What It’s Like to Hold an Election in the Middle of a Pandemic

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This week, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a televised address to the nation on efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Following the lead of neighboring Italy — as well as Greece, Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Denmark — universities, day care facilities and schools will close on March 16.

But on March 15, the first round of local elections will go ahead as planned in 34,968 cities and towns across the country. The government was advised by the scientific community that nothing is standing in the way of French people voting, Macron said.

His comments echoed those of French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who on March 7 sent out a letter to all mayors, saying: “Elections are, in the life of our country, an essential moment, where democracy can catch its breath. Postponing them is out of the question.”

But fears of the virus — now classified as a global pandemic — threaten to erode voter turnout that had already been waning in recent election cycles.

A recent survey conducted for online health platform Charles.co by the research and polling firm IFOP (Institut Francais d’Opinion Public) found that, among the 1,008 people surveyed, 28% said they were likely to reconsider going out to vote because of the coronavirus spreading in France.

”They should definitely be worried,” Megan Murray, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health told CityLab. “It’s insane, really. If you don’t need to put a lot of people in the same place and have them touch things, then you really shouldn’t.”

Up until Macron’s TV appearance, France had been slower than many other countries to take a drastic containment approach to the virus. According to some experts, France is just a few days behind Italy in the spread of the virus, and its health-care system could face similar capacity challenges from a spike in patients. Even before the virus, the country’s hospitals were already strained: Health-care workers took to the streets to protest insufficient funding and resources as recently as last November.

This year’s elections are taking place in a tense political climate, after months of social unrest that culminated in lengthy strikes by rail workers, health-care workers, teachers, and virtually any corporate association targeted by President Emmanuel Macron’s government pension reform. His approval rating rose to 32% in February, from an all-time low of 23% during the “Yellow Vest” movement, creating an uphill battle for mayoral candidates in his party.

More than 47.7 million people are registered to vote in the local council elections, which determine a city’s mayor, but individual polling stations rarely receive more than 800 to 1,000 people throughout the course of the day.  On March 13, the government prohibited gatherings of more than 100 people. So far, there have been no official measures announced to have a staggered vote.

Postponing the vote is no longer feasible, according to Agnes Le Brun, mayor of the city of Morlaix and spokesperson of the Association des Maires de France (Association of Mayors of France), told CityLab. To reschedule an entire election, a bill needs to be drafted and passed by the National Assembly and the Senate. This has been done before: In 2007, municipal elections were pushed back to 2008 because there were too many elections that year.

But the cost and time needed to reschedule an election may be far more than people appreciate, Le Brun said. “Elections require a lot of organization, even though when you look at it from the outside, it seems like there is only something happening on the day when people vote.”

And France isn’t the first country voting under the cloud of the coronavirus. Earlier this month, Israel set up a separate tent for quarantined voters, and the U.S. presidential primaries have thus far gone ahead as planned. The British government, however, announced that it would postpone English local elections scheduled for May. And the U.S. is starting to cancel future presidential primary contests.

New safety precautions

Voting stations will look a bit different on Sunday, and precautions will involve more than hand sanitizer and protective gloves. France uses very few voting machines — only 70 out of the 34,968 towns voting on Sunday will use them, according to newspaper Le Parisien — which means that every voter has to sign a register with shared pens. In Morlaix, officials will be disinfecting reusable pens. There will be: “two boxes,” she explained. “Voters will grab a pen in one of the boxes, and dispose of it in the other one. They will be disinfected regularly.” But this year, voters can also bring their own pen — it just has to have black or blue ink for the vote to be valid. Voters are also encouraged to lift the curtain of the voting booth with “their forearm,” Le Brun said. They will be required to stay at least one meter — a little more than 3 feet — away from one another, and the booths will be disinfected regularly.

A polling station in Bordeaux, France, ready for voters. (Georges Gobet/AFP via Getty Images)

”In principle it is not hard to kill the virus with disinfectant,” Murray said, “but in that context, you’re relying entirely on humans, and the possibility for human error is huge. It’s not a thing that is going to be error-free.”

The administration has made it easier for those isolated, sick or at risk to vote by “procuration” — the equivalent of an absentee ballot.

In the IFOP survey, the respondents who seemed to be the most worried about contracting the coronavirus while voting were the ones who were the least likely to be very negatively impacted: “young people, mostly urban, who get informed via social media or online tools, and are more exposed than the average to rumors spreading online,” Francois Kraus of the IFOP told CityLab. They are the ones who also tend to vote for the Macron government the least, he said.

The elderly are, according to the survey, the least worried about the ongoing pandemic. “They trust public authorities more,” Kraus said, and thus are more likely to believe that risks are under control.

Other countries will be looking at France this weekend for any lessons learned as they head into their own elections.

”The elderly are the highest -risk group with regards to this coronavirus — they need to understand the risk,” Dan Hanfling, former special advisor to the U.S. Department of Health told CityLab in an email. “If this becomes an issue for us later in the year, I would hope that we will have the opportunity to send in ballots by mail.”