Four of our NORDEM experts on their way to Ukraine. They served as long-term election observers for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in the local elections held in October 2020. (Photo: Private)

Pandemic prompts new initiatives for election observation

Tonje Hisdal Johannessen|Published 11. Mar 2021
Covid-19 has affected democratic processes all over the world, making it more important than ever to ensure that elections are up to international standards. NORCAP’s experienced election observers usually travel around the world to observe elections, but many experts have had to work remotely or adjust their methodology to the new reality.

‘’The pandemic brought with it several challenges. We were advised to limit our observations at the polling stations, conduct as short meetings as possible, and to interrupt meetings where requirements weren’t met, for example when interlocutors were not wearing facemasks or keeping the recommended distance. This was the main challenge while working in the field during the pandemic. Our priority was to make everyone in the team feel safe in the field, to be able to do our job properly’’, Kine Rusten says, who was deployed to Ukraine during the local elections in October 2020.

Three election observers in masks outside the polling station in Ukraine on election day.
NORDEM observer Kine Rusten (middle) outside a polling station on election day in Kropyvnytskyi city, Ukraine, with colleagues Olga Karpenko (left) and Jakub Herold (rifgt). Kine was part of a team of NORDEM observers deployed to OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Ukraine. (Photo: Private)

NORCAP’s Democracy, Human Rights and Peacebuilding Programme, NORDEM, supports international organisations and national stakeholders with promoting and protecting democracy, credible elections, human rights and the rule of law and peace. The pandemic restrictions raised the need for developing alternative ways of observing and assessing elections.

Many countries that were expected to hold elections in 2020 and 2021, are now faced with the decision to hold or postpone elections. So far, at least 76 countries have decided to postpone national and sub-national elections, which might be harmful for the democratic development and the respect for political and civil human rights.

According to International IDEA, it could result in legal infringements and democratic backsliding. However, if elections are held, critics argue that this may tilt the playing field in favour of the incumbents, impact on voter turnout figures, and – when the regular procedures are followed – represents a health risk to electoral officials, voters and observers.

‘‘We have observed how some governments use Covid-19 restrictions to postpone elections and reprime the freedom of assembly for the opposition. The most important part of any election is the vote and the voter. The fact that voters are not allowed to vote due to the fear of spreading the virus, is a major challenge as it poses a threat to democratic rights. In some cases, we have seen that voters are sent home from the polling stations without having the possibility to vote because a faulty thermometer shows they have fever’’, NORDEM expert Gent Ramadani says.

NORDEM election observers with colleague during observation of Moldova election.
NORDEM expert Gent Ramadani (left), observing tabulation at District Electoral Commission of Balti, Moldova 2020. (Photo: Private)

Alternative ways of observing elections

During short-term missions, our experts assess how elections are conducted against national legislation and international standards for democratic elections and provides recommendations to national governments on how to improve their electoral system. For long-term mission, our experts provide and help foster good governance, democratic institutions, peacebuilding and rule of law, with institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU).

In 2020, NORCAP had planned to send both short-term and long-term observers, but with the pandemic on the rise, OSCE limited its observer missions to long-term observers only. In 2019, NORCAP had a record year of 96 observers, mainly due to two important elections in Ukraine. A normal year sees about 60-80 observers, but in 2020, due to Covid-19 and related restrictions, we deployed 20 observers.

‘’There are several issues that need to be considered when observing election processes within the context of the pandemic. The situation is unfolding as we go, and we recognise the careful balance needed between taking steps to protect the health and safety of observers and safeguarding democratic rights and freedoms through the conduct of genuine election observation’’, NORDEM Project Manager, Anne Sofie Molandsveen says.

‘’The implications of Covid-19 are still uncertain, and as vaccination could potentially take time, we are planning for both temporary and long-term measures. We are in close dialogue with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the EU and The Carter Center and participate in the joint effort to develop alternative ways of observing and assessing elections. A potential solution is to deploy smaller teams of observers and election experts to countries in advance of an election, to allow for the described time of quarantine. Direct support to national or citizen observers is another way of securing electoral scrutiny. NORCAP is also considering this option, bearing in mind the political context in which the citizen observers operate’’ Molandsveen concludes. 

‘’The pandemic makes it difficult to conduct a systematic election observation. During my mission to Ukraine, we did not receive any short-term observers, so our observation capacity on election day was greatly reduced. The fact that our physical presence was reduced, both in the pre-election period and during election day, made it difficult to assess whether the elections complied with international standards’’, NORDEM expert Kine Rusten explains.

NORDEM project manager Anne Sofie Molandsveen (right) during field visit (prior to the outbreak of Covid-19).

Increased electoral support

With pandemic restrictions still in place, support to national authorities on how to conduct credible and transparent elections during a pandemic is important.

Countries that choose to uphold their elections may have to adopt new voting technology, like postal voting, or make use of electronic or internet voting. Although many of these technologies represent cost efficiency and a lower health risk, they may have possible negative implications for civil and political rights, if not used correctly.

‘’NORCAP is exploring possibilities for increased electoral support, with election support to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as an example. Increasing the capacity of Election Management Bodies and other actors responsible for credibility and inclusiveness of electoral process is part of UNDP’s wider efforts to support sustainable and inclusive democratic societies. This falls in line with current NORCAP efforts to build national capacity’’, Molandsveen says.

Capturing lessons learned

During the pandemic, NORCAP brought together observers and experts from across the globe to share experiences, provide support and discuss common challenges linked to the pandemic.

‘’We have conducted meetings and webinars with our experts to exchange experiences and good practices related to the observation of elections in these exceptional circumstances. The experts have appreciated the sharing of experiences, and we will continue to facilitate such opportunities’’, Molandsveen says.