By WFD Senior Election Adviser, Tanja Hollstein, and Ben Graham Jones
So far, the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed no less than 64 elections. It has become clear that COVID-19 is a long-term disruptive force that the electoral world must learn to live with.
Policy responses to the virus may safeguard or endanger the integrity of elections and those in the elections field can expect to face challenges as they adapt to the new reality. Three areas are important for the political process and public discourse around elections: election campaigns; electoral observation; and the information landscape.
In many countries, political rallies are the lifeblood of an election campaign. These mass gatherings pack people in tightly to listen, sing, and applaud. They can electrify voters in support of a candidate. At these events, democracy can feel at its most vibrant. But social distancing measures pose clear difficulties for holding such mass gatherings.
South Korea’s recent election may offer some cause for optimism. Whilst rallies, public fundraisers, door-to-door canvassing, and even public speeches were all forbidden, innovative alternatives were embraced: new campaign apps, a greater reliance on social networks, and even augmented reality technologies. Turnout was the highest since 1992.
Whilst internet access and digital literacy is not everywhere as widespread as in South Korea, such measures show that innovation can play a role in helping campaigns engage voters whilst respecting social distancing.
What is more, while the drawbacks of the online environment are often emphasised, comments sections, online fora and social networks often host far more energetic political debate than the physical world ever sees. If COVID-19 takes the electoral arena more online than ever, we need not necessarily expect a less vibrant contest.
However, practitioners must consider the danger that groups at risk of digital exclusion, including older and rural populations, may have fewer opportunities to participate in such campaigns.
If COVID-19 does push more campaign activity online, existing challenges in the digital realm may intensify quicker than anticipated. This means that observation missions need to be prepared to understand and document issues such as opaque political advertss, data harvesting, deep-fake videos, targeted disinformation campaigns, legal questions of content regulation, online hate speech, and coordinated inauthentic behaviour. These pre-existing challenges may be accorded refreshed importance as new COVID-related challenges emerge for the offline campaign.
Efforts to modernise election observation missions by equipping them with data analytic capability, a cross-mission understanding of the diverse impacts of the online realm on observers’ work, and systems to prioritise observation of the plethora of online content, are already underway. Now, they are even more urgent.
Logistically, social distancing presents major challenges to how election observers conduct their work. Observation missions traditionally rely on meeting with countless people every day for weeks or months on end, attending mass rallies, and visiting many towns and cities. Being limited in this work may put at risk the ability of observation missions to assess the electoral process and contribute valuable recommendations for future improvements, an effect that will influence electoral processes for years to come.
Yet, adapting best practices to new circumstances is nothing new for the field of election observation. International mechanisms to assess new trends and develop new methods, such as the annual Declaration of Principles meeting that brings together practitioners from across the field, are long-established and well-functioning.
While methods must adapt to COVID-19, the laws, standards, and agreements against which international and domestic groups observe elections remain the same. With the right amount of careful innovation, the election observation field is well-placed to adapt its methods to the challenges brought about by COVID-19.
The information landscape
Nowhere seems immune from the waves of COVID-19 disinformation. In the UK, baseless conspiracy theories associating 5G technology with coronavirus have spread alongside arson attacks against telephone pylons. In Cameroon, unscientific products have been sold by profiteers falsely claiming they can prevent coronavirus. In Iran, new life has been given to old antisemitic fictions through claims about COVID-19.
Those networks spreading COVID-19 disinformation today may spread electoral disinformation tomorrow. We already know that networks spreading disinformation can be repurposed to spread political disinformation. In the tense conditions of a hotly fought election, disinformation could have serious consequences indeed.
The debate on how to address the harms of disinformation balances two prerequisites people to have free choice during democratic elections: the right to form independent opinions free of manipulative interference versus the right to freedom of expression. A recent proliferation of domestic laws and regulations targeting disinformation has been given new energy by COVID-19. Yet there are serious concerns that some of these laws can readily be repurposed. The balance must be carefully negotiated.
Online campaigns, changes to the ways we observe elections, and disinformation proliferation are trends that predate the pandemic. Coronavirus may come to be seen as an accelerator of these trends, as opposed to merely a disrupter.
Yet, precisely because these trends are longstanding, the elections field is already on the path to being prepared. COVID-19 calls us to continue along that path with great care to ensure the integrity of elections through safeguarding the political processes and public discourse around elections. We already have the foundations for COVID-resistant elections – now we must build on them.