain active on ballot papers for several days, and a risk mitigation plan should identify safety measures such as reducing crowding during voting and ensuring uninterrupted entrances and exits from polling stations. EMBs may need to recruit more poll workers, while health workers should be released from poll worker duties to carry out their primary work.
Stay tuned for the next installment of the IFES webinar series on Administering Elections in Europe During a Pandemic, as the focus and date will be announced shortly.