Voting in a pandemic: Lessons for elections in Africa in 2021

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station during the presidential, legislative and communal council elections, under the simmering political violence and the growing threat of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ngozi, Burundi May 20, 2020. REUTERS/Clovis Guy Siboniyo
Editor's note:

Below is a Viewpoint from Chapter 6 of the Foresight Africa 2021 report, which explores top priorities for the region in the coming year. This year’s issue focuses on strategies for Africa to confront the twin health and economic crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic and emerge stronger than ever. Read the full chapter on good governance.

Foresight Africa 2021Elections are large-scale community-based events that thrive on participation, as well as transparency and confidence to ensure their credibility. For this reason, in Africa, with limited provisions for early voting or alternatives to in-person voting in many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic is placing the integrity of elections at risk. While some countries have postponed their elections due to the pandemic, many others have chosen to move forward during this trying time. However, since COVID-19 will remain a reality in 2021, its associated risks, including reduced campaigning; decreased voter turnout; and less transparent, but more expensive elections may undermine the public’s trust and, thus, democracy more broadly.

African elections held early on in the pandemic have compelled urgent adaptations and innovations to electoral processes and timelines. Burkina Faso was forced to reduce the inspection period for the voters’ register, while Côte d’Ivoire introduced online checking of the voters’ register. Nigeria widely publicized its COVID-19 electoral policy framework, increasing transparency for interested parties. In the Central African Republic, a dedicated poll worker is responsible for ensuring voters abide by COVID-19 mitigation measures. Malawi increased its use of social media to distribute COVID-sensitive voter education materials, relying on animation instead of human actors.

Planned national and local elections in 2021, such as those in Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia, will face greater pressures to replicate these lessons. In an era when elections face a major trust deficit, election authorities need to act even-handedly when it comes to things like election campaigns. How authorities enforce rules for election campaigns, such as crowd sizes or the absence of masks at campaign rallies, will influence voters’ perceptions of their independence. Unequal enforcement of COVID-19 rules will sway voters’ views of bias easily.

Elections in 2021 will come under greater scrutiny as election observation resumes. Election authorities will need to increase transparency on critical procurement decisions, changes to the electoral calendar, credibility of voter registers, and accessible complaints mechanisms, while simultaneously increasing access to the ballot for marginalized voters and improving the use of trusted and appropriate technology. Similarly, governments will be asked key questions about sufficient election funding and the timely release of such funds to ensure the electoral process is not delayed.

And, of course, there is the logistical challenge of holding campaigns and elections during a pandemic. Political parties need to adapt their campaigns to increasingly use radio and social media rather than in-person events, but gaps in technology and, in many places, the policing of social media hinder such efforts to reach voters. Voters themselves must be assured that sufficient COVID-19 safety measures have been enacted at the polls.

Given all these obstacles, supporting electoral systems and increasing trust in democracies will be put to the test in Africa in 2021, but, given the region’s resilience, it’s a test it can pass.

Elections in 2021 (Foresight Africa 2021)