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Webinar on ‘Issues, Challenges and Protocols for Conducting Elections during COVID-19: Sharing Country Experiences’
On completion of one year of Chairmanship of the Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB), Election Commission of India (ECI) hosted an International Webinar on the Theme ‘‘Issues, Challenges and Protocols for Conducting Elections during COVID-19 : Sharing Country Experiences’ through its India A-WEB Centre on 21st September, 2020 at New Delhi. It was an occasion for democracies world over to come together to share experiences of conducting elections during Covid19. It may be recalled that India had taken over as Chair of A-WEB for 2019-2021 term during the 4th General Assembly of A-WEB held at Bengaluru on 03 Sep 2019.
On this occasion, India A-WEB Centre’s publications namely ‘A Ready Reckoner: Brief Profiles of Countries, Election Management Bodies and Partner Organizations of A-WEB’ and ‘International Experiences of Conducting Elections During COVID-19’ were released besides release of the ‘Brochure’ for launch of ‘A-WEB India Journal of Elections’.
Mr. Umesh Sinha, Secretary General, ECI welcomed the guests and gave a brief overview of the activities of A-WEB India Centre since its inception.
Inaugurating the Webinar, Chief Election Commissioner of India and Chairperson, A-WEB Mr Sunil Arora spoke of the "tough predicament" faced by Election Management Bodies across the world - whether and how to hold scheduled elections in a state of public health emergency.
He said the contextual framework of every country was different, the extent and trajectory of the disease varied and so did the capacity of each country to respond to the novel corona virus and its catastrophic impact. He mentioned countries such as South Korea, Australia, Malawi, Taiwan, Mongolia and many others who went ahead with scheduled elections even as they put in place the enormous arrangements required to ensure the health and safety of people while conducting elections.
Mr Arora mentioned that Elections in India pose formidable challenges on account of large electorate, geographical and linguistic diversity and differing climatic conditions. Explaining in detail the scale of the elections to the Legislative Assembly of Bihar, he mentioned that the total number of electors was 72.9 million.
Explaining the impact of Covid-19 on the election, Mr Arora highlighted how Covid-19 exigencies and social distancing measures necessitated a revisit of ECI's extant instructions. The maximum number of electors at a polling station was reduced from 1500 to 1000, and consequently, the number of polling stations jumped by 40 per cent, from 65,000 to over 100,000. These changes had huge logistics and manpower implications.
Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) also mentioned that ECI has placed a lot of emphasis on extending facilitation to senior citizens, women, Persons with disabilities and in current circumstances, ensuring franchise to COVID-19 positive voters and those in quarantine. In this context, the CEC mentioned how, beginning with the elections to the Legislative Assembly of Jharkhand in November-December 2019, and elections to the Legislative Assembly of Delhi in February 2020, the postal ballot facility was extended to voters who were aged more than 80 years, persons with disabilities and those engaged in specified essential services. This facility of postal ballot was also extended to COVID-19 positive electors who were in quarantine/hospitalized.
Mr Arora mentioned the specific and detailed guidelines that have been drawn up for conducting election during the time of COVID-19. He also mentioned the successful conduct of elections to 18 seats of the Rajya Sabha in the month of June, 2020. He informed that assembly elections are due in the states of West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu in the first half of the year 2021.
Mentioning the two publications released during the Webinar viz. ‘Brief Profiles of the Countries, member EMBs and Partner Organisations of A-WEB’ and ‘International Experiences of Conducting Elections during COVID-19’, he said these would be a useful tool for researchers and practitioners alike. He said that A-WEB India Centre has also progressed considerably towards publishing a world class journal called “A-WEB India Journal of Elections’. The first issue of this journal will be released in March 2021. He hoped that A-WEB India emerges as the ‘nervecentre’ for intellectual and other activities and, requested all other members to contribute and participate.
