The Virus and the Votes: How is COVID-19 changing voter turnout in LAC?

In the last four decades, countries in the Latin America and the Caribbean region have made important advances in consolidating democratic institutions. Electoral democracy, an essential, though not unique, pillar of a democratic state, was taken for granted throughout the region. The arrival of COVID-19 has posed yet a new test to the strength of these democratic pillars. Four fundamental instruments of democratic citizen engagement are precisely elections, along with free and effective political organization, peaceful social mobilization, and open, high quality, public deliberation. All of them have been affected in the context of a pandemic where in-person interactions pose a public health risk. This #GraphForThought focuses on the first of these pillars, elections, and explores how voter turnout has changed during COVID-19 in the region—and reflects on what we can learn from this past year’s experience to ensure that upcoming elections in 2021 (and beyond) remain free and fair under the added pressures of the pandemic.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA)’s overview of COVID-19’s impact on elections, at least 18 countries in LAC held elections (national or subnational) during COVID-19—including presidential elections in Bolivia, Dominican Republic and, most recently, Ecuador. In some cases, these elections had to be postponed (at least once) and special safety measures had to be introduced. While each country adopted its own approach to holding safe elections during COVID-19, typical measures included mask wearing, social distancing, temperature checks, sanitizing, and single use of voting pencils. Some countries also increased the number of polling stations, extended voting hours, offered mobile polling stations, or made accommodations for advance voting or priority voting for certain at-risk groups.

However, in some countries health measures such as quarantine requirements for those who had tested positive for the virus or those who had recently traveled resulted in the disenfranchisement of quarantined voters in instances where special voting arrangements were not put in place. Similarly, in some countries health measures such as bans on public transportation made access to polling stations increasingly difficult for people living in more remote areas. While COVID-19 may have presented new barriers to voting (i.e. mobility, safety, etc.) it may have also heightened people’s sense of urgency in voting (as citizens look to leaders to solve pandemic-related crises). Moreover, in many countries within the LAC region, this is taking shape against a pre-existing backdrop of growing political polarization.

Drawing on IDEA’s voter turnout database (and Ecuador’s National Electoral Council for results from its February 7th first round presidential election) we can see how this new context has affected people’s voting behavior in the region thus far.

The figure below shows trends in voter turnout (the total number of votes cast, valid or invalid, as a share of the number of names on the voters' register) for 14 parliamentary or presidential elections that took place in the region during COVID-19. For each country, the grey bars show historical voter turnout rates (for elections taking place between 1990-2019), with the average rate depicted by the dotted line. The colored bar shows the voter turnout rate in 2020/21 (in blue if voter turnout increased compared to the historical average, and in pink if it decreased). The * symbol indicates that voting is compulsory.

It is important to look at voter turnout in most recent election in comparison to not only historical averages (which can help to establish a useful baseline) but also in comparison to the previous election (given that in some contexts, more recent trends might diverge from older trends). If we compare COVID-19 elections to historical averages, we see that voter turnout slightly increased in 7 elections (of which 2 were an increase of <1%) and decreased in 7 elections in the region. However, if we compare COVID-19 elections to only the previous election, we see that voter turnout increased in 3 elections (of which 2 were an increase of <1%) and decreased in 11 elections.

Moreover, the size of the decreases in voter turnout tended to be much larger than the increases. In comparison to historical averages, the size of voter turnout increases ranged from <1 to 7 percentage points, and the size of the decreases ranged from 7 to 21 percentage points. The largest increase was in Bolivia’s elections (held in October 2020) and the largest decrease was in Jamaica’s parliamentary elections (held in September 2020). In comparison to the previous election, the size of voter turnout increases ranged from <1 to 9 percentage points, and the size of the decreases ranged from <1 percent to 14 percentage points. The largest increase was in Belize’s parliamentary elections (held in November 2020) and the largest decreases were in St Kitts and Nevis’s parliamentary elections (held in June 2020) and the Dominican Republic’s presidential election (held in July 2020).

While this data can help to shed light on what is happening at the national level in countries across the region, to truly understand the effects of COVID-19 on elections, it is essential to also consider how voting behavior has changed beyond the aggregate numbers. Even if overall voter turnout increased/decreased in a country, it could be the case that certain groups saw systematically lower/higher turnout rates within this context—though more disaggregated data is necessary to look into these patterns.

While we cannot, of course, identify what is driving changes in voter turnout in these contexts (i.e. COVID-19 related issues, broader shifts in voter engagement, rising polarization, etc.), low or decreasing turnout is a worrisome sign of democratic health—and has potential implications for broader perceptions of electoral legitimacy. Unfortunately, in many LAC countries, trust in elections was already fragile prior to the pandemic’s arrival.

The Latin America Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) asks people to what extent they trust elections in their country on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 7(a lot). According to the 2018 results, more respondents in the region stated that they did not trust elections in their country (45% answered 1-3) than did trust elections (38% answered 5-7), and only 10% actually indicated that they had “a lot” of trust (answered 7). However, as the figure below shows, this varies extensively by country—with the lowest levels of trust seen in Honduras and the highest levels seen in Uruguay.

While holding elections in the context of COVID-19 certainly presents a challenge for voters, it also presents an important choice for them: who is going to be in charge the lead them out of this situation. As countries adapt their voting systems to ensure public safety during the pandemic, it could also be a chance to consider how to address more structural challenges such as inclusivity, transparency, and accountability in the electoral process.

In an op-ed from September 2020, Kevin Casas Zamora, Secretary-General of IDEA, noted that there are four key lessons that Latin American countries should learn from conducting elections during COVID-19:

1) The importance of political consensus around decisions about the electoral calendar and electoral procedures;

2) The need to offer a diverse range of voting mechanisms;

3) The need to support electoral authorities with sufficient financial and human resources; and

4) That in the end, successful elections ultimately depend on controlling the pandemic.

The 2021 electoral calendar is full in the LAC region—including Ecuador’s second round of presidential elections and upcoming presidential elections in Chile, Haiti, Honduras, Peru and Nicaragua; alongside many essential local, legislative, gubernatorial, mid-term, constitutional, and other elections throughout the region. Only time will tell if countries choose to take heed of these lessons to strengthen their electoral processes going forward—though perhaps now more than ever these lessons are of urgent importance given the necessity of strengthening governance and leadership as a foundation for effectively combatting the multiple crises currently facing the region. Only effective governance is the way out.