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The coronavirus pandemic is causing an unprecedented disruption in elections worldwide. Regardless of whether countries are holding or delaying elections, the decisions are having a major impact on the political fortunes of incumbents and challengers, as well as on voter participation.

To ensure the credibility of electoral processes while maintaining public health, some governments are testing or expanding new systems—such as proxy voting and mail balloting—while political parties and civil society organizations are conceiving new ways to engage voters. However, despite these efforts, low voter turnout, unequal campaign conditions, and limited domestic or international observation threaten to cast a shadow on the legitimacy of elections.

The unfolding political consequences of these widespread disruptions and new innovations are enormous and are just starting to be understood. National governments and election aid providers will need to up their game to reduce the disruptive effects and ensure that 2020 does not become the year when elections were thrown fundamentally off track.

Nearly one hundred election events—primaries, by-elections, referenda, and municipal and national elections—have been delayed globally this year. Many of the delays are legal and justified for public health reasons. However, some delays have raised complicated legal questions and triggered politically driven disputes between ruling and opposition parties.

In March, when France had to decide whether to proceed with municipal elections for 35,000 mayors, there was significant opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a delay, with a major opposition leader calling it a coup d’etat. The government ultimately gave in to holding the first round of elections as scheduled and legally mandated, but a delay of the second round of elections required a new law to extend the term of current mayors.

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