The Session started with opening remarks by Mr K M Nurul Huda, CEC, Bangladesh who focussed on ‘fightback’ by the EMBs with whatever resources available. He said that this Webinar was an effort of imparting success story on courage and determinations of EMBs who had not compromised elections with the threat of COVID-19 pandemic. It would also provide an opportunity to know which EMBs have taken what precautions and under what circumstances. It would benefit all EMBs under the banner of A-Web and to share as how others have encountered corona while undertaking health protective measures and then managed elections.
Mr Sushil Chandra, Election Commissioner, India shared with the audience the special measures taken by ECI to ensure conduct of elections under COVID- 19 challenge; he emphasized on the need for coordination with all stakeholders including political parties; effective communication with voters to convince & to ensure that the”Polling Booths are safe”; & the need for comprehensive new protocols designed to synchronize with Health Guidelines.
Ms A Senimoli, Director Operations, Fiji Elections Office, spoke on advance planning for General Elections 2022 with COVID Safety protocols. The strategies include to promote alternative ways of voting to reduce person to person contact; having bigger & larger venues for better ventilation and allow for physical distancing; changes to SOPs and set up in polling stations (1.5m physical distancing); instructional posters on safety and hygiene protocols to be affixed outside polling stations and special voting procedures for assisted voting (voters with disabilities).
Mr Seung Ryeol Kim Advisor, A-WEB Secretariat, spoke about the initiatives taken by A-WEB Sectt. to facilitate sharing of experiences and expertise in the form of webinars to support A-WEB members in tackling the challenges from the pandemic. These webinars dealt with urgent issues and key considerations with regard to election management in the pandemic situation. In addition to the three webinars, the A-WEB Secretariat has also participated in a number of webinars organised by its members or partners, sharing its insights into election management and COVID-19 as well as encouraging its members to join and benefit from the events.
Mr Antonio Spinelli Senior Advisor, International IDEA spoke on special voting arrangements and managing elections during the pandemic. He mentioned the “theoretical, analytical“ framework by which all EMBs could “situate our individual effort in comparison to worldwide practices.” He categorized the ongoing efforts of EMBs into 3 parallel dimensions for the COVID-19 threat i.e. Physical, Spatial and Temporal. He stated that the Voting methodology has been static and, it generally, is not accounting for mobility of people & absentee voters – whose worldwide number was overwhelming. The paper circulated was “evaluative” of ongoing efforts by various EMB’s and it presented the members with a “Global Monitor”- to judge impact of COVID Democracy & Human Rights and an excellent snapshot of facts of conducted/ postponed elections & degree of variation in approaches initiated by various EMB’s. The Paper’s core point perhaps was that Emergency such as the global crisis stemming from the COVID- 19 pandemic, are decisive facts that may reveal the health of any democracy.
Ms Kin Su-yeon, Professor, KCEID, National Election Commission (NEC) of Republic of Korea spoke on the Election Management in response to COVID-19 and the 21st National Assembly Elections held in April 2020 in the Republic of Korea. She shared the experience of the National Election Commission of the ROK that enabled it to hold elections without changing the laws. It made full use of its existing systems such as the early voting system to minimise congestion in polling stations on the voting day as well as the fixed voting hours giving the quarantined voters the last minutes to vote. She mentioned that NEC provided an environment where voters felt safe while coming to vote during the elections.
Dr Chih-Cheng Meng, Commissioner, CEC Taiwan spoke of Taiwan’s successful experiences in conducting elections during COVID-19 pandemic. Taiwan has had more than 40 local by-elections and recalls since February 2020. Through the formulation and implementation of the prevention measures, the election authorities have worked closely with the central and local governments to establish a safe and comprehensive epidemic prevention network. Election officials are highly alert and strictly implement epidemic prevention measures to provide a safe voting environment for every voter.
Mr P Delgernaran, Chairperson, GEC Mongolia spoke on conduct of Parliamentary Elections in Mongolia with well defined safety protocols and sharing of experiences by each of the speakers The presentation walked all the participants through the Mongolian experience of conduct of the Parliamentary election in June, 2020 within the mandate of the “Regulation” on Corona of May 2020. It acknowledged its prior study of global experiences including Korea. Due to the measures taken, it ensured a 73.6% voter turnout with no adverse health impact being reflected.
