In anticipation of the US’s 2020 elections, the CDC issued guidelines for local election officials and poll workers to help minimize the chances of a spike in virus infections as a result of voting. These guidelines include maintaining physical distancing inside and outside polling places, wearing masks, and disinfecting surfaces. The agency also included guidelines for voters themselves, such as considering transportation options to the polls, voting at non-peak times, and researching voting options such as voting by mail or voting early.
Partially because of the pandemic, voters pursued options besides day-of voting in numbers never seen before. Early votes in Texas, for instance, surpassed 80% of the state’s total 2016 turnout nearly a week before election day. Other states likewise shattered records for early voting, and battleground states in particular saw extraordinary levels of early voter participation.
Other nations have likewise needed to adjust their election procedures as a result of the pandemic. South Korea went forward with its elections in April but relied on temperature checks, sanitizer, and separate voting areas for those with COVID symptoms to ensure the safety of voters. The result was the highest voter turnout since 1992, and no COVID infections were traced to voting.
Australia, not wanting to delay its elections, encouraged voters to cast their ballots by mail. In Croatia and France, proxy representatives could vote on behalf of those in isolation because of COVID.
Though the pandemic is a public health threat, these creative approaches to democratic participation could, in the end, expand governments’ conceptions of how to vote. If people vote by mail in 2020, they could demand it in future elections. If they like the shorter lines of early voting, expanded early voting could be here to stay in these nations. Ultimately, democratic participation could be strengthened by these alternatives to day-of voting.
But a focus on expanded voting opportunities is not happening everywhere. Using the pandemic as its rationale, the Hong Kong government postponed its September elections due to fear about an outbreak. Democracy advocates, however, saw the postponement as an attempt to thwart the momentum of pro-democracy candidates, who won significant gains in 2019 and were poised to do the same in 2020.
Many Hongkongers were outraged by this decision, and on the day when the election should have taken place last month took to the streets, chanting, “Give me back my right to vote!” The police arrested at least 289 people for taking part in an unauthorized demonstration.
Sixty other countries have postponed elections because of the pandemic, and, as in Hong Kong, experts fear that nations with weak democratic institutions won’t be able to maintain the good faith of voters. There is a real danger that authoritarian leaders from Eastern Europe to Asia to Africa are using the crisis to seize more power and further undermine the will of the majority.
There is another danger. The Council on Foreign Relations suggests that misinformation about the virus, election-day procedures, and nontraditional voting options could undermine the legitimacy of elections. This misinformation could mislead voters about how to vote, whether voting places are closed, or even that it is too dangerous to vote. Voters susceptible to this misinformation may not have their vote counted even if they want to cast a ballot. In nations in which early votes are not counted until election day or later, there is a risk that candidates who win the most day-of votes will claim victory and attempt to delegitimize early voting and mail-in voting in a gambit to seize power.
In order to combat this misinformation, voters should consult only legitimate sources of voting information, which in Monroe County is the county government’s Election Central. Turbovote is another excellent resource. Early voting in Bloomington made use of the CDC’s guidelines, with high levels of mask usage, physical distancing, and the absence of shared pens or other materials.
Though the threats to democracy because of the pandemic are myriad, focusing on the opportunities for expanded voting access could make the 2020 elections the beginning of a new era of democratic vibrancy and voter participation.