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Published On November 16, 2020  |  by UHRC

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new and innovative methods to the management of elections in Uganda. Within a few months, the pandemic has   transformed   fundamental   aspects of individuals’ social lives, limiting their  participation  in  public  events  and  gatherings,  and  challenging  the  fulfilment  of  their  individual  and  collective  civic  responsibilities and political rights.

It  is  therefore  no  surprise  that  elections  have  been  an  immediate  and  inevitable casualty of the pandemic. Elections are large, social events that mobilize groups of people and bring entire societies together. Elections are also the costliest and most administratively and logistically burdensome operation that a country can undertake. Moreover, not only do elections need to be run seamlessly, and attain high levels of participation; they also need to simultaneously ensure inclusivity, transparency, security and integrity at all stages.

The  pandemic  has  rapidly  challenged  elections,  making  new  and  pressing  demands  on  how  they  are  managed.  The main public health threat associated with elections arises from the requirement for voters to cast their ballots in person, at a polling station, most often on a single day.

The   COVID-19   pandemic possess  decisive tests that may reveal the health of any democracy because it indiscriminately  exposes  the  strengths  and  weaknesses  of  the  social  contract  between  citizens  and  the  government  they  have  elected.  They  also  expose  the  quality  and  accountability  of  systems  and  institutions  of  governance,  governments’  competence  and  strength  in  responding  to  the  crisis,  and  the  effectiveness of the decisions they have taken to resolve the emergency.

When considering the possibility of holding the elections in Uganda amidst the pandemic, the most common dilemmas confronted by the state included: 

• Ensuring sufficient and credible levels of voter participation that, in turn, would guarantee representation and legitimacy of the process; 

• Provision of a safe voting environment for both voters and poll officials while minimizing the health risks associated with all electoral operations that require in-person interactions (including, for example, voter registration, election campaigns, voting and counting processes, observation, etc.); and

• Delivery of a transparent and accountable electoral process that enjoys a high degree of integrity despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

The serious health risks of the pandemic require a choice regarding whether the state would the health of citizens, or that of the nation’s democracy?  In  practice,  it  does  not  require  choosing  one  of  these  extreme  ends;  rather,  it  involves  ensuring  that  voting is both safe and technically sound, and garners the needed legitimacy. This calls for an evaluation of  the  challenges  posed  by  the  pandemic  to  the  management  and  integrity  of  the  electoral  process  and  balancing  them  with  the  health  risks  to  all those participating is not an easy task. By deciding to hold an election during the pandemic, the state has had to first determine whether and how the risks of exposing voters, poll officials and others to exposure to COVID -19 at polling stations can be minimized. The state has devised appropriate safety measures to protect public health when voting as well as a strategy to reassure voters. Several  safety  measures have been introduced  to  reduce  the  risk  of  exposure  at  polling  stations.  

These  include  the  use  of  personal  protective  equipment  safeguarding  the  wearer  from  infection  (e.g.  protective  masks,  gloves,  glasses,  face  shields,  aprons),  safety  materials  and  signs  to  ensure  safe  distancing  at  each  step  of  the  voting  process  and  other  safety, hygiene and behavioral measures ranging from the use of disinfectants, temperature checking and maintaining a safe distance from others, to sanitizing hands and avoiding or limiting the use of objects commonly touched by others. 

It is important for the stake holders to note the overall feasibility of holding the election under the numerous restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Secondly, the stakeholders should have the confidence and reassurance that the election can be effectively managed without undermining public safety or compromising fundamental human rights, democratic principles and norms.

As noted earlier, the main threat that elections held during a pandemic pose to public health arises from the requirement to converge within a limited time in confined and crowded places and polling stations, where  maintaining  hygiene  rules  and  a  safe  distance  from  others  may  be  difficult. The Country has opted to conduct the elections under these conditions, and the decisions about  the  time  and  place  of  campaign and voting  may  have  major  implications  for  determining  and  assuring  voter  safety. This has been clearly demonstrated during the Presidential Candidates nominations where people were seen in crowds along the road to the nomination center without taking into consideration the SOP’s and guidelines issues by the Ministry of Health.

Hence,  when  considering  how  to  minimize  the  health-related  risks  posed  by  the  pandemic,  the stakeholders and citizens themselves  need  to  reasonably  and  realistically  consider  the  impact  of  these  two  critical factors in the act of campaign and voting.

In conclusion, it is clear that the pandemic has change dynamics concerning management of elections especially exercising one’s right to vote. Lessons can be learned regarding measures that should be in place to protect voters while ensuring that free, fair and safe elections take place in Uganda. Such measures should include adjusting voter registration rules and polling station procedures and encouraging early voting while upholding all the standard operating procedures against the spread of the pandemic.

By Dr. Patricia Achan Okiria

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