How can voting behavior increase

Voting in the Pandemic: Challenges and Consequences


The challenges posed by the coronavirus affect all areas of life, not least politics in the “super election year” of 2021. B. Sports events, however, cannot simply be canceled, postponed or held without spectators. While special polling stations with medical personnel in protective clothing for quarantined voters were set up in Israel during the outbreak of the epidemic in early March, some states in the US have postponed the primary elections. The November presidential election saw the use of postal voting on an unprecedented scale, delaying the announcement of the official results by days, during which President Trump attacked the legitimacy of the count. The Federal Returning Officer also expects new record values ​​for postal votes for the federal election in September 2021.

In this post we look at voting during the global corona crisis. What challenges does the pandemic pose for representative democracy and what are the consequences? We are discussing this question primarily with a view to established democracies such as the Federal Republic of Germany on the basis of two premises: Firstly, the corona pandemic can have a direct impact on the decision of voters and, secondly, indirectly via the effects on the election campaign and the implementation of the Choice.

We are assuming that our considerations are not only directly relevant for the upcoming elections this year in the Federal Republic, but could also gain relevance again in the further course of the 21st century, because unfortunately the probability of further pandemics increases in the future (Gavi 2020). Due to global warming, in addition to pandemics, natural disasters such as storms, floods, forest fires and droughts are expected to increase in both frequency and intensity, so that the upcoming elections may not have been the last under crisis conditions.

Voting decision under the impression of a global pandemic

The corona pandemic is the dominant topic in politics, society and the media. Not a day goes by without the topic appearing on the front pages of the daily newspapers or in the reports of the news programs. Likewise, many conversations in the family, with friends, relatives, acquaintances or colleagues revolve around the topic. Thus, without the need for special campaign activities by the parties, it is likely to play a major role for the voters in the state and federal elections coming up this year. So what possible effects can the corona pandemic have on the elections?

To answer the question of how the pandemic situation could affect voting behavior, it is worth taking a look at the literature on the electoral implications of external shocks such as terrorism or natural disasters. On the one hand, emotional reactions - which range from a "rally 'round the flag" effect to a fear-driven withdrawal of support for incumbents - and on the other hand, rational reactions - voters are more inclined to retrospectively vote after a crisis, because the government's performance, especially its crisis management, comes more into the view of the voters - focused. This literature can offer us some insights that are also relevant to the current crisis, but it should be noted that it is limited to elections to related to a crisis. During or in anticipation of major and long-lasting crises, however, assumptions about future crisis management could play a particularly important role; which represents a third, more recent explanation.

The spread of COVID-19 is primarily a threat to the health of citizens. In this respect, it is comparable to other threats such as war and terrorism. Indeed, US President Trump said French President Macron and other heads of state were their countries at war with the virus.Footnote 1 Political scientists have noticed a “rally’ round the flag ”effect in times of international conflicts and natural disasters, through which incumbent politicians gain support (Mueller 1970; Boittin et al. 2020). Mueller argues that events leading to such an effect must be international on the one hand, and specific, dramatic, and sharply focused on the other in order to gain public attention. These criteria certainly apply to the global pandemic and such a "rally’ round the flag "effect could arise here. In fact, as a result of the first wave and the associated countermeasures, trust in and support for governments increased in many European countries (Bol et al. 2020; Esaiasson et al. 2020; Schraff 2021). However, it remains to be seen whether this will have a positive effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on future election results of incumbent governing parties.

Other studies have specified these expectations: for example, Berrebi and Klor (2008) argue that external military threats strengthen ruling parties, especially if they are from the political right. In fact, we see that among the parties in the federal government, it was mainly the Union and less the SPD that benefited in the first months of the pandemic. However, with the Chancellor, she is also the top crisis manager, on whom a "rally’ round the flag "effect, if it exists, would focus. The pandemic could also strengthen the radical right. In the course of history, illnesses seem to have been accompanied by increased hostility towards outsiders, some of which took on extreme proportions, such as the pogroms against Jews in Europe at the time of the plague (Schweitzer and Perry 2002). In 2020, news reports from around the world document an increase in discriminatory behavior towards Asian-looking people in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.Footnote 2 At least in Germany, however, the political right could not benefit from the Corona crisis. In the Bavarian municipal elections in March 2020, it performed weaker in areas that were more affected (Leininger and Schaub 2020) and also lost voting shares in the first state elections in 2021.

