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Elections During Covid Times

Elections During Covid Times

Introduction

  • Some experts estimate the coronavirus pandemic to last for two years.
  • One of the cascading effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been its impact on conducting elections. Some countries have pushed ahead with elections.
  • 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.

Risk Factor during COVID-19 for elections

Elections during COVID-19 presents certain challenges. However, postponing elections may not be the appropriate option as it has following risks:

  • Political risks: disturbing the level playing field and undermining the incumbent or opposition;
  • Reputational risks, for an organization that makes decisions, for trust in democratic processes and institutions
  • Financial risks: budgetary implications, e.g. money invested that cannot be recovered;
  • Operational risks: alternative dates are not feasible because of other risks, e.g. extension of term, other events;
  • Legal risks: the decision can be legally challenged.

Postponement Of Elections According To The Constitution

  • 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.

Challenges faced in elections during COVID-19

  • Impediments on Transparency: Conventionally, elections are monitored by domestic and international observer groups to ensure the processes are lawful and meet the requirements for an election conducted with integrity. For COVID-19 elections, the situation could be different.
  • Campaigning: large rallies can spread the virus. Virtual campaigning through social and print media and radio will have to suffice. This will raise the cost of campaigning, exclude the poor and indigent, further favoring those with access to finance and technology.
  • Preparedness of electoral management bodies (EMBs): preparing for elections will be infinitely more difficult where movement and contact is constrained. Most EMBs will face increased administrative and logistical work necessary to hold elections during COVID-19.
  • Polling stations: These will be impacted as it becomes increasingly more difficult to find workers to man them and also need to provide protective gear and sanitizer at such a large scale.
  • Effect on turnout: Elections are characterised by high turnout and equal levels of participation across different groups in a society. Holding an election during a pandemic could undermine this aspect by reducing turnout.

Elections around the globe | Elections During Covid Times

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.

New Zealand:

  • Alternative voting arrangements being considered are extending the online service for voting; extending the telephone dictation voting service; offering proxy voting and postal voting and expanding the use of mobile ballot boxes.

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.

Measures for conducting elections during COVID-19 | Elections During Covid Times

  • Political consensus in sustaining decisions made on the electoral calendar and procedures to avoid political friction and not undermining the legitimacy of the electoral result.
  • Adopt measures that reduce the risks of contagion, which range from the availability of masks and other protective materials, to the opening of more voting centers and the extension of the voting period.
  • Special Voting Arrangements and enabling various modalities to cast the vote. Voters should be offered voting methods that minimise direct contact with other people and reduce crowd size at polling stations.
  • Voter education should reach all genders. It is important to understand how women access information during the pandemic and target voter education to ensure they have equal access to that information

Key measures announced by Election Commission for Bihar elections

  • COVID-19 patients were also allowed to take part in the democratic exercise by extending voting time by one hour.
  • Number of voters per booth was restricted (to 1000 persons) so that social distancing norms are followed.
  • Postal ballot facility was provided wherever required and requested.
  • Nomination forms were made available online, apart from offline.
  • There were restrictions on door-to door campaigning. The ECI said only five, including the candidate, will be allowed for door-to-door campaign.

 

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Mussoorie Times

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