Access to Information on Elections (Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador): Review

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 69 (En Español)

General summary: After more than a year, the reality is that COVID-19 continues to devastate Latin America and the Caribbean. The consequences and impact of the pandemic will continue to create a domino effect affecting different groups and areas in the region. Since March 2020, our members have been monitoring changes and responses to crises. The Conference on Access to Information: Latin America and the Caribbean seeks to bring all your conversations to the same space and expand its network to be able to collaborate even more.  This conference was born from the group “Monitoring Covid-19” created by Marcelo Rodríguez in March 2020 and which to date has more than 50 members from all over the globe including lawyers, librarians, journalists, academics, students and collaborators from other areas of knowledge, who provide relevant information on the situation of different countries in the region in the face of the pandemic.

The conference had a total of eight panels during September 2021. Each panel lasted an hour and a half. The first hour consisted of a conversation between the panelists and moderators. All participants were invited to actively participate with questions and comments. Most of the sessions had simultaneous interpretation in Spanish and one in Portuguese.

This program was made possible thanks to the support of the AALL / Bloomberg Law Continuing Education Program.

Introduction:

The objective of this report is to highlight the main points addressed in the framework of the Conference on Access to Information in Latin America and the Caribbean, organized from the initiative “Monitoring Covid-19”. The conference was held during the month of September 2021.

In particular, the session held on Tuesday September 9 at the conference called: “Access to Information on Elections” (Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador). This webinar was the third of a total of eight panels held every Tuesday and Thursday in September.

Participants in the session were:

–         Marcelo Rodríguez (presenter) ; Foreign, Comparative and International Law Librarian at the Daniel F. Cracchiolo Library of the James E. Rogers School of Law at the University of Arizona.

The guest panel was:

–         Clare Seelke (moderator) ; Research Specialist in Latin American Affairs of the United States Congressional Research Service (CRS). This is a nonpartisan investigative agency for the members and committees of Congress and their staff located within the Library of Congress. 

For its part, the group of panelists was made up of four experts of different nationalities:

–         Gerardo Sánchez: Specialist in the Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation (DECO) of the Organization of American States (OAS).

–         Daniela Hormazábal : Previously, she was a researcher for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and coordinator of technical committees in Chile’s Interior Government division. She is currently a researcher for the Board of Directors of the Electoral Service of Chile and a member of the Chilean Political Science Association. She is part of the network of Latin American political scientists.  

–         Demetrio Lazagna : He is director of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in Ecuador. He has extensive experience in international relations, especially focused on technical assistance and electoral observations.

–         Kathryn Ledebur : Director of the Andean Information Network.

The conference could be viewed and followed online through the Zoom platform, with prior registration. For those who are interested in seeing the full video for the first time or reviewing it again, they can do so on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FY7-8kTAc7I

Presentations:

  1. Gerardo Sánchez:

The first speaker at the webinar was Gerardo Sánchez, specialist from the Department for Electoral Cooperation and Observation (DECO / OEA), who emphasized the relevance of the meeting within the current context of the pandemic and the importance of information for our decision-making. Along these lines, his presentation provided a general overview about access to information in the inter-American system and its impact on electoral processes and the importance of equal and equitable access to information, which is configured as a fundamental component to exercise democracy, helping the individual to make conscious and informed decisions.

Four documents stand out as evidence on the evolution of access to information in the region over time. The first of these is the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man , which in its article 4 indicates that everyone has the right to freedom of investigation, opinion, expression and dissemination of their thoughts.

Added to this it is the American Convention (Pact of San José) which in its Article 13 No. 1 states that “this right includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information …”

For its part, the Inter-American Democratic Charter in its article 4 highlights elements such as transparency, freedom of expression and of the press.

Finally, there is the Declaration of principles on freedom of expression, which in its 2nd principle refers to equal opportunities to receive, seek and impart information.

To guarantee these fundamental principles, such as freedom or equality in access to information, it is necessary to have a legal framework that protects them. At the same time, this is related to the way and guarantees we have to exercise these rights.

In this sense, for the OAS, this right has two dimensions. One personal dimension, while the other is social. From the latter, the importance of the right to be well informed is highlighted, because this component is the one that will allow us to better exercise our other rights, including, for example, the right to education and health or the right to vote (together with information on who to vote for, where, how, etc.)