A much different expectation with regard to the emotional reactions of the voters: Achen and Bartels (2017) formulate them. According to this, voters are influenced by general feelings of (dissatisfaction) in their voting decision, even if the causes are beyond the control of the government. They illustrate their argument with a series of shark attacks that occurred on the east coast of the United States in the summer before the 1916 presidential election, which they believe resulted in a loss of votes for incumbent President Woodrow Wilson. An analogous mechanism is described by Healy et al. (2010), who show that positive external events, such as victories of the local sports team immediately before an election, are accompanied by an increase in the proportion of votes held by incumbents. Although the concrete empirical analyzes are not without controversy (Fowler and Montagnes 2015; Fowler and Hall 2018), the underlying psychological mechanism is instructive: people sometimes transfer emotions from one area to assessments and judgments in a completely different area, especially in complex and uncertain areas Situations. The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly one such situation.

In contrast, Ashworth et al. (2018) that disasters and crises provide an opportunity for voters to learn about government competence. From this perspective, citizens use elections to replace incompetent incumbents with more competent leaders (Besley 2006). For example, natural disasters can be seen as decisive test cases as to whether elections based on the electorate can ensure government action that is based on internal will (Gasper and Reeves 2011; Arceneaux and Stein 2006). Competent crisis reactions would be rewarded and poor performance would be punished. In fact, Bechtel and Hainmueller (2011) show that the gratitude for Gerhard Schröder's energetic reaction to the Elbe flood in 2002, which is seen as the cause of his successful re-election, even years after the flood disaster in the affected areas in the form of higher votes for the SPD could be established. Whether there is an advantage or disadvantage for the ruling parties from this perspective remains to be seen. This essentially depends on how the crisis management is perceived and assessed by the population up to the Bundestag election.

While the literature has so far mainly dealt with elections after a disaster, Leininger and Schaub (2020) argue that voters: in developing or long-term crises such as a pandemic, have a strong interest in leadership that will steer them safely through the crisis will, and therefore choose primarily prospectively. In analyzes of the Bavarian local elections on March 15, 2020 (shortly before the first nationwide lockdown was imposed), they show that the CSU performed better in areas already affected by COVID-19 than in areas that had not yet recorded a corona infection. The suspected mechanism is that voters in the affected communities use local elections to align their local government with the party in power at the country level to ensure more effective disaster response and relief for their community. Indeed, previous research on the effects of natural disasters on elections has shown that voters can take into account the different responsibilities of different levels of government (Arceneaux and Stein 2006; Malhotra and Kuo 2008; Gasper and Reeves 2011). From this point of view, the Union, which leads the federal government and at the same time participates in most of the state governments, should benefit in particular.

A multitude of different and sometimes conflicting expectations can be derived from the relevant literature. Emotional and forward-looking voters: internal reactions are most likely to work in favor of the ruling parties. Whether this will come true on election evening will, however, crucially depend on developments in the months to come. Over time, as the pandemic progresses and its gradual management, the retrospective assessment of the crisis management of the federal and state governments is likely to gain more and more importance. Most likely, this will become a central theme of the federal election in September, even if it is more difficult for the opposition to criticize the government in times of crisis, as the accusation threatens to damage confidence in politics and state action in general. In addition, other important issues, such as the climate crisis, threaten to take a back seat. It can therefore be assumed that the corona crisis will be the determining topic of the federal election in 2021. How this will affect the performance of the parties is still up to the determining actors in governments and parties.

Campaign and implementation during a pandemic

Not only the voting decisions, but also the elections as a whole are affected by the corona pandemic. This is primarily due to the fact that the election process involves a large number of human contacts: between the voters but also with the election officials. In pandemic times, elections therefore harbor an increased risk of infection (James 2021). In order to enforce this basic democratic right, various considerations have been made since the outbreak of the coronavirus on how the risk of infection can be minimized in elections. A distinction can be made between three approaches: postponing the election date, measures to reduce the risk of infection when voting in attendance and (expanding) absentee voting or absentee voting.

The aim of postponing elections is not to let them take place in a high phase, but in a trough of the infection. Even if postponing elections under extraordinary circumstances appears plausible and justified at first glance, it also harbors risks, emphasize James and Alihodzic (2020). In particular, by postponing the election date and thus the potential extension of the exercise of political power by the incumbent, the citizens' confidence in the functioning of the central institutions of the state and thus possibly the electoral integrity (Norris 2014) damaged. In order to preserve the integrity and legitimacy of elections, it is essential to ensure transparency and the inclusion of different interests in all decisions that affect parts of the electoral cycle - the pre-election period, the election campaign, election day itself and the post-election period (James and Alihodzic 2020). Therefore, if at all possible, the introduction or expansion of technical solution options should be given preference.

Most of the countries then followed this path: while elections were often postponed at the beginning, most countries started holding elections as planned in early summer 2020, taking special protective measures (Asplund et al. 2021a). These measures include keeping your distance and restricting the number of people in the polling station, gloves and / or mask requirements and offers in the polling station, fever measurements before admission, provision of disinfectants, ventilation and disinfection of the polling station and pens, hiring of security staff: inside, who monitor the measures and carry out an admission control, the increase in the number of polling stations and the extension of opening times (sometimes to several days), separate admission locations for particularly vulnerable groups, advertising measures for the use of tracing apps, especially on election day, and the search for election workers : inside explicitly outside of risk groups (Asplund et al. 2021a).

Despite all of these measures, there is reason to believe that some citizens may stay away from the polls for fear of infection. After all, almost half of all non-voters in Brazil gave this as the reason for not taking part in the election (Tarouco 2021). The effects of the pandemic on voter turnout are also shown in a study published by Noury ​​et al. (2021) on the local elections in France in March 2020. Against the background of historically low voter turnout overall, the proximity to COVID-19 clusters had a negative effect on voter turnout. In Germany, too, voter turnout in the first state elections in 2021, in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, fell compared to the previous elections.

The alternative to postponing the election and to the increased hygiene measures, which also drastically reduces the risk of infection when voting, is the postal vote. Correspondingly, a higher percentage of postal votes is also expected for the elections in Germany, which goes beyond the increase in postal voting that has been observed in recent decades. Both could be observed in the state elections in March 2021 as well as in the Bavarian municipal elections on March 15, 2020, i.e. at the beginning of the pandemic.

It is well known that so far not all population groups have used postal voting to the same extent. It is more popular in western Germany than in eastern Germany, and it is also used disproportionately by pensioners, schoolchildren, students and the self-employed (Lichteblau and Wagner 2019). However, it turns out that the reasons for which a person votes for a certain party do not differ between attendance and postal voters (Wagner and Lichteblau 2020). No change in the election result is to be expected from more postal votes or even pure postal votes (Thompson et al. 2020). There is also no evidence to date for the fears expressed by the former US president or AfD politicians that postal votes are quantitatively relevant to falsification (Eggers et al. 2021). However, postal voting poses other problems. Postal votes are cast earlier, which is why developments and information from the last few days of the election campaign cannot be taken into account for decision-making. Even more important are the electoral principles of secret and free voting (Art. 38 GG), which cannot be guaranteed to the same extent at the kitchen table at home as in the voting booth.

In addition to these implications for the conduct of the election, the pandemic also has an impact on the election campaign. In more normal times, election campaigns are an opportunity for political parties and candidates to make themselves known and to advertise their programs. They are the moment of particularly intensive discourse about the future of the country and thus enable citizens to form opinions and find preferences.But in times of pandemics there is a risk that election campaigns will not only spread political ideas, but also the COVID virus (Asplund et al. 2021b). Correspondingly, of the 51 countries that voted in 2020, around half introduced restrictions on the election campaign: from limiting the number of participants to a complete ban on election campaign events and restrictions on freedom of assembly. Where this did not happen and physical proximity was not restricted, accumulations of illnesses among candidates and citizens were observed (for the Brazilian case see Tarouco 2021). Modeling for 18 US Republican election campaign events showed that the number of corona cases increased by 250 per 100,000 inhabitants in the following ten weeks in the respective constituencies (Bernheim et al. 2020).

The classic election campaign instruments such as B. the door-to-door election campaigns or major events on marketplaces are currently viewed with skepticism and the role of the mass media and social media grows (Wagner 2020). The already large role of indirect as opposed to direct campaign information (Schoen 2014) is likely to become even greater as a result. Parties that have a strong core electorate who do not need to be convinced could therefore benefit from parties that (have to) rely more on mobilizing the undecided. At the same time, the governing parties are receiving more public attention. Whether this is an advantage will largely depend on the tone of the reporting. However, the expected increased use of postal voting should not have any major impact on the election results. Because unlike in the USA, voters in Germany from all parties, with the possible exception of the AfD, perceive the pandemic as a real and serious threat while at the same time having a high level of confidence in a proper election.


There is no question that the corona pandemic is the determining topic of the elections in Germany and beyond. As a crisis, it can evoke different ways of reacting on the part of the citizens: firstly, a “rally 'round the flag” effect, according to which voters are increasingly behind the incumbents; secondly, an increase in retrospective, performance-evaluating voting, after which the Voters: Above all, judge the behavior of political actors during the crisis and make their voting decisions on this basis, or thirdly, more prospective and party-political homogeneity-oriented voting, i.e. the considerations that when the same party (s) are in office at different levels Advantages. While the governing parties benefited in the first case, the influence on election results in the second case depends on (the assessment) of how the crisis is dealt with. Citizens who were dissatisfied with the crisis management are likely to give their vote to the opposition parties, and those who are satisfied are more likely to make their mark with the parties of the grand coalition. According to the third decision logic, the Union and the SPD should also benefit as the parties with the most government participation in the federal and state levels.

The effects on election campaigning are also not the same for all parties. Reduced contact opportunities and lower voter turnout rates tend to damage those parties that (have to) rely more than others on mobilizing their supporters. In addition, it can be expected that opposition parties with reduced opportunities to become visible in the election campaign will tend to face greater problems than the governing parties that are more visible due to the executive-heavy crisis policy alone. On the other hand, the pandemic effects on the organization of face-to-face elections and the mode of voting should be neutral in terms of party politics - neither the health protection measures in the polling stations nor the expected increase in postal voting mean that profits can only be expected for certain parties.

Overall, the considerations presented, as well as the comparative findings so far, suggest an optimistic conclusion for the possibilities of functioning elections with integrity and thus the democratic legitimacy supporting elections in established democracies such as the Federal Republic even in the pandemic year 2021.


  1. 1.

    US President Donald Trump made such remarks at press conferences (, accessed on August 4, 2020), while Macron spoke several times in a televised address about a war against the Virus spoke (, accessed on August 4th, 2020).

  2. 2.

    See e.g. B. the following article in the New York Times of March 23, 2020 ( and Tabri et al. (2020).


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The authors would like to thank Elena Kalter and Anton Könneke for their support through research and editing.


Open Access funding enabled and organized by Projekt DEAL.

Author information


  1. Chemnitz University of Technology, Chemnitz, Germany

    Arndt Leininger

  2. Berlin Science Center for Social Research, Berlin, Germany

    Aiko Wagner

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Arndt Leininger.

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