Why can't elections be held online?

Regular, free and fair elections are the central element of a democracy. The corona pandemic poses a huge challenge for holding elections for a number of reasons: voter turnout may decrease, as the way to the polling station could be seen as a problem for some voters; publicly conducted election campaigns may not be able to run; and the health of election workers could be at risk. At the same time, postponing elections also carries its risks. Last but not least, the right to vote and to be elected is a fundamental principle of liberal democracy. The postponement of elections - to an indefinite or distant point in time - thus raises fundamental rights questions of democratic politics.

Different countries have chosen different solutions for holding elections during the Corona crisis (for an overview, see report by ElectionWatch.EU). For example, France held the first round of local elections on March 15, 2020. Health concerns and a very low turnout led to a postponement of the second ballot - the runoff. The first ballot of the local elections in Bavaria, also on March 15, 2020, was also carried out "traditionally" with the possibility of voting in the polling station, but the rules for the second ballot were changed so that only voting by postal vote was provided. In countries like Austria, Italy, Poland and Spain, however, planned elections have been postponed. In Austria, this has so far particularly affected the municipal council elections in Vorarlberg and Styria. A postponement of the election was also discussed in connection with the upcoming Vienna election in autumn. Against this background, our blog post examines the question: What do the Austrian people think about elections in times of pandemic? And are there differences between voters of the different parties?

How should elections be organized during a pandemic?

In wave 5 (April 24-29, 2020) of the Austrian Corona Panel, we asked respondents about their attitudes towards elections during a pandemic. Of the six different options that are listed in Figure 1 and that capture whether and how elections should be held, the most frequently chosen option is that elections during a pandemic by means of "absentee voting and e-voting in combination" (approx % of respondents). The second most popular answer is postponing the election (18%), followed by the option to allow voting at polling stations, e-voting and postal voting (17%) in elections during a pandemic. 14% of the respondents prefer the option of voting exclusively by postal vote, while only 12% would support an exclusive online voting via e-voting. Interestingly, the option chosen is the least popular Status quo - namely the implementation of elections in the polling station with the possibility of postal voting (11%).

Since our poll is an online poll, the percentage of those who actually vote in favor of an online poll could be a bit overestimated. What is clear, however, is that only a minority of respondents are in favor of postponing the elections. The majority of respondents are in favor of holding elections during a pandemic, but with the option of voting remotely, i.e. either by postal voting or by e-voting.

This overwhelmingly positive attitude towards “remote” elections is remarkable, as our data also show that respondents generally consider e-voting or postal voting to be less secure. The risk of fraud is estimated to be higher for these voting modes than for voting at the polling station (see Figure A1 in the appendix). It is therefore interesting that a majority of Austrians would still prefer a “remote” vote to an election postponement. We can only speculate about the reasons, but maybe voting at the polling station during a pandemic is linked to too great a health risk.