Sorry, no kissing of babies: How the coronavirus has changed elections

SINGAPORE – From virtual campaigns to elbow bumps and nods, the coronavirus pandemic is proving a headache for election organisers and politicians.

Polls are by definition a mass public gathering and politicians are by profession forced to be all embracing during campaigning, from handshakes and hugs to kissing babies. But in an era of cancelled or severely limited public gatherings and social distancing, politicians and polling station workers are having to find other ways to engage the public to limit the chances of becoming infected – short of delaying elections altogether.

Failure to do so could lead to a big jump in cases as the recent Iranian polls are believed to have caused.

Following are some recent examples of how the coronavirus has affected elections.

UNITED STATES

Scheduled campaign events in Chicago and Miami for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden are being transformed into “virtual events” ahead of next Tuesday’s (March 17) primaries in Arizona, Illinois, Florida and Ohio.

On Thursday (March 12), the campaigns of Mr Biden and his Democratic rival Bernie Sanders instructed staff members to begin working from home.

President Donald Trump appears to be stopping all campaign-related events indefinitely.

Beyond the rallies, the virus has thrown into question nearly every mechanism of modern campaigning. Already, officials in Arizona, Ohio and Illinois are scrambling to move polling places out of nursing homes – with early voting already well underway. Postal voting is being encouraged.

On Thursday, the Democratic National Committee announced it would move Sunday’s presidential debate to Washington from Phoenix to minimise travel.

Across the country, political events are being cancelled, including some state party conventions where the delegates who vote on the nominee are elected.

More broadly, the US election process will only get more challenging the longer the virus continues to disrupt social contact.

Can volunteers go knocking on doors in affected areas? If the campaign moves even more online, can officials protect against a heightened threat of election interference and disinformation?

FRANCE

President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday nationwide local elections scheduled for Sunday will not be postponed.

He said he had consulted experts who were of the opinion that “there is nothing to prevent the French, even the most vulnerable, from going to the ballot box” as long as everyone observes basic infection-prevention rules, including observing a safe personal distance from others.

Municipal officials have announced a string of protection measures, including providing hand sanitisers at polling stations.

“It is important at this time… to assure the continuity of our democratic life and that of our institutions,” said Mr Macron.

French election candidates themselves are defying the coronavirus by greeting voters elbow to elbow, foot to foot or the occasional Indian-style namaste which is just the pressing of one’s palms together. For others, direct contact is too valuable to give up.

But the virus has presented candidates with a dilemma: how to rally support when there are restrictions on public gatherings and French people have been told not to shake hands or greet with a kiss?

Ms Agnes Buzyn, President Emmanuel Macron’s candidate for Paris City Hall, offers an elbow. “It’s a different contact, but we still need to have friendly exchanges, so you use your elbow, say hello like in Asia or give a kick. It creates a bond during a campaign that frankly resembles nothing like in the past,” Ms Buzyn told Reuters.

BRITAIN

The England and Wales polling watchdog has recommended delaying May’s local elections until the autumn. The Electoral Commission said there were “growing risks to the delivery of the polls”, with the number of infections in the outbreak rising, the BBC reported.

Mayoral and local elections are due to take place on 7 May in England.

Constitution Minister Chloe Smith said the government was still “working to facilitate” them. She added: “We continue to work closely with those delivering the elections, while being guided by the evidence and latest advice from medical experts.”

Voting is also due to take place on 7 May in England and Wales for police and crime commissioners.

IRAN

The virus started in the holy city of Qom, where thousands of Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims from Iran and around the Middle East travel to and from each day. Two days after the first deaths and cases of the virus were reported in Qom, Iran held parliamentary elections on Feb 21, which are widely believed to have been the cause of the virus spreading to other provinces.

Authorities failed to take protective measures at this early stage. But the problem became impossible to ignore after nearly three dozen Iranian government officials and members of Parliament were infected, and a senior adviser to the supreme leader died.

POLAND

Polish Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Michal Dworczyk said on Thursday it is too early to postpone presidential elections set for May. Earlier this week, Polish President Andrzej Duda said he will not organise large campaign meetings in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.

ISRAEL

Israelis went to the polls on March 2. Special plastic-tented polling stations were set up for voters in quarantine. Lines there were reported to be long, and officials initially baulked at counting the ballots cast by those under quarantine.

BOLIVIA

Candidates campaigning for forthcoming presidential elections suspended rallies on Wednesday (March 11).

Movement to Socialism’s presidential candidate Luis Arce Catacora and his challenger, Carlos Mesa, who leads the Citizen Community alliance, said they would suspend mass gatherings ahead of the May election.

Sources: NYTIMES, REUTERS, AFP AND BBC

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