How Coronavirus Is Threatening Democracy

As the United States moves into the heat of the presidential election season, and as protesters take to the streets to express their outrage at the killing of George Floyd and demand an end to police brutality and systemic racism, European countries are offering a preview of what electoral politics in the midst of a pandemic may look like. 

So far, ensuring that political activity continues to be both fair and safe has proven to be difficult.

“I don’t see how we can hold rallies, hand out pamphlets, shake hands. … It’s a challenge or even impossible,” an aide to Cédric Villani, a candidate vying to be the mayor of Paris, told HuffPost France.

In early March, even as France moved to shut down schools, restaurants and nonessential businesses, French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that the first round of municipal elections proceed as planned.

“We are following the recommendations of scientists,” Macron said on March 15 as he left his local polling station. “The virus spreads when we spend more than 15 minutes closer than one meter to someone, which is the case at the restaurant, but we can continue shopping for food and stepping out to get some air, and so it was logical to go vote while respecting guidelines.”

Even so, turnout hit a record low, as many voters stayed away from the polls due to coronavirus fears. Just two days later, France began its nationwide lockdown, largely restricting the public from leaving their homes, and the second round of voting in the municipal elections was postponed.

The elections are currently scheduled to take place on June 28.

“Democracy cannot be confined any longer,” a group of 36 mayors from France’s largest cities argued last month, calling for the elections to go ahead.

Thousands of peaceful demonstrators holding banners gather in front of the White House on June 2, 2020 to protest the de

Thousands of peaceful demonstrators holding banners gather in front of the White House on June 2, 2020 to protest the death of George Floyd.

Even as France has begun to ease its lockdown restrictions, however, candidates have had to find creative ways to connect with voters, given that traditional campaign tactics like kissing babies and holding rallies don’t square with the scientific guidance against close contact or large gatherings.

“It forces us to think outside the box for communication tools, to imagine a new way of addressing citizens,” Sébastien Barles, a candidate in Marseille, told HuffPost France. He said that local candidates were focusing on creating video messages to educate voters about their platforms, and on targeted mailings.

Still, there’s little substitute for traditional retail politics, and campaigns have been working to develop ways for candidates to connect with voters directly.

In Marseille, Barles said that campaigns have designed “a sort of confessional with plexiglass, behind which citizens can drink a coffee in complete safety while talking to the candidate — a kind of ‘speed dating’ campaign.”

Campaigns are also using their imagination near Aix-en-Provence, where members of Macron’s party are talking about the possibility of holding gym classes or sports events with voters.

“In small groups, we can definitely imagine doing yoga or muscle relaxation, having political discussions, and why not a cup of coffee,” said Philippe Klein, a local candidate. These kinds of situations offer politicians “a chance to communicate differently,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron casts his ballot during the first round of France's municipal elections on March 15, 2020.

French President Emmanuel Macron casts his ballot during the first round of France’s municipal elections on March 15, 2020.

Both conservative and liberal candidates argue that the coronavirus restrictions threaten the integrity of the electoral process, however.

“This is the day the government invented the concept of an election without the right to campaign first. A vote without democratic debate,” Danielle Simonnet, a left-wing candidate who is running to be mayor of Paris, said last month when the government announced that the second round of municipal elections would go ahead in June.

Right-wing candidate Rachida Dati, who is also running in the Paris mayoral race, argued recently that the coronavirus pandemic will unfairly suppress turnout among conservative voters, who tend to be older.

“We have been deprived of part of our electorate — a sensitive and vulnerable group — from going out to vote,” Dati said.

Didier Maus, a French constitutional scholar, argues that holding elections during the pandemic represents “a regression of democracy.”

“When I look at electoral history, it is the history of confrontation. The confrontation of the candidates with the voters, the confrontation of the programs, the confrontation of the people,” Maus told HuffPost France. “We need an exchange, a dialogue.”

“Why not deconfine democracy at the same time as parks, gardens, pubs?” he said.

Members of Parliament queue outside the House of Commons in Westminster, London, as they wait to vote on the future of procee

Members of Parliament queue outside the House of Commons in Westminster, London, as they wait to vote on the future of proceedings, amid a row over how Commons business can take place safely.

Balancing democratic principles with public health is no simple matter, however. 

In the United Kingdom, the decision to force members of Parliament to return to Westminster to vote in person this week resulted in elected officials standing in a kilometer-long line for a vote that took 40 minutes to complete on Tuesday evening.

One member of Parliament called the situation “batshit.” And it resulted in a health scare when Alok Sharma, the business secretary, appeared to experience coronavirus-like symptoms — though he subsequently tested negative for COVID-19.

In the United States, as well, primary elections in eight states and Washington, D.C., this week resulted in severe delays and confusion at many polling places — offering a preview of the challenges Americans may face during the presidential election in November.

All of the states voting on Tuesday encouraged or expanded mail-in balloting as a safe alternative during the outbreak, and most sharply reduced the number of in-person polling places as officials struggled to recruit workers to run them.

That led to record numbers of mail-in ballots, along with complaints of not receiving requested ballots and questions about where to vote after polling places were consolidated.

“The big story out of Pennsylvania is really voter confusion,” Suzanne Almeida, interim director of government watchdog Common Cause Pennsylvania, told Reuters.

The primaries came amid a partisan brawl over voting by mail, which Democrats support as a safe way to cast a ballot and President Donald Trump condemns as ripe for fraud. Numerous studies have found little evidence of voting fraud tied to mail-in ballots.

A man votes in Washington, DC's, primary election on June 2, 2020. Many voters had to spend hours waiting in line at polling

A man votes in Washington, DC’s, primary election on June 2, 2020. Many voters had to spend hours waiting in line at polling stations.

The primaries this week may serve as a useful test run, allowing officials to address issues ahead of the presidential election.

Still, the expansion of mail-in voting may mean that the results of the November election will not be known on election night, since some states allow ballots to be counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

That could mean that it may take days for all the ballots to be counted — and the candidate who appears to be winning on election night might not be the eventual winner once all the votes are tallied, a situation that could feed into claims of voter fraud.

“I’m concerned that we could have a constitutional crisis if we have the same president saying that the election was somehow tainted because people voted by mail,” Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told The Guardian.

“That could lead to a possible huge crisis in America’s democracy.” 

With reporting from HuffPost France, HuffPost U.K. and Reuters.

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