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What are the challenges of holding elections in the midst of a pandemic?

Updated

March 27, 2020 07:14:20

Countries around the globe have postponed elections due to the coronavirus pandemic but in Queensland, top officials say you are more at risk in the supermarket aisle than the polling booth.

The State Government is pushing ahead with Saturday’s planned local government elections and two state by-elections on the advice of its chief health officer.

Authorities said measures like physical distancing, plus a record number of pre-poll and postal votes, meant the risk was low compared to other day-to-day activities like grocery shopping.

The Electoral Commissioner flagged State Emergency Service (SES) volunteers could even be called upon to help maintain physical distancing at the booths during “these extraordinary times”.

But the move to go ahead with the elections has baffled some doctors and scientists in the community who believe it was a gathering “we shouldn’t have” and was inconsistent with other messages to stay home.

Hygiene concerns have also seen three Brisbane Catholic schools decide to pull out as polling booth venues.

What are the challenges of holding elections in the midst of a pandemic?

How many people have to vote?

There are around 3.3 million eligible voters across Queensland.

As of 6:30pm Thursday, more than 1 million people had cast their vote early, on top of another 570,000 who registered for a postal vote.

What is the risk?

According to Queensland’s chief health officer Jeannette Young, there is no risk in going to vote tomorrow with the safety measures in place.

The Electoral Commission Queensland (ECQ) is telling people to bring their own pen or pencil and stand 1.5 metres from others, while how-to-vote cards or election material won’t be handed out.

Its website said hand sanitiser would be provided “where available” for voters and polling officials, and there would be extra cleaning to ensure surfaces were regularly disinfected.

Electoral Commissioner Pat Vidgen told ABC Radio Brisbane this week the process at early voting centres had been quick.

“We’ve had people in and out within three minutes or less,” he said.

But with more than 1,000 booths across Queensland, he said the ECQ was calling on the Government to help with resources.

“We’re trying to get extra people to work outside those booths to get that social distancing in place — we’re pulling in hopefully the SES and others to assist us,” Mr Vidgen said.

A Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) spokeswoman confirmed there had been a request to assist on the ground this weekend, which could include SES volunteers.

Mr Vidgen said he understood the anxiety in the community but insisted the elections were important and the ECQ was trying to provide a safe environment for them to happen.

Yesterday, Dr Young said the number of people left to vote on Saturday would be “relatively small” and she was more concerned with “people going to Dan Murphy’s”.

“The scenes I’ve seen there have been appalling,” Dr Young said.

Health Minister Steven Miles also said this week the risk of voting was low compared to other things like grocery shopping.

But one doctor from a Queensland hospital said, unlike voting, it was not compulsory to go to the supermarket.

What do others say?

University of Queensland Adjunct Associate Professor Ian Mackay, who has a PhD in virology, said forging ahead with polling booths “boggles the mind”.

“It’s a gathering we shouldn’t have,” Dr Mackay said.

“It’s yet another inconsistency that confuses people and lets people feel it’s OK to do other things.

“This is not a flattening of the curve exercise … we should have been looking at a postal vote process.”

Gold Coast Medical Association president Philip Morris agrees.

“I think it’s a disaster and shouldn’t be going ahead. The Government should postpone the elections,” he said.

Another doctor who works in a hospital in the state’s south-east — and sits through planning meetings about COVID-19 — said they had been trying to get in contact with all levels of government to ask why it was necessary to go ahead.

“I think encouraging people to congregate is the last thing we should be doing at the moment … and I’ve got plenty of colleagues who feel the same way,” the doctor said.

Can it still be postponed?

Multiple countries, including England, Bolivia and Spain, have already delayed slated elections, while the New South Wales Government announced it was postponing its September local government elections as COVID-19 cases grow.

Queensland Parliament passed laws last week giving the State Government “unprecedented” power to suspend the elections, but political analyst Paul Williams said it was too late to postpone them now.

He said while he was a “great defender of the democratic tradition”, there was no doubt the public was worried.

“These are unique circumstances,” he said.

“It’s offered lessons … to ensure ECQ is well prepared for any disaster before the October [state] election.

“It sends a message to both sides — no matter who is in government — to keep [ECQ] well-staffed and well resourced.

“The electorate would be sympathetic with any government that postponed [elections], given the crisis.”

He said then-premier Anna Bligh pushed back the local government elections by a month in 2012 to wait for the flood inquiry to deliver its report.

What if you can’t vote?

Voting is compulsory but Brisbane Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner said people who were holed up in self-isolation or ill — and legitimately could not vote — should not be fined for not being able to do so.

“Unlike any other election, there are people who are genuinely unable to vote, genuinely have health issues, genuinely are concerned about their health, and that certainly needs to be taken into account in this election,” he said earlier this week.

“By all means if you’re fit and healthy, there are plenty of opportunities to vote — and we’re encouraging people to do that — but there needs to be leniency for people who simply can’t vote.”

He said he had written to the Electoral Commissioner to seek clarification and assurance that fines would not be issued for genuine health reasons for not voting.

The ECQ said telephone voting was available for certain eligible voters, with registration open until midday on election day.

It said it had boosted capacity “10-fold” to help those who have been told to self-isolate because of COVID-19 but warned the telephone voting service was being clogged with requests from people who were not eligible.

The ABC spoke to one intensive care nurse who is in self-isolation after recently returning from the UK.

She said she had arrived back in Australia after the postal vote registration deadline and now was struggling to get through on the phone line.

“We want to have our say but we can’t, there’s no way we can get through,” she said.

“The $133 fine … we don’t want to have to cop that when we’ve done everything we can, but we’re stuck.”

Stay up-to-date on the coronavirus outbreak

Are schools concerned?

Schools have long been used as venues for polling booths on election day, yet a number have already pulled out due to coronavirus concerns.

Yesterday Brisbane Catholic Education (BCE) confirmed three schools — St Sebastian’s School at Yeronga, St Ita’s School at Dutton Park, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Coorparoo — had decided to withdraw.

What the experts are saying about coronavirus:

“The schools have maintained a rigorous approach to hygiene at all times and with ECQ unable to provide an appropriate clean before school reopens for staff and some students on Monday, the schools decided against participating on Saturday,” a BCE spokesman said.

An ECQ spokeswoman said there was an agreement between ECQ and schools that “the area be thoroughly cleaned prior to set up of the polling booth, and then again following election day”.

Queensland Teachers Union (QTU) president Kevin Bates said he was aware of some state school staff with similar concerns.

A Department of Education spokesman said all facilities would undergo thorough cleaning by approved cleaners.

“Polling activities are limited to a smalls area within schools and polling stations that will see the majority of contact with the public are removed from schools once voting has finished,” the department spokesman said.

The total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Queensland yesterday exceeded 490.

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First posted

March 27, 2020 07:11:37


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