Elections during Pandemic Times: Learning from Voter Registration, Preparing for Election Day
As the voting day for the sixth national and regional elections of Ethiopia approaches, it brings with it several threats making it unique from previous elections held in the country. Rapidly changing political circumstances, recurrent security concerns, immense reforms in the rules surrounding and the body organizing the election and other significant events transpiring in the country have made the upcoming elections truly unique. One of the notable circumstances making the election peculiar in nature is the novel coronavirus pandemic. Unlike previous elections, the upcoming election is held under a public health emergency which has successfully affected daily political, economic and socio-cultural affairs globally for over a year now.
The coronavirus pandemic is a respiratory disease which is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus which was first confirmed by the WHO as an unknown form of pneumonia in the Chinese city of Wuhan on 31 December 2021. While there are several forms of the coronavirus, only selected forms of the virus can be deadly to human beings, according to the John Hopkins University. The virus causing the current pandemic is among these forms of the pandemic which have been deadly. To date, there have been over 170 million confirmed cases of the virus, also killing over 3.5 million people across the globe. Prevention mechanisms encouraged by the WHO include physical distancing, mask-wearing, application of hand sanitizers periodically, handwashing and quarantining whenever a person experiences symptoms associated with the pandemic. The first case of the coronavirus pandemic was confirmed in Ethiopia on 14 March 2020. Since then, over 270,000 cases and over 4,000 deaths have been reported by the Ministry of Health making Ethiopia the fourth most affected nation in Africa.
However, the impact of the pandemic is not limited to its immense public health implications. Instead, the pandemic has brought with it lasting and visible political, socio-economic and cultural impacts on all communities across the globe. One of the areas the virus has visibly impacted is election. Between February 2020 and May 2021, 78 elections were postponed globally due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic according to IDEA, an organization dedicated to supporting democracy and good governance throughout the globe. According to the same organization the pandemic has significantly affected voter turnout in places where elections were held despite the pandemic. Along with Ethiopia, other countries who have postponed some form of elections due to the pandemic in Africa include Nigeria, Somalia, South Africa, Niger, Libya and Kenya.
In Ethiopia, the pre-pandemic date for the much awaited sixth national and regional elections was August 2020. However, upon news that the pandemic had been confirmed in Ethiopia the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia announced that it would not be able to conduct elections in the aforementioned date, citing the novel coronavirus pandemic as the reason behind its inability. Obviously, the decision to postpone the elections in June 2020 is one of the most visible impacts of the pandemic on the political landscape of the country.
Since then, the NEBE has announced a new timeline for the sixth national and regional elections of the country. In September 2020, the house of peoples’ representatives called on the electoral board to commence preparation for elections based on recommendations from the Ministry of Health of the country. Between March and May, the board carried out registration of voters in most parts of the country. Recently, the board has announced that the elections will be held on 21 June 2021 in most parts of the country excluding those areas which the NEBE has excluded due to security concerns, absence or irregularity of voter registration or pending constitutional enquiries.
Parallel to NEBE’s registration exercise, the Coalition of Ethiopian Civil Organizations for Election implemented a voter registration observation program in eight regional states and two city administrations. Recognizing that level of attention the pandemic requires in the execution of the upcoming elections, CECOE made sure observers deployed under its supervision evaluated the readiness of the NEBE, its officials and citizens to implement precautionary measures in the context of the upcoming elections.
CECOE’s preliminary findings indicate that precautionary measures were either not applied or only applied partially in a concerning amount of registration locations. For instance, in a lot of polling stations visited by the coalition’s electoral officials either did not wear protective facemasks or wore masks partially during the voter registration process.
These are concerning numbers. Therefore, the coalition believes that it is necessary for relevant stakeholders including the NEBE, concerned government offices, and civil society to hold conversations about the pandemic in the context of the upcoming elections. On 08/06/2021, CECOE seeks to kick-start this conversation at the Golden Tulip Hotel with a half day seminar titled “Elections during COVID-19: Learning from Voter Registration, Preparing for Election Day” in partnership with European Center for Electoral Support (ECES).
The Coalition of Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations for Election (CECOE) is a network of over 170 local civil society organizations to guarantee citizen participation as well as ensure the upcoming elections are free and fair. Recognizing the need for the coordination of CSOs engagement, mindful of the strategic importance of forming a network for the preparation of the upcoming election in 2020 and the long term CSOs engagement in electoral processes in a systematic manner, series of CSOs Recognizing the need for the coordination of CSOs engagement, mindful of the strategic importance of forming a network for the preparation of the upcoming election in 2020 and the long term CSOs engagement in electoral processes in a systematic manner, series of CSOs meetings were held before members agreed to form the organization on 20 May 2019.
The Coalition formally received its certificate from F.D.R.E Agency for Civil Society Organizations on 4 February 2020. CECOE is currently engaged in several tasks including but not limited to Voter Education, Voter Registration and Election Observation, and Post-Election engagement to guarantee the participation of civil society in the electoral process and guarantee the upcoming elections are free, fair and democratic. In November 2019, CECOE was invited by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia to organize local CSOs to observe the Sidama Referendum. The coalition mobilized local CSOs swiftly to make sure that civil society used this unprecedented opportunity to observe a voting process in Ethiopia that was limited prior to the referendum.