GOVERNMENTS AROUND THE world are struggling to deal with the public health and economic challenges of coronavirus. While many have pointed to how authoritarian regimes exacerbated the pandemic, we’ve so far paid dangerously little attention to coronavirus’s challenge to democracy.
In a democracy, citizens need to be able to vote, politicians to deliberate, and people to move about, meet, and act collectively. Democratic politics is a mixture of mass involvement and endless meetings. All this is hard when people can be infected with a potentially deadly virus if someone simply coughs nearby. The obvious answer might seem to be to move democracy to the internet, but some parts of democracy translate badly to an online world, while others are already being undermined by emergency powers (for example, Hungary’s parliament just passed a law that allows the prime minister to rule by decree) and by the rise of digital surveillance.
If people have to vote in person, they might catch coronavirus from queuing, pressing buttons, or handing ballots to election officials. No wonder 14 US presidential primaries have been postponed so far. But not postponing elections in the midst of the crisis has been just as controversial, since the resulting vote is likely to see a dramatic reduction in turnout (as did France’s first round municipal elections, and as is feared in the Polish presidential election this May).