Democracy on Hold

Democracy on Hold

We’ve long heard about a decline in democracy. Canceled elections put this state of affairs into stark perspective.

A protestor holding a sign that reads "these are not elections" in Sopot, Poland (Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This essay is part of a special section on the pandemic in the Summer 2020 issue.

At the beginning of the year, I put together a project called The Ballot to try to track every election in 2020. I wanted to have writers comment on elections in their countries as Americans glued themselves to the horse racing leading up to ours. We didn’t realize how many of those elections would end up delayed or canceled.

In mid-March our journalists started writing in to say that elections were being put off, even in places where there were few cases of coronavirus. This first happened in North Macedonia—a snap parliamentary election that would have centered on possible EU membership and the country’s recent name change. Then in Ethiopia, where an election would have tested Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s promise of reform.

About sixty countries now have delayed elections because of COVID-19, according to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. These delays prolong authoritarian regimes in countries like Bolivia, where interim president Jeanine Áñez has used the pandemic to extend her power and clamp down on protesters. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party tried to hold a possibly illegal vote-by-mail election and has now delayed the ballot. For years, pundits have talked about a decline in democracy, but now in many countries people literally can’t vote.

Voters around the world are being deprived in an unprecedented way of the chance to express themselves. In many places the deferred elections are local ones, like in England, where municipal elections have been delayed for a year. Even in those cases, however, voters cannot use down-ballot races to express their dissatisfaction with the political party running the country—say, for example, over a deadly policy of “herd immunity.” And the disruption in countries like Ethiopia and Poland is taking place on a national level.

Some elections may be rescheduled later in the summer. But even then no one knows: how do you vote safely in a pandemic? These deferrals come at a time of aching unemployment, staggering job loss, and rapidly increasing poverty. Even in instances where elections may not be as consequential, the implication is that people are powerless not only against the virus but against any response to it.

The trend in deferred elections has implications for the United States: White House officials have been making noise about delaying the 2020 elections. This is constitutionally impossible. The greater threat may be simply the incompetence of our systems. Just as it rescheduled its Democratic primary, the New York Board of Elections warned of a “national envelope shortage” that could make vote-by-mail difficult.

We have long, well-documented problems with voter suppression in our country—problems that will be exacerbated by a pandemic. And in a year of shocks and surprises, that is something we had time to prepare for.

Madeleine Schwartz is still in New York.