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Election Commission of India Gearing Up for Bihar Assembly Election 2020: How Conducting Elections During a Pandemic Might Look Like

Jun 20, 2020 5:35 AM 4 min read
Editorial

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in his work Politics - “man is by nature a political animal.”

Considering COVID-19 has touched nearly all aspects of our life - personal, professional and social, it is a given that it will also greatly impact and transform our political realities.

And guess what? We are already getting a sneak peek into things to come given this topic has already gathered steam in light of Home Minister Amit Shah’s “virtual rally” and the upcoming Bihar Assembly Polls scheduled to take place in October-November this year.

Any election primarily has two components to it - the campaigning and the polling.

Experts worldwide assert:

  1. Nationwide lockdowns and restrictions in mobility are coming in the way of free and fair campaigning
  2. Organised voting amid restrictions and social distancing norms is a challenge
  3. Polling itself may become a potential virus spreader

For the political nerds, here’s an expansive list of how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting elections across the globe.

 

How Conducting Elections During a Pandemic Might Look Like

 

The Home and the World

The Home 

Mega Rallies - Thing of the Past: Social distancing norms coupled with restricted mobility may result in the demise of the much-celebrated mega rallies in the country. 

Digital canvassing, through virtual rallies and audio/video addresses, plus door to door campaigning may be the only way out. Handbills and pamphlets are likely to return. Expenses on elections are expected to reduce

And we have already gotten a teaser when the BJP set up 70,000 flat-screen television sets and 15,000 giant LED screens across West Bengal for Amit Shah's virtual rally recently that set off its campaign for assembly elections due next year.

 

While online campaigning might seem like a good idea, one needs to bear in mind the fact that not all have access to the internet, especially the rural and remote parts of the country. For instance, internet reach was merely 28% in Bihar and 30% in Madhya Pradesh, as of 2019, and a disproportionately large number of these users were men. Would unequal access to technology dilute the power of universal adult franchise?

Re-Imagining Polling: The Chief Election Commissioner of India (CIC), Sunil Arora, in a recent interview said that the Election Commission (EC) is looking at rationalisation of polling stations and a reduction in the number of electors at each polling station to avoid crowding, aside from the usual arrangements regarding social distancing, sanitisation, disinfection and use of masks, gloves etc.

For instance, Bihar currently has 72,723 polling stations to cater to approximately 7.18 crore electors. Say if the number of electors per polling station is capped at 800, around 55,000 additional polling stations would be required. Needless to say, this would require additional training and capacity building of the electoral machinery. 

As per reports, the Ministry of Law and Justice has given its approval to a proposal that will allow more voters to use postal ballots during elections in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The age of those eligible to vote via postal ballot has also been proposed to be reduced from 80 years to 65 years.

 

The World

The preparations in India come at a time when countries worldwide are deferring, rescheduling or cancelling elections indefinitely. (Here’s an interactive map showing countries where one or more elections has been postponed.)

However, India would not be the only country to hold elections during this pandemic. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, as many as nine countries have already held national elections and referendums during this public health crisis.

 

South Korea Elections 2020
Sources: Reuters

 

The first among them was South Korea, which, under strict rules guidelines, not only managed to pull off a near-perfect national election on April 15th, but also recorded the highest voter turnout of 66.2% in 28 years! Here are some insightful measures they took: 

  • Rules required every polling station to place signs and equipment to help people maintain social distance. Voters were required to keep at least 1m apart, and voters in quarantine were instructed to stand at 2m intervals while waiting in line. 

  • Some polling stations marked the distances with tape while other stations used plastic cones or collapsible belts to enforce social distancing.

  • Upon their turn, temperature was taken for each voter. Those with temperatures over 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit were sent to a separate area. 

  • Masks were compulsory. Plastic gloves and sanitizer were available at each polling station. Wash basins were placed in the entrances of some polling stations.

  • Those in quarantine were allowed to vote outdoors, at temporarily installed polling booths.

  • For COVID-19 patients, there were specific voting procedures. Patients who were hospitalized and recuperating from home were entitled to vote by paper ballot. Patients recuperating from mild symptoms were eligible to vote at a special early voting polling station set up in care centers

Unarguably, the population of South Korea (5.16 crore) seems manageable when compared to that of states like Bihar (9.9 crore), but if the Bihar elections are to take place on time in a controlled and structured manner, it would set a precedent for how elections can be successfully held during a pandemic - all while upholding the electoral and democratic spirit.

FIN.

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