Elections during Pandemic – Challenges and Measures Taken

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Some experts estimate the coronavirus pandemic to last for two years. Deferring elections for such a long duration could go against the spirit of democracy and federalism – the basic components of the Indian Constitution. Thus, the Election Commission of India (ECI) made India one among the few countries to hold elections amid the pandemic. Since June, it had successfully held Rajya Sabha and legislative council elections in various states under strict COVID-related guidelines. Bihar will be the ultimate test for the EC’s ability to safeguard democracy and public health, as it is the first state to be holding Assembly elections amid pandemic in October-November. The Supreme Court backs the EC’s stand on election process by rejected the plea for the cancellation of Bihar polls, stating that COVID-19 cannot be a “valid reason” for stopping elections.

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Can elections be postponed in India?

Mandate:

  • The Election Commission (EC) is mandated to hold elections at any time within 6 months before the expiry of the five-year term of Lok Sabha or Legislative Assembly.
  • The elections should be timed in a way that the new Assembly/Lok Sabha is in place on the day of dissolution of the outgoing house.
  • If there is an early dissolution, the EC must ensure that a new Lok Sabha or Assembly is put in place within 6 months of the dissolution.

Postponement:

  • If the elections cannot be conducted as per schedule because of extraordinary circumstances, it can be deferred or even scrapped after its announcement.
  • While the Rajya Sabha and Legislative Council elections can be deferred indefinitely, elections to Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies can be differed by a period of only 6 months, the defined limit between two sessions of Lok Sabha/State Legislative Assembly in Article 85(1) and Article 174(1) of the constitution.
  • Section 153 of the Representation of People Act empowers poll panel to “extend the time” for completing election. However, such an extension should not go beyond the date of the normal dissolution of Lok Sabha or the Legislative Assembly.
  • In 1991, the EC used this provision and Article 324 of the Constitution to defer the on-going parliamentary elections for three weeks following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination during a campaign in Tamil Nadu.
  • Article 324 empowers the EC to direct, control and conduct elections held under the Constitution.
  • Powers under Section 153 can be exercised only after an election schedule has been notified.
  • The EC has to inform the government of its inability to hold polls on time.
  • The government and the President will then decide whether to impose President’s Rule (Article 356(1)) or allow the incumbent Chief Minister to continue for 6 more months.

The basis for postponement:

  • There are no specific legal provisions regarding the circumstances under which elections can be deferred.
  • The EC will assess whether a situation is beyond its control based on inputs from state governments and its own assessment at the ground level.
  • According to Article 172 (1), during the state of emergency, an election can be postponed for one year in addition to a period of 6 months after the emergency is lifted.
  • The emergency can be declared only if there is a threat to the security and sovereignty of the country and not if there is an epidemic or pandemic.

Why has EC not deferred elections?

  • Elections are to be conducted according to schedule as the EC is convinced that the polls can be conducted with proper supervision and precautions like in Singapore and South Korea.
  • Thus, the EC has released guidelines for elections based on feedback from the political parties.
  • Bihar will be the first Indian state to hold assembly elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly sometime in October-November.

What are the guidelines provided by the EC for conducting elections during the pandemic?

The guidelines are based on the views/suggestions from various political parties, Chief Election Officers of states/UTs on the election campaign and public meetings. It is also based on the directives provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also took into account the best practices of various other countries that previously held successful elections amid the pandemic. It covers various aspects of elections held within the country. They are as follows:

General Guidelines:

  • All individuals are to wear facemasks during every election-related activities. In its absence, the facemask will be provided to the individual by the authorities.
  • The polling avenue is mandated to be as large as possible for ensuring social distancing.
  • At the entry of the polling avenue, thermal scanners, sanitizers, soap and water will be made available.
  • Nodal Health Officer is to be designated for the state, district and assembly constituency to oversee COVID-19 related arrangements and preventive measures during the entire election process.

Polling officers:

  • Training for the election officials is to be organised in a decentralised manner at large halls or virtually.
  • A sufficient number of polling/counting/poll-related staffs will be kept in reserve for replacement purposes.

Nomination:

  • The nomination process is made online.
  • Only 2 persons can accompany the candidate for the submission of the nomination.
  • The returning officer, who is responsible to conduct elections in the parliamentary or assembly constituency, should have sufficient space to ensure social distancing while performing the function of nomination, scrutiny and symbol allocation.

Polling station:

  • Electors in polling station are limited to 1,000, from the earlier 1,500 electors per polling station.
  • The polling station must be sanitized, preferably a day before the poll.
  • Other precautionary measures pertaining to COVID-19 must be put in place.

In case of high temperature:

  • If the temperature is above the norms of MoHFW even after checking twice, the elector must be provided with token/certificate to enable him/her to vote at the last hour of the poll.
  • At the last hour of the poll, necessary preventive measures are to be ensured.
  • Tokens/certificates will be provided to voters of first come first basis to prevent the need to wait in queues.
  • If the polling agent or counting agent has the temperature above the prescribed limit, their reliever is to be allowed by Presiding Officer, who will keep the record accordingly.

Suspected COVID-19 patients

  • Quarantined COVID-19 patients will be allowed to cast their votes at the last hour of the polling day under the supervision of health authorities.
  • Voters in containment zones are to be provided with separate guidelines.

