ELECTIONS IN TIME OF PANDEMIC
By Lydnsey Martin and Pan Mohamad Faiz
(This article was published in The Jakarta Post on September 10, 2020, page 6)
Later this year, both Indonesia and the United States will hold elections. In the US, voters will go to the polls on Nov. 3 to elect the president, 35 senators, all 435 members of the House of Representatives, as well as state and local government officials. On Dec. 9, around 106 million Indonesians across the country’s 270 regions will vote in regional elections.
However, with more than 170,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Indonesia and more than 4.5 million confirmed cases in the US, the pandemic has led to concerns about the health and safety of the electorate and poll organizers.
One of the primary concerns that leaders in the US and Indonesia must address is the risk of low voter turnout due to fears over COVID-19. For many voters, going to a crowded polling station to cast a ballot may pose too great a risk of exposure, thus they may choose to forfeit their right to vote and stay home.
Due to concerns about the voters and poll workers’ health and safety, as well as the risk of low voter turnout, some in both the US and Indonesia have floated the possibility of postponing elections.
Indonesia has already postponed the regional elections from September to December based on Regulation in Lieu of Law No. 2/2020 issued by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. However, postponing the regional election for three months is considered not enough because the trend of COVID-19 cases has been increasing significantly since restrictions were eased to allow the economy to reopen.
Similarly, postponing the US elections is possible but very unlikely. The US President has no authority to delay elections. Rather, a congressional law dating back to 1845 sets the date of general elections, so delaying the elections would require congress to pass new legislation changing the date of the elections.
Furthermore, the US Constitution stipulates that the term of the president and vice president ends on Jan. 20 and that congressional terms end on Jan. 3, at which point the current officeholders must vacate their offices unless they are reelected.
Thus with elections scheduled to take place as planned later this year, it is critical that governments take steps to protect voters’ health and safety. Election officials in both countries have said that there will be strict health protocols at polling places on election day, such as keeping hand sanitizer and limiting the number of people allowed inside the polling station.
The General Elections Commission (KPU) has also issued guidelines for poll workers to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. However, these precautions have not assuaged voters’ anxieties and many remain concerned about the risk of exposure, leading to concerns that turnout could be low.
In the US, one of the most important steps that state government leaders can take to mitigate voters’ concerns about COVID-19 and ensure citizens can exercise their right to vote is to allow all citizens to vote by mail.
In most states, Americans will have the option to vote by mail for the upcoming elections in November. However, there are still a handful of states that will not allow voters to cite fears of COVID-19 as an excuse to vote by mail. Therefore, voters in these states will be forced to choose between voting in person and risking exposure to COVID-19 or staying home and thus forfeiting their right to vote.
Although vote by mail will present its own logistical challenges – for instance, there are concerns that delays with the postal Service will cause some ballots to go uncounted – voters should not have to choose between protecting their health and voting.
Meanwhile, applying vote by mail for regional elections in Indonesia will create serious difficulties concerning the validity and confidentiality of ballots. Indeed, the process of manually voting and counting has still caused many problems and led to election disputes before the Constitutional Court.
In addition, under normal circumstances, candidates hold big rallies to interact with potential voters. During the pandemic, they must be changed into online meetings. More outreach should also be done virtually or using online media to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.
Another critical problem, during the economic crisis, the Finance Ministry has to provide around Rp 5.1 trillion (US$365 million) as additional costs for holding regional elections in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is feared that the additional costs cannot be used optimally to enhance the level of voter participation in the elections.
Unfortunately, there are no signs of abatement of the pandemic both the US and Indonesia. As the show must go on, we can only hope that there will be no decline in the quality of democracy and legitimacy of the elections.
The cost of electoral democracy is indeed expensive. Nevertheless, it will never be comparable to the safety and life of the people, as Cicero said salus populi suprema lex esto (the safety of the people should be the supreme law).
Lyndsey Martin is a researcher at the Center for Constitutional Studies (PUSaKO) of Andalas University and a candidate for a doctoral degree in law (JD), William & Mary Law School, United States.
Pan Mohamad Faiz is a senior researcher at the Constitutional Court.