The United Nations have called the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic the biggest international crisis in generations, and it is affecting people’s lives across Europe. As the number of infected people began to mount rapidly, governments put in place a variety of measures to contain the spread of the virus. Many of these measures reflect how emergency situations can impact the exercise and safeguarding of fundamental rights and democratic practices.
The Election-Watch.EU Rapid Assessment takes stock of the current impact of Covid-19 on elections in Europe – in the 27 EU Member States as well as in the prospective Member States Albania and North Macedonia and in the former Member State United Kingdom – in order to shed light on key questions: Which elections are taking place under the current conditions? Which elections are being postponed? How are these processes regulated? How can this be evaluated from a fundamental rights perspective? And what recommendations can be drawn from this assessment? A number of international organisations have started providing reflections on the general or case-specific conditions for holding elections in these circumstances and are referenced in this report.
Human rights cannot be suspended or dispensed with, but are needed in times of crisis. International human rights law allows for the limitation of certain rights and provides an established framework to evaluate the measures put in place by governments to respond to the outbreak of Covid-19. Temporary restrictions to fundamental and other human rights with a direct impact on electoral processes might concern the freedom of expression and information, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of movement, the right to vote and be elected, the right to privacy, and due process rights. However, democratic oversight must be maintained, and any restrictions must be prescribed in law. States can also introduce emergency laws when exceptional circumstances arise; these need to be proportionate and be in force for a limited time and in a supervised manner. Once the exceptional circumstances are over, governments must lift the emergency measures.
Where elections go ahead, the safety of electoral staff and voters might be at risk, and risk assessments from a public health perspective become necessary; unprecedented operational requirements might occur with the introduction of special measures to facilitate the vote; constitutional and other legal requirements to hold elections might have to be reinterpreted; turnout might decline; electoral campaigning in public space might not be possible at all; the public debate might only focus on the public health crisis, preventing a wider discussion of important topics; the prominence of governmental actors in the media might overly amplify the advantages of incumbency; and governments might potentially use emergency restrictions on certain rights to repress opposition candidates or media.
Election-Watch.EU has conducted a Rapid Assessment of the effects of Covid-19 on elections in 30 European countries (27 EU Member States + AL, MK, UK).
Few countries have adopted special measures to hold elections during the pandemic while 13 countries have postponed various electoral events.
Parliaments operate in a variety of ways during the pandemic: 12 parliaments convene regularly, while 17 parliaments convene with reduced numbers, or have fewer or irregular sessions. The parliament in North Macedonia has been temporarily suspended.
States regulate their responses to Covid-19 in different ways: 12 have declared full or partial states of emergencies, while in 15 other legislation is applied to deal with the pandemic.
In 13 countries, specific legislation has been passed that affects the holding of elections, mostly to enable postponements.
Concerns have been raised in particular about two legislative processes – preparations for presidential elections in Poland on 10 May by postal ballot while a genuine campaign is impossible; and the introduction of a state of emergency in Hungary without a time limit.
In 7 countries, the present situation effects the foreseeable electoral cycle in other ways.
14 countries foresee next electoral events later in 2020 while 8 countries have their next elections 2021.
Democratic oversight must be maintained in times of crisis. Emergency measures must be based in law, necessary, proportionate to the purpose, non-discriminatory, temporary, focused, subject to regular review, and should take the least intrusive approach possible.
Decisions about holding or postponing elections should be based on context-specific assessments, taking international standards and regional best practices into account.
Electoral reforms and new voting methods cannot be introduced in a rush. Special measures to hold elections under the conditions of a crisis should be introduced with the largest possible political consensus and only if they are feasible in the specific legal and operational context, with sufficient time, and with sufficient voter information.
In analysing the impact on elections of Covid-19 and any emergency measures, law and policy makers should look beyond election day at the longer electoral cycle, taking for example processes of voter registration, candidate registration, election preparations, election campaigning and electoral dispute resolution into account.
All EU Member States should include in their legislation provisions to explicitly allow for access and accreditation of international and citizen election observation according to international principles.
Further research on the nexus of holding or postponing elections under emergency conditions and democratic oversight should be conducted and encouraged.
The full report is available to download below.