Synopsis

The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe organised the eighteenth European Conference of Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) online on 29 October 2021.

The topic of the Conference was “Lessons learned from the impact of the COVID-19 health crisis on electoral processes". More specifically, the participants discussed three issues:

  • Regulatory and practical solutions that electoral administrations adopted to guarantee the security of electoral processes during an emergency period;
  • The role electoral administrations play in ensuring a good voter turnout, especially of women and vulnerable groups;
  • How to ensure continuity of the electoral observation process and the transparency of electoral campaigns and how to organise the polls under the required conditions during emergency periods in terms of their financial and material situation?

Attila Nagy, President of the National Election Office of Hungary and Gianni Buquicchio, President of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, opened the Conference.

Around 100 participants took part in the Conference, representing national EMBs and other profiles such as academics, practitioners, experts and civil society representatives.

Other Council of Europe’s institutions, in particular the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe but also international institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), participated in the Conference.

 

Conclusions

The 18th edition of the European Conference of Electoral Management Bodies is the continuation of a successful series of international conferences in the electoral field. This edition was dedicated to “Lessons learned from the impact of the COVID-19 health crisis on electoral processes”, with a special emphasis on taking stock of the issues caused by the pandemic, as well as the solutions provided by electoral administrations for the proper conduct of elections during emergency situations and complying with the European electoral heritage.

The COVID-19 outbreak continus to influence the elections in 2021, causing considerable challenges relating to the health crisis and requiring legal solutions in a largely unexplored area. These extraordinary circumstances impact the three pillars of the Council of Europe, i.e. democracy, the rule of law and human rights. They lead to inevitable limitations to electoral rights and fundamental freedoms, including the issues of periodic elections and stability of law. At the same time, countries are expected to anticipate such limitations, be proactive and take any measures they deem appropriate as outlined in Venice Commission reports. Such measures have been specifically outlined in the Report on the respect for democracy, human rights and the Rule of Law during states of emergency - Reflections and the Interim Report on the measures taken in the EU member states as the result of the Covid-19 crisis and their impact on democracy, the Rule of Law and fundamental rights.

The proper organisation of elections during a pandemic means ensuring security, which implies solid and adapted logistics, including the acquisition of equipment, larger polling stations (or a greater number of them), installation of outdoor polling stations, rapid test centres near the polling stations and hotline services. Close co-operation between various institutions is crucial when conducting elections during a pandemic. This also implies that the police be mobilised and prepared so that everyone’s safety is ensured.

The current situation has also led to providing better access to voting for vulnerable groups through alternative voting methods. All voters must be informed about the new practical rules put in place, through a comprehensive education campaign. Voter education should also on deal with the problem of stigmatising and stereotyping vulnerable groups.

Extra effort may be necessary to ensure that all eligible voters are able to vote, including vulnerable groups. EMBs should consult disabled people’s and women’s organisations to hear their concerns and their solutions for ensuring elections are accessible and inclusive. As far as the crisis allows, it is recommended to gradulally introduce alternative voting methods. Postponement of elections could be considered but it should be foreseen in law and be necessary and proportionate. Other measures include spreading the polling over several days to have fewer voters at the same time, exempting candidates from registration or nomination, adapting the voting and counting procedures or requiring the collection of signatures of support.

To ensure the safety of election staff, particularly on polling day and during the counting of votes, automation of certain electoral procedures could be considered such as the introduction of voting machines or automatic counting of ballot papers. EMBs could also modify the existing voting procedures to shorten the stay inside a polling station, to provide for the showing of identity documents without them needing to be handled by polling station staff, or to establish entry and exit lanes. Additional time may be needed to recruit more staff – to replace those who have fallen ill – and to provide them with appropriate training, including on the risks associated with the pandemic. Given the need to proctect election workers, anti-pandemic packages containing masks, disposable gloves, hydroalcoholic gels and other protective material should be distributed.

Holding elections during a pandemic leads to a decrease in turnout and thus in the legitimacy of elections, not least because the most vulnerable groups may not participate and the distribution of mandates may differ from society's preferences. As such, introducing postal, absentee, or early voting to increase the turnout, could be considered. However, if alternative voting methods are introduced, the risk of manipulation increases and the possibilities of control are reduced. Women, the elderly and people with disabilities may be particularly vulnerable to coercion and their right to secrecy could be compromised if the introduction of these methods is not accompanied by adequate safeguards.

Providing online voting only could limit participation to voters who are accustomed to remote voting options. This may lead to an increase in abstentions by other voters, especially the elderly and those from vulnerable groups. This could have an impact on the outcome of elections and favour political parties supported by upper and upper-middle-class voters. People who vote online and those who use other means may indeed have different political preferences.

Discussions also addressed election observation and innovative solutions adopted by domestic and international observer organisations in the context of emergency periods. The pandemic had a significant impact on election observation both in terms of how EMBs can provide for observation in a manner that protects the health and safety of their staff and voters and how organisations observing can safely deploy observers. Observation remains an integral part of the transparency of the process, which is clearly affected in the absence of observers when the potential for fraud and manipulation of results increases. This includes access for foreign observers is restricted for health or other security reasons.

By contrast, many countries took extra measures to ensure that international observation remained possible, such as facilitating the waivering of quarantine and self-isolation periods on arrival. The principle of keeping the geographical balance of observation was mentioned as an important one to follow. Observation may also be more complicated when an election is spread over several days. Measures include reducing the number of observers and party agents assigned to a polling station or area without reducing the possibility of adequate observation.

The proper conduct of electoral campaigns in times of crisis requires ensuring the transparency of both face-to-face and online campaigns. In an emergency, which is exceptional in nature, freedom of movement during “in-person” electoral campaigns or freedom of expression are restricted. It may be difficult to guarantee the principle of equality of opportunity in a context where disinformation circulates more easily. Some aspects of the electoral campaign such as rallies or door-to-door visits may be restricted. Given the fact that disinformation and inflammatory speech are more widespread during an emergency, special attention should be paid to anticipating and tackling these problems. This means having in place preventive measures such as rapid deployment units, strategic communication and co-operation of all relevant actors.

Moreover, in such a situation, the focus of society may be distracted from elections. Thus, while an electoral campaign may remain possible during a state of emergency, particular attention should be paid to the duty of neutrality of authorities as well as to the obligation of broadcasters to cover election campaigns in a fair, balanced and impartial manner.

Successful electoral campaigns also require sustainable and adequate funding of electoral administrations as well as the necessary equipment in the context of a health crisis. Organising elections on time in an emergency could be more costly for state institutions as well as local and regional authorities, in particular municipalities. This may be a better solution than postponing elections, given the extraordinary measures likely to be needed to ensure the security of all stakeholders. In a time of crisis, the state budget must be used to the maximum extent possible to deal with extraordinary circumstances. Therefore, to hold elections during a state of emergency, financial resources are needed to ensure the security of the voting process, including the purchase of protective and cleaning equipment. At the same time, there is a risk of misuse of administrative resources at a time when the state will be spending more than usual, particularly on public health and security.