An expert's point of view on a current event.

Poland Is Showing the World How Not to Run a Pandemic Election

The upcoming Polish election is shaping up to be a farce. Washington should learn from Warsaw’s mistakes before November.

A man holds a copy of the Polish Constitution as police officers check his ID card after he took part in a protest in Warsaw, Poland, on April 30.
A man holds a copy of the Polish Constitution as police officers check his ID card after he took part in a protest in Warsaw, Poland, on April 30. WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Polish citizens are set to vote in a presidential election later this week, but there is a serious risk that the balloting will be neither free nor fair. The United States should watch closely and do what is necessary to avoid a similar fate in November.

Voting during a pandemic is a difficult exercise, as demonstrated by the 52 countries that have already decided to postpone national or local elections because of the coronavirus. Poland is one of the few nations that are forging ahead, and a combination of daunting logistical challenges and unconcealed attempts by the ruling party to turn the situation to its own advantage are seriously eroding trust in the process.

On April 6, a month before the scheduled election, the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party rammed legislation through Poland’s lower house of parliament, the Sejm, to introduce nationwide postal voting. Unlike the United States, where the expansion of absentee ballots has been spearheaded by Democrats, in Poland it was the ruling party that championed remote voting as its only chance to hold elections on time. The bill was passed late in the evening amid significant concerns about its content and in defiance of a clear constitutional court decision banning changes to electoral laws less than six months before a vote.

PiS decided to press forward because its loyal ally, incumbent President Andrzej Duda, had been polling favorably. The party needs Duda in his post to finish what it calls its “reconstruction of the state,” which has primarily focused on subordinating independent institutions to its own politicized control.

The upper house, where the opposition has a razor-thin majority, has stalled the adoption of the postal voting bill, making use of its legally mandated 30 days to debate the measure. But the government has disregarded procedure, ordering state authorities and local governments to transfer voter identification data to the Polish postal service and to start preparing and printing ballots.

Without an actual law in force, the country is still set to hold in-person balloting on May 10. If the Sejm approves the bill on the last day of the Senate’s review period, the authorities will have only four days to officially inform citizens about the changed procedures. The last-minute confusion and court involvement are reminiscent of the April primary vote in Wisconsin.

Aside from the legal difficulties, there are enormous logistical obstacles. Poland lacks experience with widespread postal voting. The postal service would have to safely and promptly deliver more than 30 million items in the middle of a pandemic, and the authorities would have to make sure that the return boxes where voters deposit their ballots are secure from tampering.

In the absence of sufficient oversight, this could open the door to fraud, such as the spoiling of ballots, as well as other problems, including family voting, where one member of a household delivers everyone’s votes, allowing them to pressure the others to vote a certain way. Already some ballot packages seemed to have disappeared, and ballots were seen strewn on a sidewalk in Warsaw, raising questions about the security of the vote and the capacity of the Polish Post to administer it.

Moreover, citizens who are not currently residing at their permanent address, including students and expatriates, are likely to be disenfranchised, and it is not clear what will happen to the tens of thousands of people under home quarantine.

The pending law would notably transfer authority over crucial technical questions, such as what should be done with unsealed ballots or illegible handwriting, from the nonpartisan National Electoral Commission to a government ministry. Meanwhile the opposition is unable to campaign due to health and safety restrictions, even as Duda receives free airtime and favorable coverage from the public broadcaster. This has resulted in calls for boycott and the tanking of support for opposition candidates. Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska from the centrist Civic Platform, who was in second place until March, has announced that she is not taking part in the election.

The government could defuse the crisis at any time by announcing a state of emergency, which would automatically delay the election to 90 days.

The government could defuse the crisis at any time by announcing a state of emergency, in line with the constitution and with its coronavirus-related restrictions, which would automatically delay the election to 90 days after the end of the emergency. Even the proposed law on postal voting allows for a short delay of a week or two.

But the ongoing uncertainty creates an impression, as international election monitors put it, that “the electoral law is simply a tool in the hands of the powerful.” For all of these reasons, citizens are unhappy with the government’s approach. According to a recent survey, 80 percent of Poles want the election postponed. Yet PiS is pushing ahead because it fears the coronavirus and the likely economic downturn, which would be Poland’s first recession since the early 1990s, will dent its popularity. But its aggressive approach could hurt the party in the long term and has already pushed the governing coalition to the brink of collapse.

Whatever the outcome, Poland’s experience offers valuable lessons for the United States and other democracies planning to hold elections this year.

First, elected officials who believe in democracy must strive to keep partisan politics out of electoral administration and to instill broad public confidence in the integrity of the vote long before Election Day. To achieve this, U.S. officials and lawmakers from both parties will need to work together toward this goal in preparation for the November vote. They should make clear statements of support for the ability of the democratic system to bring about fair and legitimate outcomes, ideally in joint statements across party lines, and contradict unfounded claims to the contrary regardless of party affiliation.

Poland’s experience offers valuable lessons for the United States and other democracies planning to hold elections this year.

Second, secure and successful mail-in voting requires ample preparation. The United States still has six months until the general election, much more time than Poland had, but the task before it is enormous. Many states need to expand rules to permit widespread postal or absentee balloting, and the U.S. Postal Service and local election boards need to be shored up for processing of ballots. In addition, proper personal protective equipment and other sanitary provisions will be necessary for polling sites to remain open as an option for those who cannot or choose not to vote by mail. Congress should get involved to help states share expertise and provide them with the necessary resources.

Finally, both sides need to pledge that they will respect the results of the election and refrain from any rhetoric suggesting the opposite. In October 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump stated that he might not accept the election outcome if he thought it might be rigged, despite strong evidence of the integrity of U.S. elections and minimal fraud. Similar statements from either side in today’s even more polarized environment would undermine public faith in the election and could have a long-term impact on the victor’s ability to govern effectively. If any court decisions are necessary to resolve the outcome, both sides must respect them.

A free and fair election is possible during the pandemic. But it calls for exhaustive technical preparation and, more importantly, political consensus on basic procedure and the value of ensuring participation by all eligible voters. Elections are the bedrock of democracy. They must not be undermined by either the coronavirus or the more persistent ills of partisan polarization.

Zselyke Csaky is the research director for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House. Twitter: @zecsaky

Sarah Repucci is the vice president of research and analysis at Freedom House. Twitter: @sarahrepucci