More Less
More Less

Elections and the Covid-19 pandemic

Opinion image

How should governments handle elections during the Covid-19 pandemic? The French government was one of the first confronted with this difficult choice, during the two-round municipal elections on March 15 and 22, 2020, in the early phases of the pandemic. Other European countries faced similar choices and took different decisions: Germany opted for maintaining regional elections in Bavaria on March 15, while the Italian government postponed the elections scheduled in six regions for May 31. In the US, a universal vote-by-mail option put forward for the presidential election on November 3 to circumvent the problem has been strongly rejected by President Trump. 

Postponing an election or adjusting the way in which voters can express their preferences is a major and challenging decision. Thus, it is important to get a sense of the effects of the diffusion of the pandemic on maintaining the vote. The first round of the French municipal elections offers us a unique opportunity for studying this issue.

The lack of support for a proposal to postpone the vote, which was described by the opposition as an unconstitutional act or even a coup d’état, eventually induced the French government to maintain the first round on March 15. (The second round was postponed until June 28.) This political decision could potentially have influenced the spread of the pandemic, because of the crowded electoral meetings before the vote, and because of the difficulties in respecting the newly introduced social distancing measures at voting stations. 

Concerns about the pandemic led to a historically unprecedented level of abstention. Voter turnout stood at 44.6%, almost 20 percentage points below the level recorded in the first round of municipal elections in 2014, and with a substantial heterogeneity both across and within départments

Did French municipalities with higher turnouts experience a significantly higher mortality in the weeks after the vote? The INSEE, the French National Statistical Institute, publishes monthly data that are built on all death certificates in France, thus allowing us to answer this question.

We analyzed the relationship between municipal-level mortality, that is, the number of deaths recorded on a weekly basis in 2020, and voter turnout, while controlling for the average mortality over the same week between 2010 and 2019. The key analytical challenge in dealing with this question arises because the early local diffusion of the pandemic likely influenced both voter turnout (surveys reveal that more than 50% of the non-voters mentioned fear of the pandemic as one reason behind their abstention), and mortality in the following weeks. This potentially introduces a spurious negative correlation between turnout and mortality. We exploited differences in the local intensity of electoral competition, by using the ratio between the number of candidates and the number of municipal councilors to be elected, to tackle this challenge. 

The estimates reveal that subsequent mortality was significantly higher in municipalities where a more intense electoral competition induced a higher voter turnout. The total number of deaths nationwide in the five weeks after the elections would have been around 20% higher, that is, around 5,000 additional deaths, if turnout had been at its 2014 level. Most of these additional deaths would have occurred among individuals aged 80 and above, the most vulnerable part of the population. 

Governments should be extremely cautious about maintaining elections during a pandemic. Going ahead with an election can accelerate the diffusion of the pandemic and increase mortality. However, cancelling an election raises major questions about the legitimacy of a democracy; and even postponing an election raises similar questions.

© Simone Bertoli, Lucas Guichard, and Francesca Marchetta

Simone Bertoli is Professor of Economics at CERDI, Université Clermont Auvergne, France.
Lucas Guichard is a PhD Candidate in Economics, and a research associate at the Institute for Employment Research (IAB, Germany).
Francesca Marchetta is an assistant professor at CERDI, Université Clermont Auvergne, France.

Read more on the coronavirus crisis:
"Coronavirus and the labor market," by Daniel S. Hamermesh
"Fighting a coronavirus recession," by Daniel S. Hamermesh
"Pandemics and the labor market—Then and now," by Karen Clay
"Pricing the lives saved by coronavirus policies," by W. Kip Viscusi
"Health effects of the coronavirus recession," by Christopher J. Ruhm
"The long-term consequences of missing a term of school," by Simon Burgess and Hans Sievertsen
"Coronavirus, telecommuting, and the labor market," by Nikos Askitas
"Expectations about Covid-19 social-distancing measures in Italy and their impact on compliance," by Guglielmo BrisceseNicola LaceteraMario Macis, and Mirco Tonin
"The coronavirus crisis and the next generation," by Bart Cockx
"Korea: A paragon of dealing with coronavirus," by Sok Chul Hong
"Economic implications of postponing the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games," by Peter J. Sloane
"The sudden growth of employee autonomy during the coronavirus lockdown," by Elisa Gerten and Michael Beckmann
"Mitigating the work–safety trade-off," by Tito BoeriAlessandro CaiumiMarco Paccagnella
"Trading off lives for jobs," by Daniel S. Hamermesh
"Trends in Covid-19 infection: What New York City neighborhoods tell us," by George J. Borjas
"Labor markets during the Covid-19 crisis: A preliminary view," by Olivier CoibionYuriy GorodnichenkoMichael Weber
"Did California’s shelter-in-place order work? Early coronavirus-related public health effects," by Andrew FriedsenDrew McNicholsJoseph J. SabiaDhaval Dave
"200 billion hours to spend: The Covid-19 opportunity to upskill," by Peter SiminskiEmil Temnyalov
"The CARES Act—Massive government intervention in the economic crisis," by Richard Prisinzano
"What is happening to unemployment in the post-Covid-19 labor market?," by Katharine G. Abraham
"Measuring employment and unemployment—Primer and predictions," by Daniel S. Hamermesh
"Can inflation be accurately measured during a lockdown?," by Erwin Diewert and Kevin J. Fox
"The Covid-19 crisis exacerbates workplace injustices," by Philippe Askenazy 
"Graduating during the Covid-19 recession," by Philip Oreopoulos
"Covid-19 and immigrant employment," by George J. BorjasHugh Cassidy
"So happy together?," by Daniel S. Hamermesh 
"Covid-19’s impact on the economy: Measuring GDP during a pandemic," by J. Steven Landefeld
"Childcare during Covid-19," by Almudena Sevilla and Sarah Smith
"Labor markets in the Covid-19 pandemic: Western Europe and the US," by Hans-Martin von Gaudecker
"Effects of Covid-19 on spending and saving," by Seonghoon KimKanghyock KohXuan Zhang
"Lockdowns and traffic accidents," by Umut Oguzoglu
"Covid-19 and giving to charity," by Martin Abel 

Please note:
We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.