Thanks to social distancing and the wonders of Zoom technology, Parliament and the Cabinet are back in business in this virtual if not virtuous world. What about the other essential leg which keeps representative democracy upright – the consent of the people given to their leaders in regular free and fair elections?
All over the world authorities are grappling with whether, how and when they can hold scheduled elections and they are reaching conflicting conclusions. Ensuring the health and well-being of the voters may or may not be compatible with the best interests of the candidates.
In the UK, we kicked for touch early on and opted to save the electorate from potential contagion. On 13 March, in one of the few Covid-19 related decisions which has so far stood the test of time, the government agreed to delay the local elections due next month by a year until May 2021. At a stroke of the Coronavirus Act councillors and big city mayors, including Andy Burnham, Andy Street and Sadiq Khan got a free one-year extension to their terms. But those elected next year will only serve a three-year term instead of the usual four.
In Germany, the regional election in Hanover went ahead on 23 February. Angela Merkel’s CDU did worse than ever. The French held the first round of their municipal elections on 15 March as the pandemic flared. The second round was postponed the next day when President Macron imposed Le Confinement.
Across the world, too, elections have been postponed. Sri Lanka’s electoral commission postponed its parliamentary elections beyond the constitutional deadline of 2 June until at least the 20th. China put off the annual meeting in March of the closest thing it has to a parliament, the 1,700 strong National Peoples’ Congress.
Venezuela’s disputed President Maduro has found it convenient to copy Westminster, declaring it “irresponsible” and “not a priority” to hold the National Assembly elections due this year by law. In defiance of his political opponents, and some law courts, Poland’s president Andrzej Duda is pressing ahead with elections on 10 May. A close ally of Jaroslav Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party, he is confident of re-election, not least because protest abstentions are likely.
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In spite of coping with the aftermath of a devastating cyclone, Vanuatu succeeded in electing a new Prime Minister, Bob Loughton, this week, but that was done by a parliamentary vote rather than a plebiscite.
As so often during this pandemic, South Korea has proved to be both the outlier and the model. It held assembly elections on 15 April in which, perhaps unsurprisingly, President Moon Jae-In’s Democratic Party won an overall majority. To get to cast their ballot voters had to wash their hands with sanitiser, wear plastic gloves and face masks and maintain one metre of social distance at all times. Everyone had their temperature taken and those above 37.5C were directed to special booths which were disinfected after each use.
Most other democracies aren’t up to imposing such strict measures or would find them unacceptable. As so often is the case, the United States is proving to be the roughest and most rigorous testing ground for constitutional rights.
Even if he is tempted President Trump won’t be able to exploit the world’s worse Covid-19 outbreak to do a Maduro (or even a Sadiq Khan) and delay a reckoning with the voters this November. The vote on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November every four years is laid out in the Presidential Election Day Act, passed by the US Congress in 1845. It is next to impossible to overturn, since that would require the acquiescence of both Houses of Congress and all 50 states.
The US presidential Election is actually fifty elections in each state, for the electoral college and each state itself jealously guards its independence. Self-evidently, many of these bodies are not Trump backers and would do him no favours even if they had the time. The 20th Amendment of the US Constitution passed in 1933 mandates the Inauguration of a new President on 20 January next year. Overturning that is even harder.
Before and after election day the world should brace for grand legal tussles involving the White House, elected representatives, the states and the courts which could make the famous disputed “hanging chad” election of 2000 look like a Hawkeye line-call in the early stages of Wimbledon.
There was a dry run of the sort of disputes we can expect this month in Wisconsin – a swing state which went Trump in 2016 and where the Democrats are hoping to hold their delayed National Convention in August.
Wisconsin’s Democratic governor proposed delaying state elections because of the outbreak or making it an all postal election. These moves were rejected by the Republican dominated state legislature and by the state supreme court.
It makes sense under the US constitution that if the President alone can’t delay elections nor can a governor. “Mail-in” voting is much more of a party political issue. Broadly Democrats favour it and Republicans are opposed.
Trump calls mail-in voting “horrible” and “corrupt”. He also told Fox News it would mean “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again”. He is now mobilising against any suggestion that this year’s Presidential contest should be done by post and tweeted “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamouring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans. @foxandfriends.”
America’s most senior Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi retorted that the President’s view is “predicated on the idea that the more people who vote, the better it is for the Democrats”. She claimed it was part of a Republican “pattern” of suppressing turnout with such things as strict ID laws, something also loudly supported by the President.
The Republicans were eager for the Wisconsin vote to take place and mainly in person because they thought they would pick up a swing seat on the state supreme court. It didn’t work out that way. Voters turned out on masse on 7 April and crowded together because far fewer polling stations were open due to the virus. As a result, the Democrats claim that nine people were infected with Covid-19. The Democrat Justice Jill Karofsky beat Daniel Kelly overwhelmingly by a margin of 163,000 votes, around 11%.
All of which suggests that this year’s Presidential contest really is up for grabs. We know that Trump and Biden are the candidates but beyond that voters will be much blinder than usual because Coronavirus has ended campaigning as we have known it before.
Polarisation and partisanship will ensure that every aspect of this contest is disputed, not least because this year’s race is like no other. Some Democrats worry that Donald Trump will refuse to step down and try to overturn the result in the courts even if he loses the Election.