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What elections could look like in COVID-19 conditions

Social distancing would be a new factor in Uganda’s elections in COVID-19 times

COMMENT | Crispin Kaheru | Imagine an election held during the ‘lockdown’ times of Covid-19.  To begin with, people would have to practice social distancing.

Candidates’ nominations would not be as flamboyant as they always are – with many people accompanying the candidate to the nomination center.  The traditional campaign rallies would have to be held in large open spaces where attendees have to maintain the four-meter distance from one another (these would probably be ten or less people at the rally).

The processions associated with campaign period would definitely be no more.  On polling day, each voter would have to move alone to the polling station maintaining the mandatory social distance.  The regular polling station queues, as we know them, wouldn’t be permitted.

There would have to be a provision of running water and soap (or a hand sanitizer) at each polling station, so that each voter washes their hands clean before accessing the polling station or polling ring.

Temperature monitors to test temperatures of voters would have to be integrated.  I guess the set up of the polling station too would have to change to provide for the mandatory social or physical distancing between voters and polling officials.  Imagine voters, candidates, observers and polling officials wearing masks and gloves.

I reckon the biometric voter verification machine would have to be sanitized after every voter keys in their finger. Election administrators would have to make special allowances to ensure that voters under quarantine exercise their franchise.

In short, elections would have to be as contact-less as possible with substantially reduced physical human interaction. Ideally, this is how polls would have to be run in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. There’s no doubt, the cost of election administration would even go higher than it currently is.

More than 40 elections postponed in Africa

Covid-19 has put political processes in an entirely new light, specifically posing new questions on how electoral processes are conducted. Much of what passed for standard electioneering just weeks ago has got to change.  The long tradition of elections as processes that bring people physically together in relatively large numbers is now under a test.

As the world continues to face the severe outbreak of Covid-19, Africa is taking measures to tackle the epidemic and protect the health of their population, which is obviously the foremost concern. Measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are intensifying across the continent – from distance learning for millions of students, to canceled sports seasons and shuttered stores, restaurants and public transport – the impact on campaigns and elections is also becoming evident.

General and local elections have already been postponed in more than 40 countries.  In the neighborhood, Ethiopia has already postponed its much-anticipated national election that was originally scheduled for August 29 this year.

Uganda is set to conduct its general elections in (January) 2021.  As per the electoral roadmap, a number of electoral exercises should be underway now.  So far, the country has decided to postpone its Special Interest Groups elections initially scheduled for this April. However, as the Covid-19 crisis continues, we can certainly expect more delays to be announced in the near future.

In light of the current situation, and out of concern for the health and safety of everyone, the postponement of electoral activities is thus far a reasonable measure, as long as it happens within a well-defined legal framework, and lasts not longer than necessary.

In the (unlikely) event that government decides to move forward with some electoral processes during the Covid-19 pandemic, a thorough risk assessment must be done prior and subsequent steps taken to mitigate the transmission of the virus among both voters and polling staff.

It goes without saying that so much is likely to change in a context where the electorate and political contenders have their movement restricted or are required to maintain a recommended physical distance between each other.

Internet and social media platforms may become the new major mediums for candidates to reach out to their potential voters.

We probably won’t see the traditional campaign rallies happening the way we’ve been used to them. Door-to-door canvassing and town hall meetings may be no more.  In their place, vote canvassing is likely to go online.

Internet and social media platforms may become the new major mediums for candidates to reach out to their potential voters. In fact, if it was practically possible, this would have been a good time to champion remote voting as an alternative to the traditional in-person voting, but this would definitely require a complete restructuring of the (election) law and all that goes with it.

The Electoral Commission (EC) should identify and assess the feasibility of implementing any new requirements without compromising the integrity or legitimacy of an election. Consideration should be given to the safe conduct of activities throughout the entire electoral cycle.  Activities like, candidate nomination, political campaigning, procurement and electoral dispute resolution must be undertaken in a manner than will not endanger the health of those involved.

EC should for instance be able to ensure that the country holds vibrant and inclusive campaigns without necessarily negating public health and safety guidelines.  Voter education in such a context would have to be built upon an extensive public health campaign.

Any changes to the election process must be informed by honest health advice and not political expedience.

Let me stress that, decisions to change an electoral calendar should be transparent, based upon the opinion of medical professionals, and agreed upon by relevant government authorities, security, political actors and civil society. Voters will need to be informed about changes adopted in the roadmap as quickly as possible.

With Covid-19 looming large, the traditional momentum associated with elections will most probably plummet (unless stakeholders get more innovative).  New ways of electioneering will be ushered in.  Media and technology – weather new or conventional, will very much likely be at the heart of any electoral process. Election violence and voter bribery, which are largely driven by the human contact element in elections, could lessen. But what is troubling, is this could also see voter participation seriously dropping.

In hindsight, it is not just that we need to pursue a new election process, it’s that we have to institute the necessary changes – whether in law or administration to ensure that citizens participate in elections with minimal risk of exposure to the coronavirus. We must adapt our orthodox practices to the new order that keeps citizens secure and healthy.

At the end of the day, citizens should never have to choose between exercising their franchise and keeping themselves and their families safe!

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 Crispin Kaheru is a Socio-Political Analyst 

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