As of September 7, the Delta variant of COVID-19 now accounts for 4.3 million new cases and 9,300 deaths per day, worldwide. About 1,000 of those daily deaths are in the US. On Democracy Day 2021, we look at the risks the pandemic poses to democratic stability and what can be done about.
According to “Democracy Under Lockdown: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Global Struggle for Freedom,” a 2020 survey by Freedom House, a nonprofit that advocates for democracy worldwide, 64% of respondents agreed that COVID-19 would have a negative impact on democracy over the next three to five years. The report points to clear cases where governments have used COVID-19 as a pretext to shut down opposition, marginalize minority groups and control information.
This dire outlook is further confirmed by a 2020 study by the Varieties of Democracy Institute, which works with social scientists worldwide to measure democracy:
- 48 countries have a high risk of democratic declines during the COVID -19 pandemic, 34 countries are at medium risk.
- 47 countries are not at risk of pandemic backsliding demonstrating that responding to the pandemic is possible without jeopardizing democratic standards.
- Another 25 countries are already closed autocracies, limiting substantial backsliding.
These reports include evaluations of journalistic freedoms, rights to civil protests, access to public information and other factors. Underlying all of this is the right to free and fair elections. Many countries now have experience holding elections during the pandemic and models for how to do it safely, so there is no justifiable pretext for governments to cancel elections.
The Way Forward
Elections held last year in the US, Canada and other countries showed that remote voting options, which eliminate the need to set foot inside a crowded polling place, are not only workable for most municipalities, but also popular with voters.
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In the 2016 and 2018 US elections, roughly 25% of all voters used a mailed ballot, but that number jumped to more than 43% in 2020 according to a report by the US Election Assistance Commission. Even with the massive increase from 2016 to 2020, the rejection rate held relatively steady. In 2016, 1% of mailed ballots that were returned were rejected, compared with 0.8% in 2020. This confirms that despite a lack of familiarity with mail-in voting processes, voters can learn and adapt quickly.
And online voting is seeing growth, too. In Ontario, Canada, the number of municipal elections using online voting grew from 20 in 2006 to 177 in 2018, making it available to an estimated 2.71 million electors that year. (2018 is the last year for which data is available.)
The use of online voting continues to grow in Estonia, which boasts the longest continuously running online system. That country’s 2019 Parliamentary Elections saw a 40-percent increase in the use of its i-vote online system compared to the same election in 2015.
This data shows that there are secure, workable, and attractive alternatives to traditional in-person voting. This is fantastic news for the future of democracy, and much needed, because elections will continue to face a litany of never-before-seen challenges in the near term.
Factors like climate change will force election officials to consider how to keep environmentally displaced individuals in the franchise. The wildfires in the western US and the floods in German are just two recent examples of climate events that can impact voters. War and famine are creating refugees in record numbers. Displaced individuals from democratic countries are owed their continued right to vote.
Democracy Day 2021 is a moment to celebrate the freedoms that citizens in democratic nations enjoy. It is also a moment in which we must look forward and consider how to protect and expand democracy for all.