Mr. Sushil Chandra, EC India summarized various presentations as adding the new dimensions of “safe” to the otherwise known formulation of ‘Free & Fair Elections’. He noted that the sessions were well structured and the presentations provided an analysis of factors, threats, challenges and the possible solutions for conduct of elections. Mr Nurul Huda, CEC, Bangladesh mentioned that Corona virus has brought about rigorous changes in our daily life, conduct of elections as well as the future strategy for elections.
In his opening remarks Mr. Rajiv Kumar, EC India quoting Mahatma Gandhi, characterized the challenge as to ensure that the under-privileged have the same opportunity as the elite. He suggested an additional test to “focus on polling percentage in respect of the vulnerable sections”. Containment measures by governments have and are having “constitutional and technology implications for timing and conduct of elections.” He briefed the Conference on the Rajya Sabha elections conducted by ECI in June 2020. Mentioning the forthcoming elections of Bihar, he highlighted the framework of SOPs – steps/ guidelines being worked upon by India and placing them in the context of other shared experiences. In context of high expectations of service by EMBs, the “Shared experience” was crucial – he offered to share further experience of India, post Bihar elections.
Mr Glen Mashinini, Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of South Africa and Vice Chairperson of A-WEB thanked the Chief Election Commissioner of India for organizing the Webinar on a subject that has affected practically all aspects of our lives. Sharing his experience on the impact of COVID-19 on Democracy and Electoral Cycle he summed up the COVID 19 challenge as “it is safe to say that the only certainty in the world at the moment is uncertainty”. He said that its short term impacts relate to postponement of elections but the defining characteristic of any democracy is the holding of regular elections. This requirement is enshrined into Article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. The suspension of scheduled elections is, therefore, never lightly undertaken – especially in countries with a history of authoritarianism and disregard for justice and human rights.
He mentioned long term impacts of the pandemic on democracy. The first of these is likely to be a significant reduction in the availability of resources to support electoral cycle. The economic impact of the pandemic has been devastating to most countries and has seen a steep rise in unemployment, a decline in revenue and a simultaneous increase in demands for additional funding for COVID-related expenditure. These factors are likely to see budgets for elections and election management bodies significantly reduced in the short, medium and even longer term. These budget cuts come at a time when all EMBs are required to substantially reimagining their electoral processes to ensure the safety of voters and staff – with concomitant increases in expenditure for personal protective equipment, electronic processes and retraining of staff Government funding for political parties is also likely to decline. The second key impact is likely to be on voter participation and turnout.
Speaking of ‘Reflections on the South African experience on Elections during COVID-19’, he said that in South Africa, the Electoral Commission took the decision in March 2020 to approach the Electoral Court to suspend all scheduled by-elections. This application to court was granted and continues currently. The reasoning behind the postponement in South Africa was twofold: Firstly to ensure the safety of voters, election staff, candidates and observers. Secondly the imposition of strict government regulations restricting the movement and gathering of people had a direct and negative effect on the ability for all parties and candidates to campaign freely and effectively. The Commission’s view was that under such conditions, elections could not be free, fair and credible. To date, 72 by-elections have been postponed since March 2020.
In conclusion Mr. Mashinini said that as defenders of democracy, we must be at the forefront of public discourse around the challenges and risks posed by the pandemic to each aspect of the electoral democracy. We must find innovative and pioneering ways to balance the health and safety of our staff, voters and other stakeholders, while still ensuring the health and well-being of democracy not only in our own countries but globally.
