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Managing Elections amidst Pandemic: Fijian Experience

COVID-19 virus has changed the dynamics of how elections are now conducted globally. Elections held under normal circumstances often entail a certain degree of procedural, financial and logistical preparation for all electoral stakeholders involved-particularly for voters and election officials. However, during extraordinary times such as this, reacting and responding to an unknown novel virus becomes even more difficult and a challenge to Governments, Parliaments and Heads of States. In the current scenario, the dilemma remains whether to postpone or hold an election based on the guidance and direction issued by their national public health authorities.

Election Management Bodies (EMBs) all over the world are now faced with the difficult task of ensuring that all electoral processes are conducted within the confines of their countries' new rules on health and safety protocols. Health and safety concerns remain an important factor in deciding whether or not elections should be conducted during a pandemic.

Fiji, like many countries around the world faces similar sets of risks and challenges when formulating rapid responses to combat the COVID-19 crisis. Since confirmation of the novel coronavirus by the World Health Organisation in January 2020, the Fijian government had put in place certain border controls as early as February to minimise the chances of the virus getting into the country. Despite these precautionary measures, Fiji recorded its first case of COVID-19 on March 19 and since then, there have been 28 reported cases with one fatality.

This pandemic has raised some serious concerns for the Fijian Elections Office (FEO) as it commences its election preparation for the next General Election, which has been scheduled in 2022. With limited time and resources at its disposal, the FEO must now acquire new supplies and incorporate new procedures into its existing framework to comply with certain health protocols and provisions that now exist in the country. Introduction of lockdowns, curfews, bans on public gatherings and limiting the movement of people have been the new norm of controlling the spread of the virus, which seems to support the notion that if the virus is to be stopped, people need to stop moving.

This platform has benefited smaller EMBs like the FEO in learning how countries in the region are conducting or planning to conduct their elections during this pandemic.

Taking a proactive approach, the FEO has taken steps to consult with the head of the health sector in Fiji, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Health & Medical Services and his team on developing guidelines for the FEO to work with by identifying risk points along the various stages of the electoral processes and ways of mitigating these risks. It is important to note that although certain polling processes may be re-assessed and re-evaluated to comply with health safety protocols, it is critical to ensure that implementing new requirements without compromising the integrity or legitimacy of an election is of paramount importance.

Fiji has a voting population of around 645,000 voters and it is forecasted that an additional 20,000 voters will be added to the National Register of Voters by the 2022 General Election. Add to this with 11,000 polling workers required to work during the Pre-Poll voting period and Election Day, we see that hundreds or perhaps thousands of people will be interacting with each other in the 1436 allocated polling venues around the country.

These confined places are an ideal environment for the spread and transmission of the virus and if not controlled, it could become very fatal.

Keeping with international best practices and guidelines shared by IFES3, the FEO intends to follow the same basic restrictions observed by other EMBs who have conducted elections during the start of this pandemic, as also keeping in mid the laws governing the conduct of elections in Fiji. These would include:

  • Promoting alternative ways of voting to reduce the number of person to person contact during attendance voting.
  • The possibility of identifying bigger and larger polling venues to allow for better ventilation and air circulation as well as to control the physical distancing of people inside and outside of the polling stations.
  • The changes to standard polling procedures and physical set up in polling stations to allow for the 1.5m physical distancing requirements and limiting the contact time between polling officials and voters.
  • Introduction of disinfectant materials such as hand sanitizers or wipes for wiping off high touch contact areas and surfaces.
  • Provision of protection equipment (gloves) to polling officials.
  • Possibility of having voters come in with their own face masks, which must not be removed till the voters exit the polling venues.
  • Encouraging voters to bring their own pen when they come in to vote
  • Introducing voting materials that have plastic coverings (such as voting screens) to allow polling officials to easily wipe down these materials at regular intervals.
  • Instructional posters on safety and hygiene to be affixed outside polling stations.
  • Special voting procedures developed for assistance given to persons with disabilities whether inside the polling stations or outside.

The FEO hopes to run a trial on the above changes in the Trade Union elections it conducts for the 47 registered Trade Unions in Fiji. This will ensure that the processes are tested out before a final decision is taken on the feasibility of these procedural changes for the 2022 General Election

The FEO has already envisioned that the conduct of the next General Election in Fiji will come with a high cost, but that cost is yet to be determined.

Anaseini Senimoli
Director Operations Fijian Election Office