Backgrounder

How Countries Are Holding Elections During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The experiences of dozens of countries offer lessons for U.S. officials as they prepare for the presidential election during the coronavirus pandemic.
A poll worker and voter wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during a U.S. primary election.
A poll worker and voter wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during a U.S. primary election. Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Summary
  • Countries have taken many precautions to guarantee safe in-person voting, including requiring masks and staggering voting hours. Some have successfully expanded voting by mail.
  • Challenges remain in holding elections during a pandemic, including lack of funding, technical glitches, low turnout, and legitimacy concerns.
  • In the United States, voting rules and practices vary widely. Americans should visit their state’s website to see how and when to vote this year.

Introduction

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted hundreds of elections scheduled in 2020. While more than sixty countries postponed voting, dozens of others, including Burundi, France, and South Korea, went forward with their elections.

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These countries took various steps to reduce the risk of voters and election officials contracting the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19. But planning elections, which usually require extensive person-to-person contact, during a historic health crisis is challenging. Officials worldwide have struggled with securing enough funding to implement safety precautions, expanding mail-in voting, and communicating changes with the public, among other obstacles. Some countries suffered low voter turnout, causing citizens to question the elections’ legitimacy, while others saw high turnout and few coronavirus cases linked to voting. The United States is facing similar challenges as it prepares to hold its presidential election on November 3.

Have elections sparked coronavirus outbreaks?

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It’s hard to say, given the number of factors involved. A few countries did see increased numbers of COVID-19 cases in the weeks after their elections, though other actions, such as broader reopenings and easing of restrictions, could have been responsible, experts say. Belarus experienced widespread protests following its election, which could have contributed to an increase in cases. And Serbia, which also saw post-election protests, was accused of underreporting COVID-19 cases ahead of its elections. 

On the other hand, South Korea, which international health experts have praised for its extensive precautions at polling places, reported no new cases related to its April election. The election was held amid a declining caseload and with nationwide coronavirus restrictions still in place. Similarly, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report found that there was no spike in cases in Milwaukee following Wisconsin’s primary election in April. 

 

Nonetheless, experts say elections held so far have shown that the risk of transmission in polling places decreases if officials enforce social distancing, require mask wearing, increase ventilation, and sanitize surfaces, among other measures. In addition, “just providing different remote options on how to vote can also help minimize conglomerations and the risk of person-to-person transmission,” says Fernanda Buril, a senior researcher at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).

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What health and safety steps have countries taken?

A number of countries have demonstrated that safe in-person voting is possible. Governments and electoral management bodies have taken many of the following precautions:

Requiring masks. Many countries required voters to wear masks, according to research by IFES [PDF], since wearing masks has been shown to significantly decrease the chance of infection.

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Checking temperatures. In South Korea, nearly thirty million people—66 percent of eligible voters, the country’s highest voter turnout since 1992—cast ballots in April. Everyone had their temperatures checked and were provided hand sanitizer before voting. Those with a fever were allowed to vote in separate areas.

Social distancing. Countries such as Mongolia and Serbia asked voters to stay at least one meter apart. 

Disinfecting polling places. Routine disinfection of frequently touched surfaces and other sanitary measures have been common. In Poland, polling stations were allowed to air out for ten minutes every hour. In the Dominican Republic, poll workers regularly wiped down surfaces and markers used to fill out ballots.

Eliminating shared materials. French officials encouraged voters to bring their own pens. In Suriname, poll workers used cotton swabs to cover voters’ fingers with ink instead of letting people dip into shared ink pots.

Staggering voting hours. Minimizing the number of people who vote at the same time helps lower the risk of coronavirus transmission. Some countries increased the number of polling places, recommended early voting, and extended voting hours on election day. Singapore assigned voters two-hour windows during which they could cast their ballots at polling places.

Providing alternatives to in-person voting. Some countries, such as Australia, encouraged people to vote by mail, which has generally proved to be reliable and can be safeguarded from tampering. However, experts do not recommend quickly switching to online voting systems because of security vulnerabilities. 

Creating special procedures for COVID-19 patients. In Croatia and France, proxy representatives were allowed to vote on behalf of coronavirus patients and those in isolation. Elsewhere, election staff and health professionals visited patients’ homes. In Singapore, the elderly and other high-risk individuals were encouraged to vote early in the day.

These measures are expensive. South Korea’s April elections cost an extra $16 million. Other countries, such as Indonesia and Ukraine, have budgeted tens of millions of additional dollars for coronavirus-related measures. The U.S.-based, nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice estimated that it would cost $4 billion to guarantee all U.S. elections between March and November 2020 are free, fair, safe, and secure, at a time when state and local budgets are under tremendous pressure.

What are experts’ biggest concerns?

One of the biggest concerns is that holding elections during a pandemic could result in lower voter turnout. If officials don’t widely communicate pandemic-related restrictions and electoral changes to the public, many might skip voting out of fear they will contract the virus or out of confusion about where and how to vote. The cancellation of in-person voter registration events could mean that some communities, particularly those without internet access, aren’t registered. 

Indeed, some countries did see lower turnout compared to their last elections, though it’s unclear whether the pandemic is fully to blame. The largest drops were in the Dominican Republic and North Macedonia, which both had high numbers of coronavirus cases before their elections. However, that didn’t happen across the board. Other countries, such as Burundi and South Korea, saw increases in turnout, though various factors likely played a role.