Ultimately, as mentioned before, information allows decision-making and from this point of view its social dimension is emphasized.

In line with the latter, there are two essential components that stand out for access to information on electoral bodies.

1.- Principle of maximum transparency: Maximum disclosure of the information that is understood as public.

2.- Active transparency: Obligation to publish information of public interest.

Regarding how to inform ourselves of electoral processes, it is important the role as sources of information of the powers of the State, the media, electoral authorities, social networks, organized civil society and others (specialized studies).

Among these, the electoral authority is considered to be the most crucial institution to nurture the informational spaces during electoral periods.

Bearing this in mind, it should be remembered that the WHO declared a pandemic state on March 11, 2020 and during that year 18 elections were scheduled within the region. As a result of this, 7 of these elections were postponed (in Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay and Uruguay).

These postponements are due to the need to protect the right to health, without limiting the electoral right of people to express their political opinions. What Gerardo Sánchez highlights in this regard is that rather than privilege, participating in elections is a right. The reasoning behind it is related to the fact that these rights are not only compatible, but they are mutually necessary. In this sense, the right to health should have been guaranteed in order to later be able to exercise the right to vote. 

A necessary cycle is built in order to protect everyone’s health without neglecting political and electoral rights, since, in order to exercise one, the other is needed. The pandemic leaves a great lesson in adaptation and learning to be able to adapt the process to current sanitary measures. There were changes in the electoral roll, training, measures implemented, transmission of results. It is necessary to point out that there is no single model to carry out the electoral process, since the reality of each country is different, therefore the electoral model must be adjusted to the needs of the different nations. Then, the scenario of the pandemic led to revitalize the discussion about forms of voting, among which emerged, for example, online voting, early voting, extended hours, segmented schedules, among others. All this in order to maintain an electoral roll, which guarantees the representativeness of the votes.     

On the other hand, the sanitary measures to carry out the electoral processes were evaluated and together with them, the way in which the training would be carried out (possibility of migrating to technological formats), and the way in which the results will be communicated.

On another side, the way in which justice was administered also had to undergo modifications and was innovated through hearings that used technological tools (via Zoom, for example).

The panorama that we face in the region during this last period of time, entails, in short, adjustments in every sense. The electoral process was no exception, and the OAS prepared a six-chapter guide for holding elections in times of pandemic ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bnagj7UImQ ).

2. Daniela Hormazábal:

In her presentation, she fundamentally dealt with the issue of the impact of the pandemic on electoral processes and specifically the Chilean case.

To do this, in the first place, she gave rise to the explanation of the context and the diagnosis by which Chile had to face elections in a pandemic. The elements highlighted here have to do with the appearance of Covid-19, voluntary voting in Chile (low participation rates), plus a specific political context (social protests in October 2019) that led to the realization of a plebiscite to resolve the approval or rejection of a new constitution for Chile. 

Faced with this scenario, it was necessary to decide whether or not to hold the elections on the pre-established date, with the understanding that, although the health aspect was contingent and urgent. The political right could not be set aside.

In addition, certain milestones in electoral administration that took place during this period of time were highlighted:

The regulation of the plebiscite and following electoral events during the pandemic was delegated to the Chile’s Electoral Service (Servel in Spanish), for which an instruction was drawn up, along with a health protocol, taking as a reference the protocol drawn up in the Dominican Republic, which was the first country to hold elections during the pandemic in Latin America.

In addition, the Servel issued instructions to have facilitators in all voting locations. Furthermore, it was decided that all electoral materials would be reviewed and placed in custody and the number of places available for voting was increased.

Regarding the electoral calendar, during 2020, 4 elections were postponed: The national plebiscite; 2020 municipal and regional governor elections; the second vote of regional governors; and the presidential and parliamentary primaries.

With regards to communication with the electorate, the fact that this was constant stands out. In this sense, communicational materials were prepared in the voting places and appropriate signage, communicational campaigns were created for different media, including social networks and TV. A special section on the health issue was also created on the website http://www.servel.cl and health care units were trained to answer questions from citizens. 

