Are we prepared for the challenges facing elections in the new normal?
Despite the strictures laid down by ECI, how far our people will observe the SOPs is a big question in the ensuing by-election in Manipur.
The Covid-19 pandemic (novel Coronavirus disease) has impacted the delivery of public services and routine events that are integral to inclusive societies. Electoral process is one such event. The opportunity for a society to confirm officials in elected offices or remove them within a constitutionally defined time framework is a pillar of democratic values and standards. The process doing this is a communal one and communal events intrinsically bring people together a process that is contrary to the informed advice for limiting the transmission of a virus such as the one that causes Covid-19. Decision must be made to ensure democratic institutions function as they ordinarily would do, during extraordinary times such as the outbreak of global health pandemic.
The spread of communicable diseases such as Covid-19 and the measures to contain the virus imposed by the government and state agencies have both constitutional and technical implications for the timing and the administrations of elections.
Electoral process held under normal circumstances entail a degree of risk to both voters and poll workers. During extraordinary times, such as response to a new and unfamiliar pandemic, the guidance issued by national public health authorities on the movement of people should inform the decision taken by the government and electoral management bodies (EMBs) to either postpone or hold an election.
Legislative elections were held during the Ebola epidemic in Liberia in 2014, with some urban areas exempt from participating. Similarly, conflicted-affected countries such as Pakistan in 2018, have not held election in certain regions because of insecurity. In March 2020,
Italy, Spain and France restricted citizen’s movement as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Local elections in France were held but with a much lower turnout than predicted in previous elections while freedom on constitutional reforms in Italy was indefinitely postponed.
Consideration should also be given to the safe conduct of activities throughout the entire electoral cycle like voter registration, staff recruitment and training, candidate nomination, political campaigning, procurement and electoral dispute resolution. Elections are held at national, subnational and supranational levels. Some elections are constitutionally or politically critical, serving as a mechanism in a sequence of events such as a step in a peace process or a legal reforms process or in securing a national budget. Some election requires a voter turnout threshold to be reached.
Amidst Covid-19 pandemic, the Election Commission of India (ECI), on August 21, 2020 issued detailed guidelines for conducting state assembly elections like that of Bihar and by polls for some states, including 13 assembly segments in Manipur during Covid-19 pandemic. For local elections, certain areas of a country may not be a vulnerable to public health threats as other areas, therefore less likely to experience the impact of Covid-19. Campaign rallies, door-to-door canvassing and town halls meetings are also important part of a vibrant and inclusive democracy.
The Election Commission of India also laid down the guidelines in this regard too. In the guidelines issued special focuses are given on social distancing and access to sanitization measures for voters and polling officials. The norms also includes large public space for election related activities, allowing more online intervention, reducing the numbers of people in the nomination process and stricture campaigning measures.
Restriction placed on free movement will naturally affect an electoral process. But these days, electoral campaign are however increasingly conducted on the internet and through social media platforms. This medium offers an alternative option when electorates and political contestants have their movement restricted or are required to maintain a recommended physical distancing between each other.
Revised health and safety guidance need to be incorporated into the administration of an election to protect election staff and voter, but the extent to which it is possible is dependent on the financial resources of EMB and time between the introduction of new health and safety routines and the election. EMBs must identify and assess the feasibility of implementing any new requirements without compromising the integrity or legitimacy of an election.
The new guidelines make it compulsory to wear face mask during all election related activities. Thermal scanning, access to sanitizers for all, taking a part of nomination process online, option for depositing security money online, restricting door to door campaigning to five persons, road shows in smaller convoys and abiding by Covid-19 guidelines for holding campaign related public meeting are some of the key features of the norms.
For canvassing, EC has directed district authorities to identify dedicated grounds for public meetings and ensure markers for social distancing and breaking convoy after every fifth vehicle in road shows among others. However, Special voting arrangement that allow citizens to cast their votes remotely (i.e. not in person or at a polling station- by post or online through a computer or mobile phone application) which could mitigate health or security hazards presented by voting in persons are not included.
The reason of prohibition could be: financial cost may be prohibitive, implementation timeframe may be insufficient for adequate preparation, procurement and training and legal framework. Political distrust may also undermine confidence in any alternative while possible threats to the integrity of elections can undermine the feasibility of alternative voting options.
Existing remote voting arrangement are designed to complement, not replace, in person voting at a polling station, remote voting methods are largely undermined and in some context, known to undermine the integrity of an election. From an electoral management perspective voting in a polling station is optimal to safeguard the integrity of an election. It reduces the opportunity for irregularities such as vote buying and coercion or family voting while guaranteeing the secrecy and integrity of an election.
Voting at a polling station can further protect and strengthen the societal value of political engagement that election provides. Postal voting typically requires a large scale logistical effort, from procuring reliable postal service to recruiting ballot counting staff and requiring numerous counting officers to cooperate under close supervision. Such exercise would also be challenging to conduct safely during a viral pandemic such as Covid-19. Election that are held in an area of a country with a greater number of people with an increased health risk, such as older people remote voting may be an effective option to encourage their participation and protecting citizen’s and poll workers health, proxy voting within a clear legal framework could offer a further option for older people and vulnerable groups to participate in an election without being require visit a polling station. Despite the strictures laid down by ECI, how far our people will observe the SOPs is a big question in the ensuing by-election in Manipur.