This story was originally published on EVNReport. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement. Since its original publication on EVN Report, the text has been updated to reflect the more current COVID-19 data.
On March 18, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that he had come to an agreement with the parliamentary opposition parties to hold an early election on June 20. On May 10, parliament was dissolved, setting the stage for the election.
Like in other countries, COVID-19 is a concern for the safe conduct of the election. As of April 19, 189,017 people in Armenia had contracted COVID-19 and recovered, according to government figures. The real numbers, which include people who never bothered taking a test, are higher. (Since the April peak, the number of active cases has come down to fewer than 4,000, a level not seen since September 2020 before the wartime peak.)
At least 41 countries postponed national elections or referendums since the pandemic. Now that a year has passed, some of those have taken place and election management bodies (EMBs) are looking at risk mitigation measures to allow voters to participate without endangering their health.
In Armenia, unlike in the United States and The Netherlands which held elections on November 3 last year and March 17 this year, respectively, neither mail-in voting nor advance in-person voting are permitted by the Electoral Code. And while the legislation is being amended, opening these avenues is just not feasible, especially given the current political climate. Election observer reports in past Armenian elections have uncovered coordinated attempts at electoral fraud, including outright ballot box stuffing. Advance in-person voting cannot be implemented because the fact is that nobody is going to trust the half-full ballot box sitting in a room overnight, even a locked cabinet. And mail-in voting, being unsupervised, makes it possible for those who hand out election bribes—or intimidate those they hold power over, such as their employees—to watch the ballot being filled out (or just taking it and doing it themselves). With the Homeland Salvation Movement already alleging that the election will be rigged, this is not the time to start loosening election integrity controls.
The voting process: Masking the problem
The bare minimum that can be done is to ask voters to wear a mask when they show up to vote in person. As you don’t want to be turning people away from the polling station, the state will have to fund the purchase of 2.6 million masks so that one can be made available to anyone who doesn’t have their own. Poll workers will have to ensure that reluctant voters actually take one and put it on such that it covers more than just their chin. Then, once the voter scans their passport into the Voter Authentication Device (VAD), the operator will have to ask them to momentarily lower their mask so that they can match their identity with the photo on file for that piece of ID. After hearing them shout about how they were just forced to wear a mask over their mouth and nose, and are now being asked to uncover them, they will have to scan their fingerprint into the VAD. Of course, it would be prudent for them to sanitize their hands before doing so. Thus, ample hand sanitizer will also need to be procured and distributed to the 2,008 polling stations. The fingerprint reader is going to get very wet and probably will not work properly.
From the VAD, they move on to the paper voter list, where they sign next to their name. These voter lists are scanned after the voting is done and uploaded to the Internet so that any citizen who did not vote can check to make sure that no one else voted in their name. Under the current pandemic, they will hopefully have their own pens. Alternatively, the state could buy 2.6 million pens and let the voters keep theirs so that it is not handled by others.
At this stage, they receive their ballots, which consist of an envelope with the corner cut out and a separate piece of paper for each political party in the race. Behind the voting screen, they choose only the one party they wish to vote for, put its corresponding ballot into the envelope, and throw away the other parties’ papers in the waste bin behind the voter screen. (This procedure was introduced in 2017 to counter “carousel voting.”) At least with the elimination of the open list component, nicknamed ratingayin, they will not need to make any marks with a pen on the ballot itself. Finally, they take the envelope to the ballot box, another election official affixes a holographic stamp on the ballot paper peeking out of the cut-out corner of the envelope, and the envelope is dropped into the box.
The process has room for improvement. For one, the Electoral Code specifies that the polling station must have at least one voter screen for every 750 voters. Up to 2,000 voters may be assigned to one polling station. Although these are minimum figures, the Central Election Commission (CEC) argues that they do not have funding to buy more cardboard screens than the bare minimum required by the law. Thus, at polling stations of fewer than 750 voters, every single voter will be standing behind the same screen, handling their papers on the same tabletop. At most, there might be three voter screens at the busiest polling stations.
During sessions of the Parliamentary Working Group on Electoral Reform, I personally brought up the issue of the shortage of voter screens being a bottleneck in the overall process and the cause of unnecessarily long lines. In Canada (where I vote), for example, there might be a dozen voter screens in each precinct so that nobody is waiting for one to free up. However, raising this minimum requirement was not included in the amendment package out of fears that voting locations may not have the physical space to accommodate more voter screens.
