The Election Season and COVID-19

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The Election Season and COVID-19

Prakreetish Sarma | August 29, 2020 17:05 hrs

The elections are almost knocking at the door. The election commission looks ready with its new set of special rules and guidelines to go ahead with the election. 


Some of the basic highlights of the new guidelines include use of gloves while using electronic voting machines and keeping the option of postal ballot for voters who are either disabled or aged open.  

 


The commission while formulating its guidelines has upheld the interest of Covid infected patients in mind as well and the Covid patients would be allowed to cast their valuable votes from their respective quarantine centers under vigilance. 


The last time when such a pandemic had broken out in 1918 (Spanish Flu), the elections were scheduled in some countries such as the United States of America. At that time the situation was not that advanced with regard to health or technology. Mid-term elections were conducted with certain regulations such as regulations were placed on campaigning. The situation was worse as World War I was also going on. 


As put by researcher on pandemics, Dr Kristin Watkins, advertisements were used as a mode of communication. Back then also it was used to make people aware rather than through physical contact which the authorities had foreseen, which could have led to a surge in the cases related to the Spanish Flu. 


However, in the current situation different countries have demonstrated different attitudes towards elections where some countries have gone ahead with their elections normally while other countries have placed certain regulations or precautions. India intends to do the same. 



As per the notion of The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) which is an inter-governmental organization that supports sustainable democracy worldwide, it has gone on to say that the entire Covid-19 chapter has taken a toll on the timing and administration of elections and do away with some of the problems they have stressed upon electoral management bodies to handle the situation in a better way. 


For different countries, the rules related to the nitty-gritty of the elections have been different. In Mongolia, Singapore and Malaysia, campaign rallies were banned altogether but later on certain exceptions were made to allow minimum promotion but by keeping social distancing in mind. 


Although the South Korea election model could be considered a success, it too has had its share of hiccups because, on the one hand, special polling stations were set up for patients to ensure optimum safety while on the other hand, they failed to cater to the needs of the overseas voters who were not able to vote because of the restrictions related to movement which were imposed upon them. The examples cited are of some of the technologically and medically advanced countries. 


Now if we talk about countries that are comparatively not so advanced in medical facilities or technologies (say in the African continent), they too are having nightmares while conducting the elections. For example, as per the report prepared by center for strategic and international studies (CSIS), both presidential and general elections are to be conducted across Sub-Saharan Africa. 


And when compared to global giants such as the United States or other global powers, these nations will have to keep a balance between public safety and democratic imperatives. And the biggest problem with most of these countries is that there are autocratic leaders who have tampered with the elections by sheer manipulation of the public safety measures. 
 

For instance, in Guinea, President Conde went ahead with the elections despite the looming corona threat. However, he ended up perfectly manipulating the law and passed a referendum to amend the constitution and elect himself as the President for the third time which was met with large scale protests. However, there are various countries such as Mali that have been waiting for an election for years. 


Let us head towards a state like Assam where most of the polling stations maintain the requisite decorum. But there have been news related to tampering in a few polling stations in last year’s Lok Sabha election. 


The problem is that there is a prominent divide among the voters. Voters of constituencies such as Gauhati East, can be safely assumed to be well aware about the safety nuances and may well be abreast of technology. But again, in rural constituencies, one cannot expect that kind of awareness. 
 

So, can the authorities allow the option of digital voting this time around to minimize the risk related to corona? But again, this shall add on to disparity and there shall gain be a risk of privacy breach etc. 


Apart from that, the question related to number of voters in the line or the polling room along with the authorities at one time pops up. However, just like France, the election authorities should be provided with latex gloves and disinfectants should be showered at frequent intervals. Most importantly, the marked out lanes with arrows on the floor to help the voter to understand the nuances of social distancing should be prominent. 
 

But the biggest question is will India do what a United Kingdom did by deferring the elections or will it proceed with the safety protocols and as per the fixed schedule? 


Only time will tell as to how the elections will turn out but as of now the potential candidates or party members should be careful while heading for promotions or rallies and maintain optimum safety to minimize the spread of corona. 


Otherwise there shall be a surge in voters who shall have to cast their votes from quarantine centers. And whether each voter will have to go for a compulsory Covid-test, will they have to fill up a No-Objection form to vote or will their going to cast their valuable vote would be implicit enough to show their free consent. 


The risk is there and it is real and hopefully the authorities take cognizance of these facts from now on otherwise it is going to lead to controversy just like the re-opening of educational institutes are doing currently in Assam. Expert committee and pilot committees will have to be set up immediately.
 

(The author has completed graduation in law from National Law University and Judicial Academy Assam. He is currently practicing as an Advocate in Gauhati High Court. The views expressed in the article are his own.)
 

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