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Working paper
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Electoral management under COVID-19 817.52 KB

This paper finds that election administrators seeking to plan their activities against the background of COVID-19 will be confronted with uncertainty on a grand scale, making their task more akin to preparing for elections in insecure places such as Iraq or Afghanistan than getting ready for a normal election in Australia. They may be forced to develop parallel plans for several different scenarios, leaving the choice of which to pursue until the last possible moment.

Fortunately, Australia is as well-placed as any democracy to meet these challenges: electoral commissions are non-partisan and neutral, professional, well-resourced and, most importantly, enjoy the trust of the community. Many aspects of the electoral process (including in particular enrolment) have been largely automated in recent years, reducing the need for individual interactions. There is far more evidence of a bipartisan approach to electoral reform than is seen in, say, the USA; and options for electoral reform are largely unconstrained by constitutional requirements. At the same time, public faith in electoral processes, and the legitimacy of the legislatures and governments they produce, flows among other things from familiarity with how elections are run; and if major procedural changes need to be made (especially at the last minute), that source of trust will be absent. It is therefore essential that any new procedures clearly embody the key values of free and fair elections, especially universal access and a secret ballot.

In the face of a pandemic, the simplest response is to postpone elections, but the extent to which that is possible varies considerably across the country. Timing of Senate elections, and general elections for the House of Representatives, is constitutionally constrained, but by-elections for the House of Representatives can be deferred indefinitely. Postponement of elections is possible (though in some cases procedurally complex) in the states and territories.

From the point of view of operational policy, measures to deal with the pandemic in the electoral context are likely to involve mechanisms which have already become familiar: social distancing, speeding up processes, and physical hygiene and disinfection.

Publication Details
Access Rights Type:
Working Paper 71