African nations navigate election safety during COVID-19

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A supporter of the opposition National Democratic Congress takes part in a community health walk ahead of the elections in Accra, Ghana. Photo by: Francis Kokoroko / Reuters

NAIROBI/IBADAN/GABORONE — The massive humanitarian disaster unfolding in Ethiopia was in some ways triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and elections.

After the national government delayed its August general elections citing health concerns, the ruling party in the country’s most northern region of Tigray rejected this move as unconstitutional and went ahead and held its own elections in September. This eventually resulted in the launch of a military campaign in Tigray in early November. Worst-case scenarios estimate that 1.98 million have been impacted by the violence inside Ethiopia and about 46,000 refugees have crossed the border into neighboring Sudan.

Part of our series
COVID-19 and the Polls

As the pandemic rages on, elections continue across the world. In this series, we explore how COVID-19 has affected people’s choices at the ballot, how health features on political agendas, and the wider repercussions of voter choices during the pandemic.

The stakes for governments are high this year when deciding whether to hold elections during the pandemic — weighing the safety of citizens and the potential political risks. However, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, analysts say that most African countries have been able to navigate their way through the elections.

Olufunto Akinduro, senior program officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, explained that most elections in Africa postpone due to the pandemic were rescheduled to the second half of the year, and that those countries that have not yet set dates for their elections — like Ethiopia — were experiencing some instability prior to the pandemic.

“In less stable democracies the impact of COVID-19 on the electoral processes is harsher; in the more stable ones, the impact has been different. It exacerbated the existing challenges, so for countries that were already in some sort of instability and uncertainty, the COVID-19 pandemic was just one added layer. For countries that were relatively stable, they just had to put in place procedures and guidelines and they were able to do their elections,” she said.

“In the U.S. you had drive-through voting stations. That is also something to consider in Africa.”

— Olufunto Akinduro, senior program officer, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

Safety protocols

Akinduro added that governments have taken different approaches to address the issue of conducting elections. Some countries provided protective equipment to electoral staff and polling stations, while others have passed clear guidelines on COVID-19 and elections and given those to different stakeholders, including political parties and citizens.

The World Health Organization issued guidelines for conducting elections during the pandemic. In part, it recommends that countries should limit crowds, encourage physical distancing, and limit the maximum number of people voting per day — which may result in extending the duration of elections or adding more polling stations.

In Ghana, the country’s electoral commission put in place procedures to protect its poll workers and voters during its election slated for Dec. 7, however, there were challenges on the campaign trail.

During a recent webinar Bossman Asare, deputy chair of Ghana's electoral commission, explained that of the six officials assigned to each polling station, one is a “COVID-19 ambassador” tasked with ensuring people in line are at least three feet apart, wash their hands, and wear a mask. People giving out ballots wear gloves and ensure that equipment will be regularly wiped off.

The commission also reduced the number of voters assigned to each polling station from 850 to 749, but the majority of poll stations have registered numbers much lower than that, Asare said.

In June, the country began a mass voter registration drive to replace the old register. “The voter registration process was a really big test to see how election processes like that on a large scale can work in the COVID-19 context. I think that what we found was that the electoral commission did an admirable job in being able to conduct that exercise,” said Courtney Hess, program manager for Central and West Africa at the National Democratic Institute.

However, this success has been dampened by crowded political rallies and parades, where many people don’t wear masks.

“I suspect that some of the increase in cases could actually be traced to political activities,” said Raji Rafiq, senior associate in the Africa program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Asare added that safety protocols for political rallies are not part of the electoral commission’s mandate but are in the hands of political parties.

Special voting arrangements

A report by the International IDEA noted that although special voting arrangements that allow citizens to cast their votes remotely could mitigate health or security hazards presented by voting in person, the financial costs may be prohibitive and implementation timeframes may be insufficient for adequate preparation.

Akinduro added that African countries that went to the polls did not introduce any new alternative voting mechanisms in response to COVID-19. Countries with such mechanisms already in place simply maintained them.

She added that proxy voting, staggered voting, and mobile voting are mechanisms that do not require a huge technological investment and have the potential to work in the African context.

“In the U.S. you had drive-through voting stations. That is also something to consider in Africa so it doesn't necessarily have to be about adoption of huge technologies,” Akinduro said.

Egypt practices staggered voting. This year the country went to the polls to vote in the senate and parliamentary elections, which were each held in stages. Senate elections were held in August, while parliamentary elections were held in two stages in October and November.

“You could have other countries do that where we all don't run to the ballot [on] the same day and stretch our limited resources,” Akinduro added.

“Did they sign an MoU with COVID-19 ...?”

— Dr. Victoria Feyikemi, public health expert

Political challenges

In addition to the challenges of financial costs and implementation timeframes International IDEA also noted political distrust may also undermine confidence in government's decisions around how to manage elections during the pandemic.

This year, the Nigerian electoral body postponed some of its by-elections; this move was met with criticism.

The Independent National Electoral Commission decided to move forward with two local elections, but postponed 15 — which are now set for Dec. 5. In September and October, elections were held in Ondo State and Edo State. This pick-and-choose election strategy raised criticism over the independence of the electoral body

“They claimed they suspended the elections because of COVID-19 but still went ahead to conduct elections in Edo and Ogun states. Did they sign an MoU with COVID-19 in which the virus promised not to infect anyone during the election?” public health expert Dr. Victoria Feyikemi told Devex.

INEC said the two elections held during the pandemic allowed it to pilot and perfect measures to protect people at the polls including social distancing, wearing face masks, and hand-washing.

Akinduro said that though there is a need for testing prior to implementation, new voting mechanisms are bound to fail where there is a trust deficit and that the key to successfully introducing them lies in balancing, technology, politics, and public trust.

About the authors

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a global health reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.
  • Paul Adepoju

    Paul Adepoju is a Nigeria-based Devex Contributing Reporter, academic, and author. He covers health and tech in Africa for leading local and international media outlets including CNN, Quartz, and The Guardian. He's also the founder of healthnews.africa. He is completing a doctorate in cell biology and genetics and holds several reporting awards in health and tech.
  • Rumbi Chakamba

    Rumbi Chakamba is an Associate Editor at Devex based in Botswana, who has worked with regional and international publications including News Deeply, The Zambezian, Outriders Network, and Global Sisters Report. She holds a bachelor's degree in international relations from the University of South Africa.

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