Elections in A Pandemic: What Covid is Teaching Us about the Potential of Online Elections

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has changed the landscape of elections forever. Many elections worldwide have already been postponed, or are at risk of being postponed, and with the US set to have its Presidential, Congressional and Senate elections in November, the question of how elections can be held in a pandemic is at the forefront on many people’s minds.

The danger of holding regular elections is two-fold: infection rates can spike due to the confined spaces elections are often held in, and low voting rates to avoid infection can delegitimise elections. So could online elections be the answer?

One one hand online election would allow people to vote without coming into contact with others, making voting more accessible to those who are at high risk of infection. In countries that have tried online vote in the past, voter turnout is positively impacted. Additionally, online voting reaches a demographic of young in a community (18 – 34 years of age), who are most familiar with technology which could also positively impact voter turnout. Online elections can also allow for increase anonymity,  which can encourage people in countries where electoral coercion is more prevalent to vote. 

However, there are some significant drawbacks. Online voting can be susceptible to computer viruses and hackers, which could compromise the election’s legitimacy. Even in developed countries, internet access is not universal and could disadvantage voters of lower socio-economic status, and those living in rural areas.  For those concerned about private companies’ involvement in elections, online elections bring about the negative issue of private companies using elections for profit. Furthermore, creating the infrastructure necessary to hold online elections, though cost-effective in the long-term, has a high initial set-up cost. Moreover, the initial set-up of said infrastructure can take time. It’s time that some countries looking to hold elections in the next few months may not have. 

There are however other less tech-related solutions: the expansion of absentee and drive-through voting. The mechanisms to do this are already in place in many countries, though it would likely require some increase in government funding. This type of voting also has the benefit of being more accessible to the elderly, who are disproportionately affected by Covid-19.

However countries decided to take on elections in the new era, there is no doubt that the political and electoral landscape will be forever altered.