COVID-19 could make the next general election go virtual


COVID-19 could make the next general election go virtual

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

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Preparations for the next general election were nearing a crescendo in both the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) when COVID-19 spectacularly knocked the wind out of their sail.

Like all aspects of human endeavour upended by the novel coronavirus, political parties worldwide, especially those about to face the electorate, have also had to be rethinking how to adapt to the new paradigm.

In Jamaica, general elections are constitutionally due within five years and three months of the date of the first sitting of the new Parliament, hence the next election should be held between February 25, 2021 (five years after the date of the 2016 election) and June 10, 2021, (within five years and three months of the date of the first sitting of the new Parliament).

Like the rest of the democratic world, Jamaica will, of course, have to find a way to hold elections in a COVID-19 environment. In other words, the traditional style of political campaigning is on its way out.

For example, face-to-face meetings and flesh-pumping, which are staples of the old-style campaigning, will have to give way to social distancing and other lockdown mandates forced on countries by the pandemic.

The reliance on technology, such as live streaming, could replace big campaign rallies attended by thousands of party faithfuls ringing bells or pumping fists in their sea of green or orange colours.

Door-to-door canvassers will find doors closed to them, or some householders will refuse to admit masked people into their homes or yards out of security concerns, forcing campaigns to resort to e-mail, texts and phone calls. This will especially affect inner-city areas afflicted by political warfare.

The advantage will obviously go to the political party best equipped to run digital politics. Anecdotally, the JLP is said to have carved out a new garrison on social media, although the PNP has been gradually catching up.

Politicians who have large social media followings are likely to do well in virtual campaigns as they continue to connect with current supporters frequently and step up saturation of their media feeds. Newbies in the technology game will find the going tougher.

Digital platforms will also make it easier to connect with party workers, most of whom are volunteers, by means of video-conferencing apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Meet, and so on, for strategy meetings, training sessions, and the like. And parties will need to take advantage of tools such as online forums, virtual town halls, social media feeds, and digital ads.

Fund-raising might not be as affected, since Jamaican politicians don't rely too heavily on those expensive, per-plate dinners, preferring personal relationships with big donors. Social media ads seeking financial contributions could become more common here.

One big unknown is how COVID-19 could affect voter turnout at the polls. In the US there is a push for more mail-in voting. It would take a great deal to get us there, and certainly not for the next election.

What is sure is that after COVID-19, technology solutions will be a permanent part of the political landscape.

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