Perilous Choice: Georgia’s COVID Elections

Laura Thornton is director and senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Previously, she was director of global programs at International IDEA, a Stockholm-based intergovernmental think-tank with the mission to advance democracy. She has also led the National Democratic Institute in Georgia.

Georgia’s local elections scheduled for October represent more than choosing important mayoral and sakrebulo (local council) positions. The political stakes are higher, than what the local elections usually entail. Based on the EU-negotiated agreement between the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party and the political opposition following the political crisis in the Spring, GD must clear 43 percent of the vote in order to avoid early national parliamentary elections. Though GD has since reneged on this agreement, it has also maintained that it will “win far more than 43 percent” (according to GD Party Leader Irakli Kobakhidze) presenting a lack of clarity about whether early elections would indeed be honored should GD fail to gain the needed share of the vote.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, they are high stakes for election integrity. Georgia has the unfortunate distinction of having one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world. Although the country is making progress on vaccinations, and holding regular elections is an important feature of democracies, it can also be democratic to postpone in-person elections during a dangerous health crisis. As some opposition, civic groups, and other leaders, such as the Ombudsperson, call for postponement of the country’s upcoming elections, Georgia should consider looking at other countries that have confronted similar choices.

Since early 2020, more than half of scheduled elections across the world have been at least initially postponed, while others were held on schedule. The first question facing countries is whether to hold elections in the first place and, if the answer is “yes,” how to do so. In some cases, there are legal or constitutional constraints from the start. The U.S., for example, does not have the flexibility to move its general election (unlike the primaries, which are governed by state law and take place on different dates across the country). And in France, though there was the desire to postpone the first round of municipal elections held on March 15, 2020, it was not legally possible. France’s parliament had to hustle and pass a state-of-emergency law to postpone the second round of municipal elections from March 22 to June 28.

Once legal issues have been addressed, the decisions to hold or postpone elections often face political challenges, particularly when governments fail to secure political consensus and/or make this decision based on perceived political benefit. Serbia went ahead with scheduled elections without buy-in from the main opposition forces, which boycotted the process. This resulted in the ruling party securing more than 80 percent of the vote, which cast significant doubts about legitimacy. Burundi ignored widespread calls for election postponement, did not allow international observers, and had restrictions in place that made opposition campaigning difficult. The incumbent party secured a landslide, plunging the country into violent protests and instability. The Croatian government decided to hold elections ahead of schedule, allegedly taking advantage of the ruling party’s perceived popularity at the time, a decision met with protest. Decisions to postpone elections have also been problematic. In Sri Lanka, the president dissolved parliament early and called for elections in April, which he then postponed twice. They were finally held in August, allowing him to govern without parliamentary scrutiny for months.

The main lesson learned is that first attaining political consensus around this decision builds trust in the process and legitimacy of results. Governments that were inclusive and transparent in this decision-making process and made the choice in coordination with opposition political actors, health authorities, and election management bodies (such as South Korea, New Zealand, and France), were able to proceed more effectively.

Once the decision has been made to go forward with elections, the question becomes how. In a high-risk health environment, like that faced by Georgia, holding elections on one day and in-person is simply dangerous because of the high risk for COVID-19 spread. Providing voters with a variety of options for casting their ballots that minimize direct contact and reduce crowd sizes at voting locations — such as early, mail-in, and/or mobile voting — is essential. For example, South Korea quickly extended early voting and home voting for vulnerable populations. The Czech Republic provided drive-through voting, while Switzerland used mobile ballot boxes to take to the elderly or those quarantined. Numerous U.S. states expanded early and mail-in voting, and a few localities even offered drive-through voting, to help offset the health risks emanating from COVID-19.  Many countries that have held elections during the pandemic already had these additional voting mechanisms in place and just needed to scale up such processes.

Other countries, such as Poland, faced sudden pressure to introduce untested measures under very tight timeframes. These pressures exposed gaps and weaknesses in administrative capacity, legal frameworks, election funding, and infrastructure. Special voting arrangements, such as early or mail-in voting, for example, were often only legally feasible in places where some form of such arrangements previously existed and could be expanded.

There are also enormous infrastructure and resource requirements to ensure safety during voting. Countries must not make people choose between their franchise and their health. Rapid interagency cooperation and political consensus-building in many countries led to pragmatic temporary solutions. Such quick interagency coordination, as well as early political consensus about how to proceed with elections, allowed South Korea to quickly adopt needed health measures. Polling stations had regular disinfection, provision of gloves and hand sanitizer, social distancing requirements, temperature checks, and installation of plexiglass. The election management body also developed a clear communications strategy to provide information to voters on a regular basis.

Elections represent a Herculean effort in the best of times. Given the needed COVID-related prerequisites, in many countries, elections created controversy and confusion, undermining public trust. In Poland, for example, the announcement of an all mail-in vote took place without consultation or due process, creating anger and distrust. In the United States, many states made changes to their elections processes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, as a result, many of them were tied up in litigation close to election day and this legal uncertainty put an additional burden on election administrators and voters, as well as made mail-in voting a leading target of false election fraud narratives.  In some countries, voters, candidates, and election officials have fallen ill with ensuing accusations against authorities for not doing enough. While conversely, too many strict health measures served to disenfranchise people with COVID-19, and in quarantine, such as in Croatia and Chile.

The numerous lessons learned from the COVID elections make clear that Georgia, unfortunately, lacks many of the needed ingredients to hold safe, credible elections. Special voting arrangements have played an important role in allowing voters to cast their vote safely and securely and in maintaining voter turnout, but they almost only succeed when such mechanisms were already in place and just needed to be scaled up. Georgia lacks such provisions as early and mail-in voting, and it is not advisable to implement new arrangements without opportunities to research, test, build consensus, and communicate clearly to the public. Stable, trusted, and well-resourced electoral institutions have fared best during COVID. Unfortunately, trust in Georgia’s election commission has deteriorated over the past several years and independent observer organizations have raised concerns about its impartiality in key decisions. Safe polling station procedures and health precautions, such as those employed in South Korea, are essential. It would be difficult for Georgia to deliver such significant investments and resources to poorly equipped school buildings where most voting takes place. Cross agency coordination, a clear communications strategy, inclusive and transparent decision-making processes, and other practices to ensure smooth elections will also be challenging for Georgia, already strained, and distracted by a public health emergency.

Most importantly though, the key ingredient to holding a smooth, credible election at any time, but particularly during COVID, is trust. Georgia is entering this process already suffering from deep polarization, with negligible – if any – goodwill between GD and the political opposition. Elections in Georgia, sadly, already lack the buy-in of the main opposition contenders and have been riddled with accusations of abuse of state resources, intimidation, and fraud. There is no firm agreement on whether to hold elections as planned in the first place, and parties would likely struggle to come to a consensus on how to do so even if they agreed. The introduction of mail-in voting, for example, would no doubt be immediately met with suspicions of potential fraud.

At a moment of a severe health emergency, the country should not take chances. Lives are at stake. Before plunging ahead with the decision to hold local elections on schedule, the government would be well advised to convene the main competing parties, election commission, civil society, and election observation organizations, and other key stakeholders to try to build consensus on the best way forward.