Postal Ballot facility extended for:

  • Electors identified as Persons with Disabilities (PwD)
  • Electors above the age of 80 years
  • Electors involved in essential services
  • Electors who are tested positive for COVID-19 or are suspected of being infected by the virus and are in quarantined.

Political campaigning:

  • Door-to-door campaigns are allowed for a group of only up to 5 individuals, including the candidates. However, this excludes security personnel.
  • Roadshows, the convoy of vehicles should be broken after every five vehicles, instead of 10 vehicles.
  • Election meetings must be conducted as per the COVID-19 guidelines.
  • Using Suvidha app, the District Election officer is to dedicate avenues for public gatherings, with necessary safety precautions for all attendees, whose number is limited as prescribed by the State Disaster Management Authority.

Why are political parties against digital campaigning?

  • Virtual rallies and gatherings will disrupt the level-playing field, as it would create an advantage for the resource-rich parties that can arrange equipment for shooting and telecasting such events.
  • Furthermore, the EC would face difficulties in monitoring digital campaigning, leading to the deviation by the political parties from the Model Code of Conduct.
  • The EC, though has not officially commented on digital campaigning, has allowed for both digital and physical campaigning.
  • Physical campaigning will be done with strict precautions.
  • The lack of official comment with regards to digital campaigning has led to the dominance of virtual rallies as they promise to be innovative and cost-efficient by reducing the need for the political leaders visiting different constituencies.

What are the challenges posed by the COVID-19 for the EC?

  • Elections in India are colossal endeavour involving a large number of people – voters, polling officials, political party members and security personnel.
  • With consideration to the possibility of the lack of strict implementation of the preventive measures set forth by the EC, it creates a huge risk of an increase in COVID-19 cases.
  • The EC’s plan to expand postal ballot to newer categories is shadowed by controversy, with political parties calling it unconstitutional and arguing that it would enable the ruling side to influence voters.
  • The lack of concrete decision by the EC on digital campaigning leads to the possibility of worsening digital divide within the country as it is resource-intensive, the one that needs best minds to understand the data to target voters’ consciousness.
  • The political parties’ inability to understand the ground situation due to the movement limitations and lack of digital accessibility in various parts of the country reduces the voice of minorities living in remote areas.
  • There is the challenge of political parties using their affiliations to private media to float biased news without any inhibition because of the EC’s inability to monitor online space.
  • There exists a voluntary Code of Ethics, issued by EC in collaboration with social media giants, to enable direct engagement of the Commission and these social media platforms over problematic posts during the election season.
  • Yet, the high influence of Facebook in 2016 Trump campaign makes it worrying to involve these tech giants in monitoring the misinformation campaigns by the political parties.
  • This is because political parties are potential clients who need their service of providing targeted ads to select set of voters.
  • The much recent accusations regarding Facebook include its reluctance to remove derogatory posts uploaded by the ruling party’s leader.
  • Thus, critics question the implementation of a Voluntary Code of Ethics.
  • Another challenge plaguing the elections amid the pandemic is the poor voter turnout due to the fear of being infected.
  • This is addressed by extending postal ballots for vulnerable communities and making use of Systematic Voter Education for Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programme and technologies for creating awareness among voters.
  • Apart from these challenges, there also exists the financial aspect of the elections.
  • Every electoral management body in the world is financially challenged, which would further be exacerbated by the additional responsibilities of health safety.
  • The EC needs to keep in check its expenses.

What did India learn from other countries?

Approximately 34 countries have conducted national assembly or presidential elections despite the pandemic. The most successful among them are South Korea and Sri Lanka. India’s Election Commission borrowed some of the policies and ideas followed by these countries.

South Korea

  • The country recorded the highest voter turnout of 66.2% in 28 years.
  • Precautionary measures were taken to prevent the spread of the infection.
  • It disinfected polling centres, mandated social distancing norms and other precautionary measures.
  • It did not ignore the interests of coronavirus positive voters and self-quarantined voters. While the former were allowed to mail their ballots, the latter was allowed to vote after 6 PM.

Sri Lanka

  • In a bid to prevent the elections from becoming a public health hazard, Sri Lanka’s Election Commission initially held mock elections.
  • The government issued health guidelines, which included limiting the number of people engaged in door-to-door campaigning to 5.
  • Party meetings’ attendees were limited to 300 or 500 (in case a party leader attended).
  • Social distancing and other protective measures were ensured for the participants.
  • The country’s EC, though wary of the pandemic escalating, did not extend the provision of postal voting to those vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. It limited the postal voting to public officials assigned to electoral duty.
  • This is in contrast to the practice amongst several countries that are holding elections during the pandemic.
  • Apart from crowd control measures in the voting centre, the EC faced the issue of virtual campaigning and the absence of campaign finance laws.

Conclusion:

The COVID-19 outbreak has turned into a test for the election commission’s motto of ‘No Voter Left Behind’. The Bihar election could be the opportunity to prove its efficiency in safeguarding the democracy of highly diverse country as was done during the beginning of the Indian independence while also ensuring the health safety of the all people involved in the election process.

Practice question for mains:

Discuss the measures taken by the Election Commission of India in addressing the challenges posed by the pandemic in the election process. (250 words)

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