There is no legal prohibition for voters with covid-19 to vote in the constitutional referendum of October 25 in Chile, the most relevant electoral process in the country in the last three decades. In practice, however, health regulations prevent the infected and their close contacts from breaking the quarantine. Without alternative mechanisms to face-to-face voting, the Government of Sebastián Piñera warned that people who violate isolation on voting day and are discovered by the police can be arrested and sent back home, subjected to investigations and reported to justice for crimes against public health provided for in the Penal Code.
“It is important that people who have positive covid-19 comply with the mandatory quarantine, as well as their close contacts,” said Executive Spokesman Jaime Bellolio. “It is not just about the health of an individual: the exercise of one’s freedom can have an effect on other people, which can be deadly. The pandemic is like that and, therefore, we must protect ourselves and be careful ”, he added.
Chilean law, however, guarantees that if a person arrives at their polling place, they are entitled to suffrage, even if they are violating some rule. Even whoever commits an offense within their polling station can vote before being arrested. If the police surprise a covid-19 patient inside the establishment, therefore, you should allow him to exercise his political right before returning him to the place where he quarantines. This does not apply to an infected person who is caught on the way to or from their polling place. In that case, you will not be able to vote and will be subject to the penalties provided for.
Chile did not control the first wave of the pandemic. With 12,142 confirmed deaths and a peak in mid-June, there are currently 15,080 active cases of covid-19. It is not known, however, how the country’s health situation will be in five weeks, when more than 14 million people will be able to go to the polls to decide whether or not they want to replace the 1980 Constitution, drafted in Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship , and what should be the mechanism for the elaboration of a new Charter (a convention of citizens specifically chosen for this or a convention composed equally by parliamentarians). This is an unprecedented consultation in the world and in Chile, which has never had a constitution discussed in a democracy.
“As the country’s highest electoral body, it is up to us to ensure that people have the right to vote,” explains Patricio Santamaría, president of the board of directors of the Electoral Service (Servel). “But, at the moment when the health authority, based on its attributions – a guaranteed constitutional right and the health code -, determined that people with covid-19 cannot abandon their quarantine and must maintain their isolation, under the risk of suffering millionaire fines and incurring crimes, we said: “Well, there is a situation that does not depend on the electoral body, they are people who will not be able to mobilize to the polling centers”, points out the spokesman for Servel, who has no legislative initiative, unlike what happens in other countries.
According to current legislation, voting in Chile must be secret, personal, egalitarian, informed and, in addition, in person at polling stations. Santamaría states that “since 2013 Servel has asked for legal changes that allow us to have different voting systems and procedures for, for example, people deprived of their liberty who maintain their political rights in force” – who are also unable to vote (it is estimated that reach 14,000). But the pandemic caught Chile, as well as other countries in the region, with no alternative to the face-to-face vote.
“Latin America, unfortunately, will face elections in pandemic contexts without having alternative voting mechanisms”, points out Daniel Zovatto, regional director of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, one of the organizations that has been closely monitoring the electoral processes of the world amid to the health crisis. “No country has a vote by correspondence within the territory, only for its citizens abroad. They also do not provide for the household vote contemplated for cases of covid-19, because some countries ―Ecuador, Paraguay and Honduras― have implemented it, but for people of a certain age and with difficulties to leave home. There is no Internet vote and only two, Brazil and Venezuela, have electronic voting, although it is not a solution either, because in any case you would have to go to a voting center ”, says Zovatto.
The analyst considers it “an aberration” that patients with covid-19 are prohibited from voting, as happened in the July elections in the Basque Country and Galicia. Regarding the Chilean case, he says: “There was no anticipation and the days passed, as a result of the intense Chilean political agenda, until a time came when the excuse was that there was no time”.
The number of people with covid-19 who will not be able to vote on October 25 will depend, to a large extent, on what is happening this weekend when the population celebrates the National Holidays – the holidays in honor of independence. September 18 is probably the most important day for the Chilean people, and this year, this Sunday, is the first after the social explosion of October 2019 and the most severe winter months of the pandemic. This year’s celebrations were restricted: not even traditional ones were allowed fund (celebrations similar to the June festivities, with typical food and drink stalls and lots of dancing). But the Government authorized small family gatherings, which opened a debate about the risk of increased contagion.
The authorities will only know in the last hours before the referendum which are infected, where they are and how many are. It is private information to which not even Servel has access, as Santamaría explains. It will be the police, therefore, who must ensure that there are no infected on the streets on the day of the referendum. Police officers will be at the entrance to polling stations to conduct random searches and will be able to identify patients and their close contacts by means of their identity document, registered in the Ministry of Health’s database.
Servel has published a health protocol that regulates the different steps for conducting the plebiscite safely, implementing measures such as exclusive and preferred hours for 60-year-olds and at-risk groups, such as pregnant women.
“There is no country in our region or in the world that, between October 2020 and mid-2022, has an electoral calendar as intense as Chile, not only in quantity, but also in variety of electoral processes”, highlights Zovatto, referring to the electoral train that will start moving from the October plebiscite and which includes municipal and constituent elections in April, presidential and legislative elections in November 2021, and a referendum on the possible new Constitution in May 2022. “Under this From this point of view, Chile is a unique laboratory at the regional and global level on how to organize different types of elections at different stages of the pandemic, depending on how it will evolve during this period, ”he adds.
According to Santamaría, the Chilean authorities have pledged to implement alternative mechanisms to the face-to-face vote for the April elections, such as early voting, postal and home voting. This is very important in a country like Chile, which, together with Colombia, has one of the lowest electoral participation rates in the region (less than 50% in the last presidential elections).