Other aspects that stand out in this presentation were the elimination of the graphite pencil (each person could bring their own pencil paste to vote), the implementation of the preferential hours and with exclusive hours and the realization of a program of virtual international visits, with tours of polling stations and polling stations in five cities. The creation of working groups with international civil society organizations and political parties is highlighted to carry out the electoral process successfully.

There were innovations such as the implementation of the online candidate sponsorship system and the creation of the web information system “Meet your candidate”.

In summary, among the main measures adopted against Covid-19 are:

–         Extension of the vote to two days.

–         The hiring of more than 15,300 facilitators.

–         Allow the use of the paste pencil.

–         Determination of capacity.

–         Implementation of a new sanitary protocol.

–         Mass vaccination against Covid-19 for table officials and electoral personnel.

–         Special communication measures (brochures, forums, etc.)

In relation to campaign events, those of a massive nature were prohibited and political parties were held responsible for adopting the necessary measures to disseminate information without risk to the population.

Regarding the challenges and lessons learned as a result of the electoral process in times of a pandemic, it appears that there is a broad debate on the incorporation of new voting channels to increase the number of voters and avoid crowds.

It is also considered necessary to improve the training mechanisms for table members. And finally, the learning lessons obtained in relation to the creation of working groups leading to the improvement of the electoral process stands out.

3. Demetrio Lazagna:

As previously mentioned, Demetrio Lazagna is the Director of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in Ecuador. This organization provided technical support and accompaniment in the two electoral elections in Ecuador in February and April 2021, one for presidential elections and the other for the Ecuadorian national assembly.

In Ecuador, voting is mandatory from the age of 18, and despite having a pandemic, there were many observers, both national and international, who followed the unfolding of these events.

Regarding the call and the provisions for elections during a pandemic, the possibility of prolonging the call for elections was discussed. However, because the law did not allow it and with the support of the former president, it was decided to respect the electoral calendar. In these elections, some of the reforms to the Democracy Code had to be applied, such as gender parity, closed-list voting, presidential debates and changes in the allocation of seats. However, there was a reduction in the budget for the elections given the impact of the pandemic in social, political and economic spheres, as well as a reduction in the budget for the campaigns.

The provision of measures in the schools was coordinated, which functioned as electoral precincts to avoid crowds and a general protocol was generated for the prevention of the spread of Covid-19 in the 2021 electoral process (for the second round elections) .

There were mass communication campaigns that focused on the need to use face masks, gel and biosafety kits. Measures to prohibit political rallies were added.

To give greater security on election day, the action was taken to implement the Voto en Casa program (for people with disabilities greater than 75%), the vote for persons deprived of liberty without an executive sentence, an information campaign by the CNE for the compliance with the sanitary protocol and motivate people to vote and preferential voting and information tables were set up.    

On the other hand, the CNE developed a mobile application to monitor the electoral process and the IFES created an interactive web portal for electoral observation.

On election day there were delays due to the lack of attendance of some members to work. In addition, there were long lines and some biosafety control problems, given the crowds. However, the delivery of safety kits was effective with a percentage of 98.61%.

From the general results left by the elections, the following points stand out:

After the first round election, the Ministry of Health and the CNE did a study on the impact of Covid-19 from which it emerged that, of the 277,233 workers, a total of 3,000 of them were infected.

The percentage of citizen participation was high with more than 80%, placing Ecuador among the countries with the most participation among those that carried out elections in the context of a pandemic, without detecting increases in contagion as a result of the elections. The use of social networks was in turn very high.

4. Kathryn Ledebur :

Finally, Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network (Bolivia), spoke for Bolivia. Her presentation addressed the electoral process in Bolivia in the context of a pandemic. It should be notes that in this country there was a very strong dispute over the results of the October 2019 elections with allegations of fraud on the one hand and, on the other hand, the rejection of the annulment of the electoral process with the call for new elections. This political context ultimately led to the resignation and departure of Evo Morales from the country.

The elections were initially postponed for 90 days, but as a result of the sustained lack of information and the repressive use of the pandemic, it leads to a new postponement of the dates, which generates massive protests in October 2020.

