The Bihar assembly polls, which begin on October 28, will be the largest anywhere in the Covid era so far. Nearly 7.3 crore voters will elect 243 MLAs, with the pandemic still raging. A look at how the Election Commission plans to conduct polling in these unprecedented times and how other countries have approached their own elections.
Even Covid patients will get to vote in person
The Election Commission had previously explored the possibility of allowing postal voting for electors aged 65 and above, but deemed it too big a logistical challenge to pull off. Postal voting will, however, be permitted for voters aged 80 and above, and for Covid-19 patients, suspected cases, and those in quarantine.
Covid-19 patients will have the additional option to vote in person but only during the final hour of polling under very strict restrictions. Suspected cases and those in quarantine will also be allowed to vote during this hour. Voters found to have fever on polling day will be given tokens and asked to return to the booth during the last hour of voting.
What are the new measures for polling booths?
Polling has been shortened to three phases from five in 2015, and the maximum number of voters per booth is down to 1,000 from 1,500. The number of polling stations has seen a sharp increase to more than 1 lakh from around 65,000 in the last election.
Polling booths will be equipped with hand sanitisers and staff will be provided masks, face shields, gloves and other personal protective equipment. EC is also set to acquire 7.2 crore pairs of single-use gloves for voters who will use electronic voting machines. Thermal scanning will be required at all poll activity sites and masks will be mandatory.
Equipment for polling stations and staff
* Hand sanitisers – 7 lakh
* Masks – 46 lakh
* PPE lots – 6 lakh
* Face shields – 7.6 lakh
* Pairs of gloves – 23 lakh
The duration of polling has been extended by an hour from 7am to 6pm, except in regions affected by Left-wing extremism.
How will campaigning change?
Covid-related restrictions will also cover public campaigning. Both nominations and deposits can be submitted online now. In-person nomination filings, which generally turn into public gatherings for big-name candidates, are restricted to two people besides the candidate, and two vehicles. Door-to-door campaigning is limited to five people, including the candidate but excluding security personnel.
Road shows will be allowed but convoys can only have five vehicles, down from 10 before, and the gap between convoys should be 30 minutes. Public rallies, with social distancing, will be permitted at specially chosen sites in each district. However, it remains unclear if the size of rallies will be limited. CEC Sunil Arora said district authorities will issue permits for rallies and decide on penalties if rules are violated.
What is the Covid-19 situation in Bihar?
Bihar has 1.75 lakh confirmed cases, the 10th highest among Indian states
(click on graph below).
It has reported around 1,500 new cases per day through most of September, though the daily increase in infections has been declining since August. As of September 24, Bihar is testing 5,300 people per 1 lakh population daily. Patna is the worst affected district, followed by Muzaffarpur, Bhagalpur and East Champaran.
How are other countries handling elections?
At least 60 countries have deferred elections during the pandemic, though dozens have gone ahead with special precautions. But the knock-on effect has been a decline in voter turnout and new voting-related outbreaks in some countries. In Belarus, for instance, elections were followed by widespread protests, which possibly caused a spike in cases. And Iceland saw a 9 percentage point decline in turnout from the previous election.
South Korea, on the other hand, saw no new cases related to voting after its election in April. Social distancing and mask rules were strictly enforced, and special booths were made for sick voters. All voters’ temperatures were checked at the booths and those with fever were allowed to vote at a separate booth. The country saw its highest voter turnout since 1992.
Countries are also frequently disinfecting polling stations and removing shared materials. In Poland, booths were also aired out for 10 minutes every hour. In France, voters were asked to bring their own pens, and in Suriname, where votes are cast with finger imprints, voters got their thumbs inked with a cotton swab rather than dipping them into shared ink pots.
Some countries staggered voting hours to reduce the number of people at a polling booth at the same time. Many, like India, increased the number of booths and extended the duration of voting.
Rallies were restricted or drastically altered in several countries. Mongolia, for instance, required rally organisers to ensure social distancing, mask wearing and adequate ventilation. Singapore and Malaysia, though, banned public rallies entirely.
Australia and the US expanded alternatives to in-person voting, like postal voting, though online voting was not encouraged in many places due to safety concerns and the short time period in which to implement new systems. The US, however, is experiencing unprecedented opposition to mail-in voting with President Donald Trump raising concerns over voter fraud and imposing restrictions on the US Postal Service.
Source: Media reports, Council on Foreign Relations, Election Commission