What Happens When Jacinda Ardern Delays the Election
About a week ago, I was getting a few pages deeper into How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. A particular tale they tell is the one of how Venezuela in recent decades became an autocracy, how Hugo Chávez steered the country towards a dictatorship through slow censorship, imprisonment of political rivals, and delaying of elections and referendums.
This last point is the interesting bit. I was telling my sister the day after about how America’s democracy today is perhaps crumbling in front of our eyes, and how Donald Trump’s desire to delay the 2020 presidential election date was another step in that direction.
However, then entered Jacinda Ardern, the much beloved Prime Minister of New Zealand, who revealed that she was delaying New Zealand’s election due to COVID-19.
To me, who had just recently made the association that delaying elections is automatically bad, I felt confused. Jacinda is a leader known for her decisive, compassionate and smart governance - her country was one of the only ones that managed to properly take control of COVID-19 (reducing their cases to zero in the past). She didn’t seem like dictator material.
People all over the Left felt the same, we didn’t want to necessarily give her a free pass for this move, it would’ve been hypocritical - even if we know why the context of both situations may garner for different perspectives. The Right of Twitter (the most factual website, naturally) jumped on that almost immediately, crying “Why is it okay for Ardern but not Trump? One rule for one and another for the rest!”
There is still a pandemic on, why couldn’t we just allow any leader to delay an election until it’s safe to do so? Why is the postponing of elections so taboo?
History can teach us a lot of things about the way democracies have broken down before, and history has demonstrated that postponing displays of democracy, usually until a convenient time for those in power, can heighten chances of re-election. It is a method some leaders have been able to hold their position of power when conventionally they may have not.
Whilst the pandemic and mass voter turnout practically could cause a few problems, there are ways to potentially navigate it: higher availability of postal ballots and safety precautions like social distancing and frequent sanitation. Also some research suggests that voting in person is actually quite safe!
The question could be asked of New Zealand: is the delay really needed if there are ways to minimise a pretty low-risk situation already?
It wasn’t really Ardern’s decision in the first place. Her opposition, the National Party, argued that since there would be restrictions on effectively campaigning that she would have a clear, unfair advantage. Political pressure from rivals, and the state of COVID-19 currently, lead to her decision for lockdown delays.
However, Donald Trump fears that mass mail-in votes, caused by an unobstructed November election, could lead to fraud, inaccurate results and a delayed outcome. However, incidences of any issues with postal voting occurring are low, and with the Trump Administration’s plot to break down the USPS you have to wonder what his motives really are. Mail-in voting is good for the Democrats, they have the lead on the polls right now and the larger the proportion of the population that votes, probably means that Joe Biden gets more of his votes in.
Looking at the two situations more broadly, it’s clear that whilst the premise is the same; delaying an election being threats to democracy, the contexts lead them to be morally interpreted differently. Ardern’s delay was agreed, and even advocated for, cross-party; whilst Trump’s proposal is constitutionally duplicitous and is a solo desire that perhaps could be in favour of his political interests.