In this way, a situation of much repression and political conflict was experienced that included political persecution, arbitrary detentions and the abuse of force by the forces of order. Therefore, entry into the pandemic had begun on the political level with an illegal government, human rights violations and an official press that did not report the news in a balanced way.

In parallel, an agreement was reached so that new elections would be called on May 3, 2020. However, with the pandemic, a period of restriction and total quarantine for three and a half months imposed by the executive began, with which it was impossible to finalize the elections on the budgeted date.

Given this context, the case of Bolivia would demonstrate, according to the analysis offered by Kathryn Ledebur, how the pandemic can be used for political and repressive purposes to limit freedom of expression and the movement of citizens using the health phenomenon, for example, to carry out arbitrary arrests with the excuse of the crime of putting public health at risk, even in cases of people who were standing outside their own home.

This situation leads to problems in evaluating the pandemic at the time and a lack of clear information on the severity of the pandemic and on how the State treats it to take the necessary biosecurity measures.

In addition to the lack of reliable information, false news campaigns were added on social networks, which prevented informing the public of the real threat of the pandemic and the progress of the elections. Along with this, the lack of help from the State to the population was observed in the face of the pandemic.

The context described led to a new postponement of the elections to October 18, which generated waves of protests over the de facto government measures and limited the arrival of international observers.

Despite the scenario described in Bolivia, a country in which there is compulsory voting, there was a broad participation of the population in the October elections, with biosecurity measures efficiently implemented. However, it is detected that the information to the population about these measures was acquired mostly in a self-taught way and not provided by the authorities. 

Another factor mentioned is the lack of access to the internet for a large part of the Bolivian population due to the high cost that it has.

Conclusions:

Access to information is a human right that is understood within freedom of expression and an essential component of every form of organization that is presumed to be democratic.

Through these four presentations by prominent and experienced panelists, we have been able to verify how health information coexists with electoral information, bearing in mind the importance of both for people’s lives and the future of human activities in a democratic context.

As Gerardo Sánchez mentions, on the one hand, it is observed that the pandemic leaves some good lessons and positive aspects. In this sense, with some exceptions, in general terms the electoral authorities of the countries of the region have been able to adapt their electoral processes in the best possible way so that the problem of the pandemic is not an impediment with regards to the exercise of voting. In line with this, the exchange of information between countries has been important to share experiences and knowledge from one place to another, such as in the case of Chile, described by Daniela Hormazábal, where it was possible to learn from the experience shared by the Dominican Republic who were pioneers in holding elections during a pandemic, in addition to holding workshops in conjunction with Civil Society, International Organizations and Political Parties, which remain until today.  

In this way, the experience of the pandemic has shown us that it is possible to re-articulate electoral processes, even when the pandemic scenario has forced postponements on many occasions due to force majeure, thanks to the agreements of the actors and parties involved.

For the success of these processes, good management and timely dissemination of information has turned out to be a key element, since the pandemic can be an element that without adequate information can generate uncertainty and fear in the population to go to the polling places. For this reason, in the face of it, it is essential to be able to guarantee the means to do so, as well as to provide adequate information and at the precise times so that this right is not violated.

Along these lines, it is observed that the right to health and the political right should not overlap with each other, but rather that there is an obligation to respect and guarantee the existence of both rights. This is reflected in the electoral experience of these countries and in the opening to the option of postponing the elections, without considering their suspension as something viable.

The general success alluded to can also be observed not only in the actual conduct of electoral activities, but also in the large turnout of people to vote in cases such as the Ecuadorian or in the Chilean plebiscite despite the pandemic.

However, the pandemic still represents a challenge to be able to make the democratic framework coexist with the health situation and advance civic participation, without representing a risk for citizens. This has motivated the discussion on the possibility of expanding the forms of voting, considering alternatives such as early voting or digital voting. Of course, for this last option, it is still necessary to reduce that great digital divide that affects a very important percentage of the population and that, according to what Kathryn Ledebur reported, is much more clearly evident in countries like Bolivia. 

The speakers agreed that there are still various gaps between the population, the digital gap being one of the most worrying for this process, which had its strength in the digital environment, so it is important to provide tools so that the population can function in this environment, such as information literacy programs and work to reduce these differences. 

By Evelyn Lagos and Antonieta Ubillo

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