In five weeks, in circumstances different in so many ways from previous polls, T&T will vote for its next government.
When Prime Minister Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced August 10 as election day yesterday, activities that were already in motion by the Election and Boundaries Commission (EBC) and various political parties shifted into high gear.
But the conduct of the polls will be dictated by COVID-19, the deadly pandemic which has led to elections being postponed in at least 67 countries.
T&T now joins at least 40 countries and territories that have decided to go ahead with elections, while six countries have already held elections or referendums, including South Korea, which had its highest voter turnout in 18 years at its socially distanced polls in mid-April.
The EBC has already developed a policy document which incorporates all of the public health requirements for voting. Chief Election Officer Fern Narcis-Scope has already indicated that political parties will have to adjust their machinery and find innovative ways to reach out to the public. At the same time, options such as longer hours of voting and measures for reducing the number of voters in polling locations will have to be considered.
This means T&T’s election tradition of mass campaign gatherings and a flurry of events, where candidates get up close and personal with the prospective voters, shaking hands and even hugging and kissing, are out of the question. Even motorcades will have to be done differently to comply with pandemic protocols.
Some candidates have already been on socially-distanced walkabouts and parties have been holding virtual election meetings. However, now that the election bell has been rung, there will be increased public interest in all things political. Controlling crowds and the behaviour of enthusiastic supporters will undoubtedly be much more challenging than before.
Election night victory celebrations, crowded events that have become a special feature of T&T politics, will also have to be tempered.
But there is another COVID consequence that will weigh heavily on the upcoming polls—the number of eligible voters who will be disenfranchised if the country’s borders remain closed.
There is likely to be a clamour from the many nationals outside the country for exemptions to return home and cast their votes. Efforts by the authorities to carefully manage this process, with quarantines and other restrictions aimed at keeping COVID-19 at bay, will come under increased pressure and scrutiny during this period.
While too late for this election, widening voting options to include mail-in ballots and electronic voting must be considered for the future, along with any other systems that conform with the new normal.
The last time T&T went to the polls, voter turnout was a decent 67.27 per cent. How the pandemic affects this and other aspects of the election remains to be seen.