New Delhi: The law ministry is understood to have given its approval to a proposal that will allow more voters to use postal ballots during elections in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said Thursday.
The proposal by the Election Commission was to lower the age of those eligible to 65 years from 80 years.
Arora said this during a detailed interview to ThePrint on how elections will be conducted keeping in mind social distancing norms necessitated by the pandemic.
“On the recommendation of the ECI, on 22 October 2019, the legal amendment enabling postal ballot facility to senior citizens above the age of 80 years and for persons with disability, was introduced to provide them the choice of voting from the comforts of their residence,” Arora said.
“On similar lines, the Commission has now factored to enlarge the ambit and recommended to Ministry of Law and Justice to extend the postal ballot facilities to all electors of above 65 years of age as well as to all Covid-19-positive electors under home or institutional quarantine so that crowding at the polling stations is reduced,” he added.
“It is learnt that ECI’s recommendation has been agreed upon and necessary notification is being issued accordingly,” Arora said.
ThePrint had reported last week that the ECI was considering expanding remote voting facilities.
However, this facility will not be extended to those with comorbid conditions, Arora said.
Additional preparations for Bihar polls
The ECI has also calculated that it would have to set up additional 34,000 polling booths in Bihar to prevent crowding during voting, besides limiting the number of voters in each booth to 1,000, Arora said.
Bihar elections are due in October-November.
“Currently, Bihar has 72,723 polling stations to cater to approximately 7.18 crore electors,” he said. “The Commission has directed the CEO (chief electoral officer), Bihar, to do a detailed exercise of logistics, etc. to ensure that a limit of 1,000 voters per polling station is kept and auxiliary polling stations are created wherever required.”
About 34,000 such auxiliary polling stations in the same building of an existing polling station or in its vicinity would be needed to ensure social distancing, he added.
“Additional manpower requirements and the associated infrastructure augmentation will be worked out too.”
The ECI would follow similar arrangements and Standard Of Procedures for conducting by-elections whenever required in future, and would also follow the guidelines of the National Disaster Management Act in letter and spirit, he said.
“All ECI guidelines pertaining to electoral machinery, voters, political parties, candidates and other stakeholders are being tweaked. A reassessment of procedures at various stages of the election is being worked out by a team of officials in the commission,” he said.
The ECI will also duly strengthen the Systematic Voter Education and Electoral Participation strategy to create more voter awareness digitally.
“We shall step up the use of digital technologies in voter awareness, outreach and training. The commission will make greater use of digital and media platforms, including bulk SMS, social media, television advertising, FM and community radio, NVSP (National Voter Service Portal) and the voter helpline app. The voters’ guide will be updated to incorporate the Covid imperatives,” Arora said.
The other measures being undertaken by the ECI to ensure a safe election during the pandemic are putting in place appropriate arrangements regarding social distancing, sanitisation, disinfection, and masks/gloves etc., planning of necessary training and capacity-building of electoral machinery, sensitisation of all officials on election duty about Covid-related precautions.
Asked if a shift to an online mode of campaigning would affect the monitoring of elections through the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) in any way, Arora said: “The commission has already established mechanisms to monitor digital environment for elections… Hence, with a proper monitoring mechanism in place, shifting of campaign to the online mode would not affect the implementation of MCC.”
The EC’s Voluntary Code of Ethics meant for social media platforms is being further strengthened, and “necessary advisories will be issued to political parties to help in handling the digital environment smoothly”, Arora added.