Elections, Protests, & Surveillance

This 11th edition of Freedom House’s twice-monthly newsletter, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic, focuses on key issues around elections related to the pandemic, as well as the role of technology in facilitating surveillance of protesters in the United States.

By Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research

Welcome back to Freedom House’s newsletter on the novel coronavirus and the crisis, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic. Here in New York City, we’re in Phase Two of reopening, which means I just got my first haircut in four months. So things are looking up.

Special Features: Elections

In this issue, we put the spotlight on two big issues: growing problems around elections, and the deployment of surveillance technologies in response to protests in the United States.

In the United States, the racist disenfranchisement of Black voters is being exacerbated by the pandemic. The messy primary in the state of Georgia showed that longstanding practices in the United States intended to create unequal access to voting again resulted in disenfranchisement. Research Analyst Isabel Linzer breaks down the problem beyond Georgia: Black people who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19 are also those that suffer the most when polling places are closed or relocated, or when mail-in ballots are used without adequate preparation and support. As we’ve said multiple times now, this year’s elections offer an urgent opportunity to fix some of the longstanding issues in our country affecting elections.

Black Lives Matter Protest "Vote" Sign
Atlanta, Georgia Black Lives Matter protestors carry a "VOTE" banner. Raymond Richards /

The United States’s history of racist disenfranchisement is not the only election-related issue we’re watching. All around the world, elections are being changed in ways subtly and overtly by official responses to the crisis, and other developments:

  • In Ethiopia, the government has postponed August elections entirely, giving lawmakers and the government another year in office. As our Yoseph Badwaza said back in April as the crisis was emerging, the coronavirus response could threaten the fragile transition that’s been underway since 2018.
  • Sri Lanka will hold general elections on August 5, after delaying the polls for a second time due to the pandemic. Parliament was already dissolved in March in anticipation of elections in April—meaning that it will be five months without a parliament before the country is able to vote.
  • In Poland, the United States is involving itself in a contested election, hosting President Andrzej Duda at the White House only a few days before Saturday’s vote—a replacement for the “ghost election” held in early May when the government tried to ram through voting despite widespread opposition. Duda’s campaign has been overtly homophobic and antisemitic, making the US administration’s show of support especially galling. See our statement from Monday.
  • Belarus's president Aleksandr Lukashenka is leading an escalating crackdown on the opposition in advance of the presidential election in August. Protesters were arrested across the country after they came out into the streets following the arrest of presidential candidate Viktor Babaryko. Our Europe and Eurasia programs director Mark Behrendt commented on the election last week in advance of the arrests, as warning signs were mounting.

Special Features: Surveillance

In our other feature this week, Senior Research Analyst for Technology and Democracy Allie Funk explains the myriad ways in which surveillance technologies are being used against protesters in the United States, including participants in the massive racial justice protests that emerged following the police killing of George Floyd. Increasingly, surveillance tools from social media monitoring, to drones, to cell phone–interception devices called Stingrays are tools of the trade for police and federal agencies around the country. These intrusive surveillance tactics often interfere with constitutionally protected activities either subtly or overtly, and discourage people from engaging in lawful protests.

Finally, regular readers of this newsletter know about our monthly China Media Bulletin by now, in which Senior Research Analyst Sarah Cook breaks down what is happening in censorship, media freedom, and internet freedom related to the People’s Republic of China. The new issue is up here, and Sarah’s feature article this week appears in The Diplomat. It is on the emerging global pushback against Chinese Communist Party media influence, in part as backlash to the Chinese government’s propaganda efforts to push its preferred narrative about the country’s coronavirus response.

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That’s all for this week. Stay safe, and stay free.

Thanks for reading Freedom House’s newsletter, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic! To subscribe to this newsletter, please click here.