The coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed our daily routine. A large number of people have been urgently forced to work and spend their free time at home and now they are facing the challenges of organising their workplace, keeping productive and staying focused.
Another issue that the sudden change in circumstances has brought up is our approach to working in cooperation and making joint decisions. For understandable safety reasons, as contact with other people must be restricted, there is no way to come together for discussion like there was before. It has affected a variety of voting processes on domestic and national levels, from postponing school budget votes to country-wide constitutional referendums in Chile and Russia.
So the question arises – when this pandemic is over, how can we better prepare ourselves in the future and how can we keep our processes efficient and working when it comes to democratic proceedings, such as elections, enterprise management decisions or annual meetings of non-government organisations (NGOs)?
Choosing governments online
Nowadays elections organised in the traditional format, where thousands of people go to polling stations, could pose a significant danger to people’s health and allow the virus to spread further. National governments and local authorities, where voting is scheduled to take place this spring, are now at a crossroads in deciding how to deal with these upcoming events.
Traditional elections that were held during the start of the coronavirus outbreak were not without their issues. For example, the first round of municipal polls in France that took place on March 15 saw a 56 per cent rate of abstention. On March 19 there were elections in the island country of Vanuatu, but when it came to vote counting, new rules took effect which prohibited more than five people meeting together. As counting requires a large number of observers, the country’s minister responsible for the Electoral Office and Internal Affairs announced that the procedure would be streamed live, so everyone could observe the results being counted.
However, some elections will be held when they were originally scheduled with enhanced security measures. For example, in South Korea, despite experts predicting a low turnout. Some states in the USA have now switched to mail voting for the presidential primaries. While some advocate this option, opponents believe that it will increase the cost of elections and may result in human mistakes when filling in and sending the voting form. The Polish government is also considering to hold its presidential election on a scheduled date and adopt postal voting, despite criticism from more than 40 NGOs.
One of the options to consider is online voting. However, the question here is not only technical. For general elections, officials need to overcome people’s habits and prejudice. For example, even in Estonia, where internet voting has been held for 15 years, 43.75 per cent of all votes were cast online in the 2019 parliamentary elections. It is a record-breaking result, but around half of voters still prefer visiting polling stations. In addition, it may be too hard or even impossible to vote from personal devices for people who are not tech-savvy, which can be seen as voting discrimination.
Therefore, the optimal (albeit painful) decision would be to postpone elections until the quarantine is over, so the proceeding is constitutionally mandated. Several countries, including France with the second round of local elections, the UK, North Macedonia, and Serbia, have done so. Nevertheless, when the pandemic is over, it is worth considering and testing remote voting by introducing online elections as one of the options - along with in-person voting at polling stations. Furthermore, in order to speed up adoption, governments should promote this idea and support educational initiatives that would explain how and why to use this method. As a result, if for some reason in the future traditional voting cannot take place, the majority of voters will be comfortable with voting from their personal devices.
Board of directors meetings
A pandemic is a difficult time for many industries, as it slows down and disrupts business processes such as the transnational supply chain or decreases production in the affected areas. A lockdown negatively affects customer demand in the hospitality, travel, and automotive sectors (for example, reports say car sales in China fell by 92 per cent in February).
Nonetheless, economic decline doesn’t mean that business has completely stopped. By contrast, in this situation, company boards of directors have to react quickly and take anti-crisis measures: be it selling assets, introducing new ‘contactless’ services, or stopping or refocusing its production to essential goods, such as sanitisers or face masks. So, even if it is not recommended or even restricted to gather in person, a board of directors meeting and voting on critical decisions should be moved online.
Of course, implementing e-voting amongst the corporation board requires some preoperational steps, but they can be taken even now. First of all, it is important to ensure that virtual board meetings don’t violate local legislation. After that, it is necessary to amend the internal procedures that govern decision-making and adopt new rules for general meetings. And, of course, one should not forget that the board meetings and voting held online may be subject to cybersecurity risks, as would be the case in any online procedure. That’s why when it comes to confidential plans and matters that will have huge business impact, it is important to make sure that board members know basic cybersecurity rules and voting results are protected from being stolen or amended by cybercriminals.
The spread of infection affects the way an NGO operates as well. According to a recent survey of international non-government institutions, only half of them have an efficient plan to support business continuity, while 32 per cent lack this consideration. What is more, 15 per cent confirmed that their plan was insufficient.
Now NGOs are postponing their events, including regular General Meetings required by an organisation’s charter, on which the members elect their governing body and approve its annual plans and activities. If it interrupts the normal functioning of an organisation, it can exacerbate social problems, as communities this NGO helps will be left unsupported.
In our opinion, such events can be transferred online without the usual structure being altered. Collaboration and online conference services allow the previous governing body to present the results of the previous year, as well as giving new candidates the chance to introduce themselves and their programs. By implementing a secure and easy-to-use voting platform, they can choose options that the majority supports.
What democracy will look like in the future
Today’s requirement for social distancing will make society more digital. Even now, we see an increased interest in e-voting among regional parliaments, which should continue legislative activity, and boards of directors. And we expect this demand will continue to grow.
We believe that the global self-isolation measures will change the attitude towards remote voting. Before this pandemic began, holding elections online was a nice-to-have option, which allowed, for example, costs to be cut in the long-term, as well as save voters’ time by avoiding queues or traffic jams. Nonetheless, internet voting requires investments and labor costs to be implemented effectively. Therefore, it was often difficult to justify the need for introducing this option.
The pandemic is the first real-life example of an issue that has showed that providing online voting is necessary to retain vital processes in a crisis situation. That’s why we expect that an increasing number of both organisations and governments will explore this option after everything is back on track to mitigate situations in the future.
Evgeny Barkov, Business Development Manager, Polys