Mr Nuruzzaman Talukdar, Dir General, EC Bangladesh (ECB) informed of the bye elections already conducted, preparations for the 2023 Parliament Elections in the country and ECB’s resolve to deal with the COVID 19 within its extant legal regime which excluded proxy voting/ online voting and telephone voting. Key point was strategic gradation of election for prioritization. Key challenge faced is “difficult to predict what proper measure would be applicable for an unpredictable problem”. So to empower the election official to respond appropriately. ECB is working on the presumption that it would not be “normal” soon/ or in near future & redirected its commitment to ensuring the ‘election cycle’ – a cycle which is the lifeline of people’s representation, guarantee, accountability & transparency.
Ms Mona A Srinivas Director(IC), ECI made a presentation on Indian elections and stated that the sheer numerical (both COVID infections and voters involved) and geographical complexity of the on-going challenge of conduct of elections in India under COVID-19 circumstances. She briefed the Conference on the Rajya Sabha elections conducted on June 2020 & strategies invoked and, the journey of ECI from an initial deferment in March, 2020 up to its conduct in June, 2020.
The value of decentralized response - probably relevant for big jurisdictions and its balance with a centralized framework was a key take away of the presentation. It familiarized the Webinar with the steps in process for the Bihar elections and use of technology and innovative procedures to deal with the challenge of ‘numbers’ – in particular the extension of postal ballot facility. Her presentation ended with one of the ECI’s focussed outcomes i.e. ‘no voter to be left behind”.
Mr Sammy Alfandika, CEO, Malawi made a presentation as to how, through the court mandated elections of June 2020, Malawi Electoral Commission had the twin challenge of meeting not only COVID-19 special circumstances and, but the Supreme Court mandate as well. He made a presentation on ‘Conducting elections in a scenario of’ increasing infections’. The presentation highlighted the role of international cooperation and support to Malawi for equipment & resources. He highlighted a major challenge to balance the competition between ‘financial and human resources” The success of the effort was a 64.81% turnout, lesser than previous, but an “undisputed” election.
Mr. Rajeev Kumar, EC India, in his concluding remarks, emphasized the EMBs’ duty and resolve to ensure the electoral cycle - as the key outcome of the session. He stated that EMBs should avoid the postponement paradox and, that the trust in EMBs’ capacity to deliver should not be allowed to go down.
Mr Dharmendra Sharma, Sr. Deputy Election Commissioner, ECI shared the salient points of all the presentations with the audience.
Mr. Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary General, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (Intl. IDEA) said, for them at IDEA the topic of the Conference, is the topic of the year. Referring to the trends and figures he said that at the beginning of the pandemic, in March and April, the electoral calendar was dominated by postponed elections, many uncertainties and questions such as: Can elections be held safely for voters and without leading to further spreading of the virus? Will incumbents abuse the difficulty of holding elections to extend their mandates? Will the increasing number of postponed elections lead to long term legitimacy deficits? And how long will it take to recover from this deficit? If elections can be held, will they be credible? Will turnout suffer? He said that International IDEA have been very closely monitoring the global developments.
The first lesson was the importance of political consensus in sustaining decisions made on the electoral calendar and procedures. The second lesson has to do with Special Voting Arrangements and the need to enable various modalities to cast the vote. The third lesson concerns the enormous impact of communication by the electoral authority. In the Korean case, once again, the authorities made a splendid effort to communicate not only the availability of expanded voting mechanisms, but also the strict sanitary protocols that would be applied to minimize the possibility of contagion in the voting centres. The latter contributed to creating the perception that voters were not confronted with the harrowing decision between exercising their most basic civic right and protecting their health. The fourth point: resources. The pandemic forced us to adopt measures that reduce the risks of contagion, which range from the availability of masks and other protective materials, to the opening of more voting centres and the extension of the voting period. If you want proper elections, you have to be willing to give more financial and human resources to the electoral authorities. Fifth crucial factor: like so many other things, successful elections ultimately depend on controlling the pandemic.
Mr. Anthony Banbury, President & CEO, International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES) mentioned that democracies depend upon public assembly, transparency, confidence, legitimacy in elections and government institutions—all of which are put at risk by the COVID-19 Pandemic.
