Roundtable summary: 'Accessibility of Elections Under Pandemic Conditions'
In the run up to the 20 June early parliamentary election in Armenia, the European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE) hosted a closed expert roundtable to discuss the accessibility of elections under the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as general issues of accessibility that existed even prior to the pandemic outbreak, including access for vulnerable groups of voters or voters with disabilities.
Even though the number of infections in Armenia has been decreasing steadily, it is still necessary to put certain measures in place to ensure everyone’s safety on Election Day. International organizations such as IFES have been consulting closely with the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) of Armenia, offering training and recommendations on how to mitigate pandemic-associated risks and to bring the elections in line with international best practices. New hygiene norms for elections have been established, which have been developed in cooperation with the Ministry of Health in Armenia, and UNDP has provided support in procuring medical and personal protective equipment.
However, there are perceived constitutional impediments to requiring voters to wear masks in polling stations. Masks and other equipment will be made available at polling stations to voters, but there is a legal gap on whether polling station workers can require voters to use these, i.e., whether they could turn voters away if the voter refused to comply, which would in effect exclude them from taking part in the vote. The Armenian Constitution requires that circumscription of constitutional rights, like the right to vote, can only be done through laws passed by Parliament and not by regulations issued by governmental institutions like the CEC.
The lack of alternative voting methods also remains an issue that has been raised by experts and civil society. This issue has taken on special significance in connection with the pandemic. The mobile voting can be provided only for those recovering in a medical facility where PEC members would visit sick persons with a mobile ballot box. The list of names for voting by mobile ballot box must be submitted at the latest 10 days prior to Election Day. However, there are neither legal provisions regulating cases of those who were tested positive within the last nine days before the Election Day, incl. on the voting day, nor has the issue of how to ensure accessibility to the vote for those voters who are in self-isolation at home been resolved yet. Further concerns are related to ensuring safety for PEC members during the mobile voting.
A lack of alternative voting methods (such as postal voting) also negatively impacts access to elections for other vulnerable groups in society. In a recent joint report by IFES-Armenia and Agate NGO, funded by USAID, it was found that none of the 1,987 polling stations monitored (which represents 99% of polling stations across Armenia) can be considered fully accessible; only 547 were partially accessible. With inaccessible polling stations and no alternative voting methods, the equal right to vote for vulnerable groups in society is not ensured. There is also a lack of voter material for voters with disabilities, which affects their ability to make an informed choice. Initial efforts have been made with braille templates; however, it was found that not all those who were visually-impaired were able to read braille.
A positive takeaway from the pandemic has been that there is now an ongoing debate on offering alternative solutions, not only concerning access to elections, but also in the employment sphere, which previously was not the case. Participation by vulnerable groups in elections and politics may therefore change, but it is unlikely that significant changes improving the accessibility of elections will be implemented in time for this election on 20 June.
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This roundtable series is financially supported by the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation.