Chile threatens sanctions against those infected with covid-19 who vote in the constitutional plebiscite

Workers of the Electoral Service of Chile (Servel) participate in a drill showing the press the health security measures ahead of the October 25 referendum Source: AFP

SANTIAGO, Chile.- It is not legally prohibited for those infected with covid-19 to vote in the constitutional plebiscite of October 25 in Chile, the most important electoral process in the South American country in the last three decades. In practice, however, health regulations prevent those infected and their close contacts from breaking their quarantine. Without alternative voting mechanisms to the presence, the Government of Sebastián Piñera has explained that those who break isolation on voting day and are discovered by Carabineros risk being detained and returned to their homes, to sanitary summaries and to complaints before the Justice for crimes against public health contemplated 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,” explained the spokesman for the Executive, Jaime Bellolio. “It is not only about the health of an individual: the exercise of one’s freedom could have an effect on others that can be fatal. That is what the pandemic is about and, therefore, we must protect and take care of ourselves,” said the Minister.

A mock referendum vote to show sanitary measures Source: AFP

Chilean law, however, guarantees that if a person arrives at their polling place, they have the right to vote, even if they are breaking any rule. Even someone who commits a crime within the precinct assigned to him by the electoral body can vote before he is arrested. If the Carabineros surprises a covid-19 patient inside the establishment, therefore, before returning him to the place where he is quarantined, he must allow him to exercise his political right. The same would not happen if an infected person is caught on the way to their polling station or outside the center. In that case, he would not be able to vote and the penalties would be applied.

Chile has not controlled the first wave of the pandemic. With 12,142 confirmed deaths from covid-19 and a peak in mid-June, there are currently 15,080 active cases. It is not known, however, the health reality of the country in five weeks, when more than 14 million people are summoned to the polls to decide whether or not they want to replace the Constitution of 1980 drawn up during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and the mechanism to draw up a new Fundamental Charter (whether a convention of specially elected citizens or a convention made up equally of parliamentarians). It is an unprecedented consultation worldwide and for Chile, which has never had a Constitution discussed in democracy.

“As the highest electoral body in the country, we are responsible for ensuring people’s right to vote,” explains Patricio Santamaría, president of the board of directors of the Electoral Service (Servel). “But at the time that the health authority on the basis of its powers – a guaranteed constitutional right and the health code – determined that people with covid-19 cannot abandon their quarantines and must maintain their isolation at the risk of millionaire fines and incurring in crimes, we said: ‘Well, there is a situation that does not depend on the electoral body and they are people who will not be able to move to the voting centers, “says the Servel spokesman, who has no legislative initiative, unlike what it happens in other countries.

Workers of the Electoral Service of Chile (Servel) participate in a drill showing the press the health security measures ahead of the October 25 referendum
Workers of the Chilean Electoral Service (Servel) participate in a drill that shows the press the health security measures for the October 25 referendum Source: AFP

According to current law, in Chile the vote must be secret, personal, equal, informed and, additionally, in person at voting tables. Santamaría indicates that “since 2013 the Servel has requested legal modifications that allow us different voting systems and procedures, for, for example, persons deprived of liberty who maintain their political rights in force”, who cannot vote either (it is estimated that they arrive at 14,000). But Chile was found by the pandemic without alternatives to voting in person, just like the rest of the region.

“Unfortunately, Latin America will face elections in pandemic contexts without having alternative voting mechanisms,” says Daniel Zovatto, regional director of International IDEA, one of the organizations that has followed in detail the electoral processes of the world in the midst of the health crisis. . “No country has a postal vote within the territory, but rather for the suffrage of its citizens abroad. Nor do they have contemplated the domiciliary vote for cases of covid-19, because only a few countries – Ecuador, Paraguay and Honduras – have implemented it, but for people of a certain age and with difficulties leaving their home. There is no online voting and only two Brazil and Venezuela have electronic voting, although it is not a solution either, because you would have to go to a voting center anyway “, indicates Zovatto.

The analyst considers it “an aberration” that COVID-19 patients are prohibited from voting, as happened in the elections in the Basque Country and Galicia last July. Regarding the Chilean case, he indicates: “No action was taken in advance and the days went by, as a result of the intense Chilean political agenda, and it came at a time where the exclusion was that there was no time.

The number of people infected by covid-19 who will not be able to vote on October 25 will depend, to a large extent, on what happens this weekend, where citizens celebrate the popular national holidays with fervor and brotherhood. September 18 is probably the most important day for the Chilean people and this 2020 will be the first after the social outbreak of October 2019 and the harshest winter months of the pandemic. The celebrations this year have been restricted: not even the traditional fondas (a kind of beach bar where you dance, eat, drink) will not be able to function. But the Government has authorized certain permits to celebrate, which opened a debate about the risk of increased infections.

The authorities will not know until the last hours before the plebiscite who the infected are, where they are and how many there are. It is private information that not even the Servel gets to know, according to Santamaría. Therefore, the Carabineros will be the institution that will have to control that there are no infections in the streets on the day of the referendum. Uniforms will be installed outside the polling stations to carry out random reviews and will be able to identify the sick and their close contacts according to their ID, entered into the database of the Ministry of Health.

In Chile, the Servel has published a health protocol that regulates the different steps to carry out the plebiscite safely and the electoral body has implemented measures such as exclusive and preferential hours for people over 60 years of age and 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 in variety of electoral processes,” says Zovatto, referring to the electoral train that It will start in the South American country after the October plebiscite and which includes municipal and constituent elections in April, presidential and parliamentary elections in November 2021, a referendum on the exit of the potential new Constitution in May 2022. “From this point of view, Chile is a unique laboratory at the regional and global level on how to organize elections in different types of elections and in the different stages of the pandemic depending on how it evolves during this period, “says the regional director of International IDEA.

According to Santamaría, the Chilean authorities have made a commitment to implement alternative mechanisms to voting in person for the April voting next year, such as early, postal and domiciliary voting. It is of great importance in a country like Chile, which together with Colombia has the lowest electoral participation rates in the region (less than 50% in the last presidential elections).

El País newspaper

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