Demworks: Pat Merloe and Julia Brothers on Elections During COVID

Many countries with scheduled elections this year face a difficult choice in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: how to balance public health considerations with holding a free and fair election. Learn more from NDI Senior Associate and Director of Electoral Programs Pat Merloe and Program Director Julia Brothers as they talk about democratic back-sliding during this crisis, electoral integrity, and ways civil society organizations can still make a difference.

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Pat Merlow: In the public health crisis, especially where governments are weak or people are suspicious of governments, trusted voices are really important to get out accurate information.

Julia Brothers: Hello, this is Julia Brothers. I'm the Program Director for Elections at the National Democratic Institute. Welcome to Dem Works.

JB: Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is sewing insecurity among the public, which can be exploited by authoritarians to consolidate power in sideline democratic institutions. It also poses severe technical, political, and social threats to elections themselves.

In many countries, the effects of the virus may strain citizen relationships with government and elected [inaudible] officials, intensify political tensions and the potentials for violence, disenfranchise voters and increase conditions for democratic backsliding.

Today I'm joined by Pat Merlow, senior associate and director of electoral programs at NDI. Welcome to the podcast, Pat. Thank you for being here.

Pat Merlow: Hi, Julia.

JB: So the COVID-19 crisis is causing enormous challenges for every country, including those with scheduled elections this year. What are the biggest concerns deciding whether to hold or postpone elections?

PM: Elections must be held in ways that safeguard public health and in ways that ensure genuine opportunities for the electorate to vote. Universal and equal suffrage, which is in every modern constitution, means inclusion, not exclusion. So we have to also hold elections in ways where the political parties and the candidates have a fair chance to compete for votes without a playing field that's being manipulated or intentionally or unintentionally tilted in one party's favor.

So striking a proper democratic balance of public safety and credible election processes is different and really difficult in every country. Depends a lot on the level of economic and technological development in the country on the nature of social cohesion versus divisions in the country and political polarization.

So in many countries where NDI works, the concern is whether authoritarians will rush through elections with undue public health risks in order to gain an electoral advantage or to postpone elections under conditions that advantage their attempts to gain and maintain more power.

A second troubling circumstance in countries that are unstable or prone to various kinds of violence, where constrains of the public health crisis can be used by malign actors to flood the population with this information... I mean we're hearing this term infodemic; also hate speech and other means to scapegoat religious or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people or women in order to gain political advantage.

That's not all the countries where NDI works, but even those are neither authoritarian nor fragile states, the COVID-19 crisis is still posing gigantic challenges both on the public health and to electoral integrity.

JB: Right. I mean these factors present themselves as challenges to electoral integrity, not just where there might be bad faith actors that are trying to utilize this crisis to consolidate power, but also just in addressing basic issues related to how to make sure that you're maximizing participation during a public health crisis.

What are some of the factors that these countries would need to think about in terms of actually implementing elections either during a public health crisis or immediately after.

PM: There really are a number of factors that have to be considered. So the first thing that comes to everybody's mind of course is what do you do? Can people actually go to polling places or should they be under some sort of the shelter in place lockdown-like circumstances.

That doesn't just affect whether to vote. That really has to do with whether you can register to vote safely or not. In countries where there are not a high level of electronic engagement where the digital divide falls really widely across broad swipes of the population, gathering those people into places to register to vote or to vote is really the only means of doing it. So the question of a postponement becomes really an operative question.

Then we're concerned with what are the conditions for the postponement and how does that interrelate with the declarations of states of emergency, whether they're being done properly with the kinds of constraints on limitations on powers or whether they're being done in ways that usurp power.

JB: Yeah. I think one of the major concerns, especially thinking about citizens being able to participate in the process, is that during a pandemic, if voters are concerned about going out to vote, chances are that that's not going to be an equal distribution among the population, where there are a vulnerable populations that will be more impacted.

You'll see disproportionate levels of low turnout among certain communities like senior citizens or persons with disabilities or women who disproportionately have the burden of childcare and are in a situation where you don't have options for even temporary childcare because of social distancing regulations.

Well, this seems like a good place to take a short break.

For more than 35 years, NDI has been honored to work with courageous and committed pro-democracy activists and leaders around the world to help countries develop the institution's practices and skills necessary for democracy success. Welcome back.

JB: So we talked a bit about the postponements that we're seeing around the world in terms of electoral timelines. Are election observers relevant during electoral delays, especially if there's restrictions on movement in the population if they're under some form of shelter in place or lockdown.

PM: Yeah. So Julie, you mentioned that NDI works in more than 70 countries and in fact, working with nonpartisan citizen groups and coalitions and various organizations is one of the hallmarks of NDI's work over more than 35 years now and certainly the 25 years where I've been involved.

There's a network of citizen election observers, there are nine of them in various regions of the world and they're amalgamated in more than 250 organizations from 90 countries. Those organizations have been sharing best practices and ideas about what can be done.

So let me just quickly mention a couple of them. There are four areas where they have been able to focus. One are ways to assist; that is, to assist public health agencies and the electoral authorities to bring about safe elections and fair elections.

