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Explained: What the EC has said on voting during the Covid-19 pandemic

The Election Commission has released guidelines for voting amid Covid-19, effectively ruling out a postponement of the Bihar Assembly polls. What did parties want, and what has the EC decided?

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi |
Updated: September 14, 2020 7:41:49 am
Bihar elections, Bihar elections 2020, EC guidelines on elections, Bihar elections guidelines, Bihar elections 2020 guidelines, Express Explained, Indian ExpressVoters in Gaya during the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections. (Express Archive)

Last week, the Election Commission released guidelines for the conduct of elections during the pandemic. This effectively rules out postponement of Assembly elections in Bihar, due this year. A look at the restrictions the EC has imposed on campaigning, and why it it decided against delaying polls:

How widely has Covid-19 spread in Bihar?

Bihar is among the top five states in terms of rate of growth of cases, at 4.655 per day in the last one month, second only to Andhra Pradesh among states with a major caseload. In August, Bihar’s caseload has increased from about 54,000 to 1.2 lakh. Compare this to the start of July, when the count was less than 10,000. Until Monday’s update by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), Bihar has had 1.22 lakh cases.

So, why has the EC decided against deferring elections?

The Election Commission hasn’t made any official statement on the timing of elections. Unless the EC says something publicly otherwise, it is presumed that polls will be held on schedule. According to sources, the Commission is convinced that elections can be held successfully with proper supervision and precautions as countries like Singapore and South Korea have demonstrated recently. Hence, the EC has released guidelines for elections based on feedback from political parties.

Also read | Bring your own pens, no hand shakes: How countries went to polls in the ‘new normal’

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What precautions have been taken for voting during the pandemic?

Most importantly, Covid-19 patients and suspected cases will be allowed to vote — in the “last hour of the poll day”. Others will have to mandatorily wear gloves before casting their vote on the EVM, according to the new EC guidelines for conducting elections amidst a pandemic.

The EC has capped the size of the campaign squad to three people for door-to-door visits and allowed only five cars, instead of 10, in a candidate’s convoy for roadshows. Only two people will accompany a candidate for filing her nomination papers.

Not more than 1,000 voters, down from the current limit of 1,500, can vote at one polling station. Temperature check of all voters at the polling station, and wearing masks will be compulsory on the day of voting.

“If temperature is above the set norms of MoHFW (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare) at first reading, then it will be checked twice and if it remains, then the elector shall be provided with token/certificate and will be asked to come for voting at the last hour of poll. At the last hour of poll, such electors shall be facilitated voting, strictly following Covid-19 related preventive measures,” the guidelines state.

Patients under quarantine will also be allowed to vote during the last hour, while strictly following preventive measures.

A separate set of guidelines would be issued for voters living in areas notified as “containment zone”. Friday’s guidelines suggest keeping sufficient number of polling staff and EVMs in reserve in case any polling personnel displays Covid-l9 symptoms.

Although the EC has permitted physical campaigning for candidates and political parties following social distancing norms, it has said the maximum number of attendees at a rally or a gathering should not “exceed the limit prescribed by State Disaster Management Authority for public gatherings”.

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What have the political parties said in their feedback to EC?

Fifteen parties responded to EC’s call for feedback. Only four parties — LJP, NCP, National People’s Party (NPP) and AAP — sought postponement of elections due to the pandemic.

While the RJD had earlier questioned the need to hold elections during a pandemic, it has not categorically asked the EC to postpone them. And the Congress, whose spokesperson Premchand Mishra has often demanded postponement of polls, has not said so in its feedback to the EC. The ruling JD(U) wants the state elections to be held on one day (as opposed to multiple phases) because of the pandemic.

Digital campaigning has turned out to be a hot-button issue with opposition parties RJD and CPM, as well as NDA partner LJP opposing these. The Congress, CPI and CPM are against limiting campaigning to the digital medium. It has said door-to-door campaigning should be permitted, but the size of the campaign squad should be limited to 10. The party has also called for curbs on full-page newspaper advertisements on the day of polling.

SY Quraishi writes: In Bihar, EC’s challenge: To ensure level playing field in a mostly virtual campaign

While the BJP has supported virtual meetings and rallies, it has also said physical campaigning cannot be done away with since every voter cannot afford a mobile device. Interestingly, the BJP does not want convicts or undertrial prisoners to campaign virtually. That apart, the BJP has suggested that the additional expenditure on Covid-related precautions (masks, sanitisers, PPE kits) should either be exempted or charged to the party’s account, or the expenditure limit for a candidate should be increased to accommodate such expenditure.

The Congress and RJD suggested that elections in Bihar be conducted through ballot papers as the chances of Covid-19 spread are greater if everyone is pressing the same set of buttons on an EVM.

Why are parties opposing digital campaigning?

The main argument against virtual rallies and gatherings is that these will disturb the level-playing field and skew it in favour of the resource-rich parties that can arrange equipment for shooting and telecasting such events. The Congress has alleged that digital campaigning could be challenging to monitor for the EC and hence could be used by parties to evade the Model Code of Conduct. Most parties, including the BJP, agree that a push of campaigning exclusively in the digital mode would be unreasonable given the digital divide in the country.

The EC hasn’t said anything officially on digital campaigning. However, senior officers have told this newspaper that the Commission will neither accept the demand to ban it nor limit campaigning to the virtual mode. In other words, both digital and physical campaigning will be allowed in Bihar elections — the latter with mandatory precautions.

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