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Elections and the Covid-19 pandemic

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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.

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