The second is ways to address authoritarian opportunism and how states of emergency and various conditions are being used by those who would usurp the citizens of power.

The third are ways to address disinformation, hate speech and attempts at hyperpolarization that influence and create unfair conditions for elections.

The fourth way is to address, as you mentioned earlier, examples of where a health crisis can lead to disenfranchisement or further tilt the playing field so that it's an unfair circumstance.

JB: Yeah, I mean you mentioned especially tracking the authoritarian leaders who are potentially taking advantage of the health crisis to grab power and subvert democracy and in some unstable countries, this can threaten heightened instability.

What can election servers be doing to address that or what are they currently doing to address that?

PM: The most important thing is citizen election observers in all kinds of countries have been time tested and over the series of elections cycles two, three, even four in many countries, they've built national networks and they've established themselves as trusted voices.

In a public health crisis, especially where governments are weak or people are suspicious of government, trusted voices are really important to get out accurate information from the health authorities, accurate information from the electoral authorities about what to do, where to do things and so on.

Also, they have networks that can collect information; even during lockdowns. You and I were in a conversation with one of the partner organizations with whom we work in Sri Lanka just last week. The head of that organization is working on a civil society task force.

That task force is considering how to gain access to women's shelters, to older people's homes, to places where there's foster children's care, drug treatment centers, and so on because these are vulnerable populations that are being hit hard by the crisis.

One of the things that he pointed out in our conversation is that the government is taking advantage of the postponement of the election for electoral advantage by handing out dry goods to citizens and even medical supplies through the political party rather than as an impartial governmental service to the people.

So the question that he posed was, even during lockdown, is there a way that our network of over 1,000 people could begin to document this and report it so that we can lift up to the public the nature of this problem that's coming about and see if we can't get some accountability and get them to cut back.

So even during a lockdown, it's possible for the citizen observer groups to do things that are extraordinarily relevant.

JB: Yeah, I mean it seems like there are certainly opportunities for electoral observers to be monitoring the kinds of things that they would normally be looking at in a pre-election period when their elections are delayed... Issues related to is the government still helping to create conditions for a credible and competitive process in the midst of a public health emergency. Are conditions being put in place to ensure that marginalized populations are not sidelined from the process.

But it also kind of expands it a little bit too in that there are these potentially other issues that that groups may consider looking at. Like you mentioned, how health resources are being distributed and what kinds of policy changes are being made and how were those being made?

What's the decision-making process around things like delaying the elections, around emergency voting procedures? Are they inclusive? Are all the parties being brought in to them? Is civil society be brought into these discussions and taking a look at some of these new conditions that observers may otherwise not necessarily be monitoring in a pre-election period.

I think the other issue here is there are constraints here in terms of potentially being able to deploy a bunch observers out into the field to collect information if you're in a lockdown situation.

So it's been interesting talking with groups to see how they're thinking creatively about how they can collect some of this information remotely. What kind of data exists that you can collect whether it's open data sources from the government looking at budgets, looking at how budgets are changing and how resources are moving.

You mentioned looking at disinformation, being able to monitor social media and seeing what data could be collected from that.

It's been interesting to see how citizen election observers around the world are getting creative and still doing their jobs while being sometimes trapped at home.

PM: Absolutely. You mentioned the disinformation... One of the things that we've been seeing is that in Russia for example, they have been making use of the COVID crisis to begin to track people even more carefully to introduce facial recognition technologies and cameras.

The term that's been throwing around is cybergulags being created there. With China's facial recognition technologies and the way that's been used to suppress the weaker minorities, China has been introducing that working with governments and other places in the world to try to get that into voter registration so that you have biometric voter registration data that includes facial recognition technology.

So in this era, getting access to government decision making, getting access even to the health data and disaggregated by gender, by vulnerable groups and so on is part of the work that election observers normally do. Demanding open electoral data can lead easily to the same kinds of advocacy around open health data.

One of the other things I thought that you've touched on that's interesting is the states of emergencies and the relationships between that and postponement. There's more than 45 countries at this point that have postponed elections at the national and sub-national level.

Not all of them are problematic by any means, but in a lot of countries, there have been extended states of emergency without any end date. The postponements have no end date on them.

One of the things that election observers can do is to join with... And many of them are human rights organizations and bringing about the rules that have been established in the international arena for limiting the duration of states of emergencies, that the measures that are taken have to be proportionate to the nature of the threat to the nation to bring those issues up and do advocacy around them and to help those of us in the international arena be aware of where these problems are in various countries.

JB: With that, I think we'll take a quick break. We'll be back after this quick message.

One of the things that Secretary Albright has said is that it's absolutely essential for young people to understand that they must participate and that they are the energy behind democracy.

You can hear more from other democracy heroes by listening to our Dem Works podcast. It is available on iTunes and SoundCloud.

So before the break, we were talking about the role that citizen election monitors are playing in the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on electoral integrity. Are there other considerations that citizen election groups should be thinking about in the need for electoral integrity in their countries?

I'm thinking especially related to how groups can make sure that their observers are safe while also being able to collect information and an advocate for critical processes and good governance.

