Indo-Pacific nations seek to limit pandemic’s effect on elections
From thermal scanners and disposable gloves to expanded voting by mail and election delays, nations across the Indo-Pacific are countering COVID-19 disruptions at the ballot box.
In August 2020, New Zealand announced a four-week postponement of its general election after a coronavirus outbreak led to a lockdown in its most-populous city, Auckland. Voting was rescheduled to October 17.
The move provides “sufficient time for parties to plan around the range of circumstances we could be campaigning under … and for voters to feel assured of a safe, accessible and credible election,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is seeking reelection, said during a news conference.
New Zealand is among at least 70 countries and territories worldwide that have postponed elections or referendums amid the pandemic, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
Between late February 2020 and September 2020, more than 20 nations held elections that had been delayed, the intergovernmental organization reported. In the Indo-Pacific, those countries included Sri Lanka, which held its parliamentary election in early August after a delay of about three months, and the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where April’s parliamentary voting was pushed back a week.
Throughout the region, countries have increased safety measures to proceed with elections. For Singaporeans voting in the city-state’s July 10 general election, polling stations enforced safe-distancing guidelines and provided hand sanitizer and disposable gloves. Residents age 65 or older were assigned voting times to minimize contact with younger citizens.
Almost 96% of Singapore’s 2.6 million registered voters cast ballots, according to the government’s Elections Department.
In Sri Lanka, the Election Commission conducted mock voting in about 20% of the island nation’s constituencies to test health and safety protocols ahead of the twice-delayed parliamentary election August 5, IDEA reported. On Election Day, voters were instructed to wear masks and bring their own pens to fill in ballots; those under COVID-19 quarantine used designated voting booths.
More than 71% of Sri Lanka’s 16.2 million registered voters cast ballots, according to the Election Commission. (Pictured: A voter uses hand sanitizer before entering a polling booth in Colombo during Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election August 5, 2020.)
Meanwhile, the world’s second-most populous nation and largest democracy, India, is preparing for legislative elections in the eastern state of Bihar, expected by November 2020. It will be the first state election held since the pandemic’s outbreak in India, The Indian Express newspaper reported.
The densely populated Bihar has an estimated 120 million residents. Elections officials there in late August issued guidelines reducing capacity inside polling places and requiring the use of thermal scanners to restrict access for symptomatic patients. Masks and gloves will be provided to voters and poll workers.
Electoral agencies in the region “are adapting to the ‘new normal’ of conducting elections” during a public health crisis, Adhy Aman, IDEA’s senior program manager for Asia and the Pacific, wrote in an August 5, 2020, article for the online magazine The Diplomat.
“Democracies need to stay vigilant in ensuring that universal franchise, transparency, and legitimacy are not hampered,” Aman wrote.
Such efforts to protect the citizenry’s right to elect its representatives are in stark contrast to the actions of Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leaders.
The territory’s administration imposed a yearlong cancellation of legislative elections scheduled for September 6, 2020. The sudden and arbitrary postponement was widely seen as an administration ploy to disenfranchise Hong Kong’s people and avoid a humiliating defeat to pro-democracy candidates — part of the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing suppression of civil liberties.