“For people who are not inclined to vote in general because they’re disillusioned with democracy and elections, they may consider a cost-benefit analysis of, ‘Is this worth risking my health for?’ And for those voters, it might be a very clear answer that it’s not,” says Ashley Quarcoo, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Another concern is that poll workers will not show up to work the election. In the United States, the majority of poll workers are over sixty years old, a group that is at higher risk of severe illness from the virus. U.S. officials have begun warning about shortages of Election Day workers.

In addition, the rush to change elections systems could result in hiccups and delays. Poland, for example, delayed its 2020 presidential elections and dramatically expanded mail-in voting, but many voters reported not receiving their ballots on time. Some U.S. states that already held elections this year experienced technology issues and confusion over new processes. Thousands of people, including in Washington, DC, Georgia, and Wisconsin, reported not receiving mail-in ballots or waiting in hours-long lines outside polling places. New voting machines malfunctioned, and poll workers weren’t adequately trained on how to use them. Experts warn that similar problems could disrupt the November election. Officials must also guarantee that new systems are secure and not at risk of foreign interference.

The rampant spread of misinformation and disinformation about the coronavirus is another problem. (Misinformation is defined as simply false information; disinformation is purposefully deceitful information.) There are several ways this could disrupt elections. Results will likely be announced later than usual, which could cause the public to question the legitimacy of the vote. Unsuccessful parties and candidates might see an opening to hype up concerns about their election’s credibility. In addition, it could be easier for countries seeking to undermine the democratic process, such as China and Russia, to interfere by spreading disinformation. Experts worry that voters will be more susceptible to false information, such as announcements claiming they can vote by text or that their polling place is closed. 

How have countries dealt with misinformation and kept the public informed?

While there is no single way to combat misinformation, election experts point out that governments that have successfully navigated the COVID-19 era established lines of communication between health authorities and election agencies well before voting began. Together, they created standardized guidelines for polling places, implemented nationwide voter-education campaigns, and planned for potential outbreaks.

South Korea displayed posters ahead of the election explaining how citizens could vote and texted voting instructions to people in quarantine. Serbia published instructions on voting procedures in nine newspapers and on Instagram and broadcast public service announcements on television and thirty radio stations. Malawi’s government shared information on social media and the radio. 

How is the United States preparing for elections in November?

Americans will cast their votes for president, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and other downballot positions on November 3.

The elections will look different in states across the country. Unlike many other countries, the United States does not have only one election authority. State governments set the rules for how elections should run, and counties, cities, and towns are responsible for conducting the elections. (The Federal Election Commission is responsible for enforcing campaign finance laws, and the Election Assistance Commission provides voluntary guidelines to local election officials and certifies some states’ voting machines.)

Many states are expanding mail-in voting, a strategy public health experts recommend to lessen the number of people at polling places. (There is no evidence that voting by mail increases voter fraud, as President Donald J. Trump has claimed). Ballots will be automatically mailed to all registered voters in some states, such as California and Colorado, which have used this strategy in past elections at a cost of up to $10 per voter [PDF]. Around two-thirds of states will allow all voters to apply for mail-in absentee ballots, many of which previously required a justification to do so. Several states, such as Indiana and Texas, still require voters to give an excuse to vote by mail, though a few are trying to remove that impediment.

Counties or cities in at least thirty-four states plan to use drop boxes where voters can deposit their ballots. However, Trump’s threats to limit funding to the U.S. Postal Service and the postmaster general’s removal of hundreds of mail-sorting machines in what the administration says is an effort to cut costs have raised concerns that mail-in ballots might not be received on time. (The Postal Service recommends that voters mail back their ballots at least one week before the election.)

For in-person voting, a majority of states already have expanded early voting options or are planning to do so, allowing people to cast their ballots before Election Day. Some localities are moving polling places away from nursing homes and senior living facilities, which have been particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Others are considering expanding curbside voting, in which poll workers bring ballots to voters’ vehicles. 

States are also stocking up on masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies to distribute to local polling places. The federal government allocated $400 million to help states cover the costs, but some state officials are pushing Congress to appropriate more, arguing the funds were depleted during the primary elections.

Still, experts stress that communicating new options to the public will be critical, especially because voter turnout is generally lower in the United States than in other wealthy democracies. Local officials have launched voter education campaigns that cover issues including how to register, fill out mail-in ballots, and safely vote in person. Illinois, for example, is sharing public service announcements on YouTube. California officials respond to misinformation on social media with facts; sometimes they are able to get the false information removed. U.S. social media networks, such as Facebook, have shared personalized voting details with users.

“There’s a lot of focus on Election Day operations, but equal attention must be paid to the preelection activities, such as registering people to vote and recruiting poll workers, that guarantee that we will have an inclusive and participatory process,” says Carnegie’s Quarcoo.

Recommended Resources

FiveThirtyEight compiles information on when and how to vote in all fifty U.S. states. 

The CDC offers guidelines for voters and polling places. 

This CFR meeting unpacks how to protect U.S. elections from health risks, foreign interference, and voter suppression. 

These four IFES reports explain how to hold elections during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Brennan Center for Justice tracks how prepared U.S. states are for the November election.

Will Merrow created the graphics for this article.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to communications@cfr.org.
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