Therein lies another issue. Voting locations in Armenia do not have minimum area requirements. Ideally, they would all be school gyms, where there would be room to mark tape on the floor at 1.5 m distance for a socially distanced lineup. However, the voting locations are not even chosen by the election commission; the Electoral Code assigns this responsibility to municipal authorities and the election commission has to work with whatever they get assigned. It might just be a narrow entrance to an administrative office building. It is common for many of these locations to have accessibility issues, which will be felt this year by young veterans who are constrained to a wheelchair since the 2020 Artsakh War. As part of the electoral reform process, it was proposed that the Territorial Electoral Commissions (TECs), the go-between body between the CEC and Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs), be empowered to choose voting locations itself. However, the CEC did not want this additional responsibility.
The mobile ballot box: A relief-valve … sort of
As of April 19, Armenia had about 15,000 active COVID-19 cases. Although we can hope that number decreases before June 20, there will be potentially thousands of citizens, who are eligible to vote on election day, who might be subject to a fine if they leave their homes. With no mail-in voting and no opportunity to vote in advance, election administrators face a constitutional conundrum.
Health Minister Decree 17-N is the regulation that subjects those diagnosed with COVID-19 (and theoretically also those they came in contact with, though they are no longer being designated) to a fine for breaking their quarantine. However, Article 48 of the Armenian Constitution provides citizens 18 and over with an affirmative right to vote. Thus, if a COVID-positive patient were to break their quarantine to go vote, they should not be fined; doing so would be unconstitutional. But from a public health perspective, having thousands of contagious patients coughing into their neighbors’ semi-masked faces is not the optimal solution.
The Armenian Electoral Code does have a special provision for immobile voters, meant mainly for residents of long-term care facilities: the mobile ballot box. Facilities providing inpatient care can register their charges for a special voting arrangement where the ballot box comes to them. The administrators of the facility must provide the names of those they wish to register, at least seven days before the vote. If a precinct has any such voters, PEC members will come to them on election day, collect their votes, bring it back to the polling station and mix the ballots into the main ballot box for the precinct.
Skeptics are not very enthusiastic about the mobile ballot box provision. Most PEC members are appointed by a political party and cannot be considered neutral. Even the two PEC members who are appointed by the nominally independent TEC are usually suspected of a bias. Thus, given a low overall level of trust, the mobile ballot box is considered tainted because the secrecy of the vote may be violated (or the ballots outright replaced) in transit. Even if they are not, just the suspicion that they might have been is a burden on the process.
In order for it to be used effectively in the case of COVID-19 patients, changes are necessary. For one, not everyone who gets COVID-19 becomes an inpatient at a healthcare facility. For them to be able to use the mobile ballot box, the law needs to be amended to allow individuals with a positive test result to register for the mobile ballot box (likely through the health ministry). Secondly, the deadline seven days before election day needs to be waived for COVID-19 patients. It is possible for hundreds (hopefully, not thousands) of voters to receive a positive test result the day before the election. Thirdly, while it is reasonable for a PEC member to visit one or two hospitals during the day, visiting hundreds of COVID-19 patients’ homes is not just a side project. For this facility to be used effectively, conducting the mobile ballot box should be the responsibility of the TEC, which can assign multiple teams to ensure all the voters get a visit during the 12-hour voting period. These votes must not be mixed into precinct ballot boxes, but kept separate, with their own tally (per the 38 TECs) publicly reported. That way, if 95 per cent of such votes go to the same party, observers can start raising questions.
Not everything requires a law
Changes to the Electoral Code are needed to protect Armenians from COVID-19 during the election. At the very least, masks need to be mandated during a pandemic and the mobile ballot box system reformed. The president does have the power to interfere with these amendments. As the changes have to do with the right to vote, he could choose to send the bill to the Constitutional Court. Even if he doesn’t go that far, he could delay the process by 21 days by not doing anything. Either move would effectively force Pashinyan’s hand into delaying the announced June 20 election date. The Prime Minister would then be faced with the choice to either (1) continue triggering the election process without any changes to the rules, potentially inflating the pandemic’s death toll, or (2) push back the announced election date so that the provisions can be fully implemented but publicly break his promise and take a different type of hit to his reputation.
Not everything requires a law. Norms and customs are essential foundations of a democracy. Even without legal restrictions, voters can operate on voluntary guidelines to help reduce risks. For example, we can come to an understanding that, during the earliest voting hours of 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., elderly voters are given a chance to vote, before too many others have contaminated the location. If you are COVID-positive on election day and no mobile ballot box has come to your door, you can choose to vote as late in the evening as possible (polls close at 8 p.m.) so that fewer of your neighbors breathe in the germs you give off. Or maybe even, this one time, not exercise your right to vote at all.
Armenians have had a difficult year. This election could make things worse … unless we all work together with compassion for our brothers and sisters.