He mentioned that every challenge carries with it the potential for positive breakthroughs – and the COVID-19 crisis has generated critical new opportunities to strengthen democratic institutions and electoral processes. Election management bodies, together with partner institutions and organizations like International IDEA, A-Web and IFES, are rethinking election fundamentals in ways that could reap long-term benefits for democratic inclusion.
He gave an example, greater attention is being given to the use of postal ballots and advance voting, both of which have the potential in some contexts to increase enfranchisement, especially of underserved voters, such as displaced persons and indigenous communities.
From polling station design to the education of voters on voting and public health, previously-routine processes are being up-ended, and IFES – in partnership with EMBs and others around the world – is identifying emerging evidence and best practices on conducting elections during the pandemic. He referred to the COVID-19 Briefing Series of IFES in this context.
He also encouraged stakeholders to follow ElectionGuide.org, which IFES have significantly enhanced to make election data widely available to all. The efforts include updating of ElectionGuide.org to become a hub of open information on the COVID-19 Pandemic and elections. It is crucial that, during these challenging times, public authorities, including and perhaps especially electoral bodies, political parties, candidates, civil society and the international community, join together to protect the health of both citizens and their democracies. He concluded that together, we will and we must continue to overcome obstacles and build democracies that deliver for all.
Mr. Jonghyun Choe, Secretary General, Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB) expressed his appreciation to the Election Commission of India for the invitation to attend this meaningful seminar. He said that this Seminar was quite symbolic for India is the largest electoral democracy in the world. He also congratulated the India A-WEB Centre on the excellent achievements since its establishment in September 2019.
He said that the entire world has been suffering as result of this pandemic and this unprecedented crisis has greatly impacted the field of election as well. As the Secretary General of the Association of World Election Bodies, he said he has gained a sense of the challenges faced by election management bodies all over the world. Most of these challenges are similar in kind, which means we are truly well advised to join together, work together, share experience and expertise in the hope that we can identify best practices. To that end, we need a forum. And A-WEB has tremendous potential to serve as an effective forum in particular in that it is a universal body.
In his concluding remarks, Mr Sunil Arora, CEC India thanked the distinguished speakers and said that COVID- 19 pandemic has changed the way for many of our daily lives and so also it has also changed the way we organise elections. As uncertainty about the pandemic continues, conducting safe and successful elections while ensuring all the elements of a free and fair elections remain intact is a growing concern. Election Management is a very specialized field, and the best way for EMBs to upgrade their skills is to learn from one another through exchange of best practices. The ideas and experiences shared at the Webinar will be of immense use to all in managing elections.
He mentioned that India A-WEB Centre has been established at New Delhi for documentation, research and training for sharing the best practices and capacity building of A-WEB members. Within a short span of time, the India A-WEB Centre has published two very useful publications viz. ‘Brief Profiles of the Countries, member EMBs and Partner Organisations of A-WEB’ and ‘COVID 19 and International Election Experience’ which have been released today for the benefit of the entire A-WEB community. The Centre is going to bring out a number of publications and documents, and monographs on various topics related to electoral systems besides a world class quarterly ‘A-WEB India Journal of Elections’
He also lauded the pioneering work done by the NEC of the Republic of Korea in successfully holding their general elections in April 2020 and also all other EMBs who have shared experiences of conducting elections during COVID-19 times. He also appreciated the presentations from International IDEA, IFES and A-WEB which gave us a global perspective on best practices and lessons learnt in the matter. He said that the Webinar will further foster meaningful exchanges on matters of mutual concern and interest as we share our learning and experiences.
Over 120 delegates from 45 countries across the world international organizations (viz. International IDEA, International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES), Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB) and European Centre for Elections) participated in the Webinar.
The Association of World Election Bodies (A-WEB) is largest association of Election Management Bodies (EMBs) worldwide. At present A-WEB has 115 EMBs as Members & 16 Regional Associations/Organisations as Associate Members. ECI has been very closely associated with the process of formation of A-WEB since 2011-12.
The Webinar concluded with a vote of thanks.