PM: That's really a critical question, Julia. A good example that comes to mind is in Mali, which has had very few reported cases of COVID-19, there was a parliamentary election just two weeks ago. The government, for national security reasons, has had to postpone those elections for almost two years and they were really in a phase of saying we need to push it ahead. In fact, there had not been a reported COVID-19 death until just a few hours before the election date.

So it went forward and the citizen observers with which NDI has been working in that country in the weeks leading up to that advocated that the polling stations had to have masks for the staff; had to have gloves; had to have hand sanitizers or hand washing stations because hand sanitizer is hard to get in a lot of places in Mali.

They made sure that their observers had those materials themselves. I think 1,500 observers went out to polling stations across the country. In their own headquarters and gathering data, there was social distancing that took place and they did a lot of checking in with their observers about how they were doing, how they were feeling over the course of the day.

So one thing that the citizen observers can do is to join with organizations that are health advocates for those places where either voter registration is about to take place or voting is about to take place to ensure that the conditions minimize the risk.

We just saw this over this past weekend in the elections that were held in South Korea. Whether or not you might think that the election should go forward, there was a country where there's a lot of public confidence in what the government has been doing and in the integrity of the election authorities and voter turnout was not terribly affected by this.

So there is something that can be done immediately and as you have mentioned, there are numerous things that can be looked at by citizen observers without ever really leaving their homes or their headquarters. One of those, as you mentioned, is disinformation. Our partners in Georgia, for example, have uncovered a link between Russian propaganda, which has gone up around disinformation around COVID-19 and linking it to destabilizing public trust in Georgia's government.

There's a really interesting report that they came out with just last week on that front. So how does COVID-19 and elections interface is something that can be explored in a number of dimensions.

JB: We've talked mostly about the work of nonpartisan civil society organizations and their own countries that are confronting this challenge. Is there a role for international election observers on terms of electoral oversight during a public crisis, especially knowing that they will have some of the same if not even more constraints than citizen election monitors?

PM: It's a very difficult role at the moment for international election observers. We've been in touch with our colleagues at the African Union and the European Union, at the United Nations and Organization of American States and so on. Many of them have been bringing teams home from countries. Some of them have been postponing or canceling sending teams out.

At the same time, there are a number of things that international observers can do. As you mentioned, you can look at things from a distance. You can review the legal framework, which is part of what every international election observation and citizen observers do.

You can compare what has been done over the past few cycles of elections, where recommendations have been made, whether those recommendations were acted upon or whether you find the same problem repeating in the next report and prioritize the issues that you might look to and even be able to inform diplomats and others about things that they should be raising with government.

You can look at disinformation and other information disorder, hate speech and so on, from afar. Certainly you can tune in with what the critical people inside a country who are working on these issues have been doing. You can conduct some long distance interviews with key people in the citizen groups and in the election authorities and the political leaders to learn their opinions about what the state of play is in the country and their concerns going forward.

But when it comes time to put people on the ground, we have to look at travel restrictions. We have to look at countries where foreigners have been seen as people who bring in COVID-19 and there's been violence against them; so security of observers is important. And the numbers of people who may go or where they may be deployed depending upon hotspots in the country and so on.

So this is something that over the course of this year will be a challenge. And the next thing will be a challenge for international election observers is that as so many elections are being postponed, they're being postponed probably towards the end of this year or the beginning of next year, which already has many scheduled elections. So there may be an overwhelming demand for which the supply of financial and human resources runs short.

JB: It does seem like at this point, especially knowing that international election observers in a lot of the places just can't deploy right now, one of the roles to play here is really trying to raise the voices of the citizen groups on the ground that are able to actually do some on the ground observation.

Also keeping in mind, especially for the places we're concerned about authoritarian overreach, thinking about how we can use some of these international mechanisms to push back on democratic backsliding and mitigate tensions in places where it could potentially be a bit more unstable with the current situation.

PM: You're right. That's the contribution that the international community can do, too... To really amplify the voices of the citizenry and to augment their efforts to bring about respect for civil and political rights.

When you have a network of thousands of citizens who have taken the time and the effort to go out of their homes, into the street, to look at what the nature of the threats of violence or vote buying or intimidation to document how these things of disproportionally driven women or restricted women's political and electoral participation, would they have taken the time to go into polling stations, sometimes under threat or coercion?

These people have become a solid core of citizen empowerment in so many countries around the world, and each of those citizens, of course, is using WhatsApp and other ways of talking and they're influencers within a country.

They can gather information, they can give accurate information out, but as they report up through their networks, if there's good collaboration between the reputable citizen groups and the credible international election observers and the international community more broadly, we can use that cooperation that we've been working on over the years to try to bring attention, even when it's hard to shine a light directly on problems in countries that are being affected by this crisis and facing political challenges and stress.

JB: Well, thank you again, Pat, for joining us. I think this has been a particularly relevant discussion. I'd also like to say thank you to our listeners.

To learn more about NDI or to listen to other Dem Works podcasts, please visit our [email protected]

PM: Thank you, Julia and thank you to the listeners.