Coronavirus impact: Indian elections may mirror South Korea, not Poland

The infected South Korean voters were asked to register for home voting by March 28 for the April 15 election. Photo: Shutterstock
Even as Poland conducts its Presidential polls on May 10 through an unprecedented postal ballot, India’s top election officials are more likely poring over the South Korean election model in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Indian bureaucrats need to study several options before they devise a voting plan for the state of Bihar, which has more voters than Poland and South Korea put together.

Bihar goes to the polls later this year, and then West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala Assembly polls are scheduled for the summer of 2021. Between these will be various legislative council and local body polls.

The options to choose from

Topping the list of options before the Election Commission of India (ECI) is the South Korean model, under which elections are held much the same way as in India, albeit with stringent checks in place for voters and poll officials. Then there would be the option of postal ballots, an error-prone method with high failure rates. It is currently reserved in India for voting by service voters and overseas diplomatic staff. The third option of staggered voting, where a single poll booth witnesses polling over several days to ensure social distancing, could potentially be the last resort. Lastly, also under consideration is the ECI’s in-house plan of digitising voting through the internet. However, that is unlikely to see the light of the day anytime soon, given the many apprehensions over and controversies around the use of digital technology in elections.

“South Korea’s recently held elections are interesting. Despite the fear of the pandemic, they ensured a record voter turnout of 68 per cent. Of course, India is a bigger country with greater challenges, but the ECI has accomplished some great things in the past. I am sure they would come up with something to tackle this,” says S Y Quraishi, former chief election commissioner of India.

The South Korean model

The South Korean polls, which saw the ruling Democratic Party winning a mandate unseen in three decades, had many firsts to its name. With thousands of coronavirus cases and ambiguity over the behaviour of the virus, the country’s election commission took some novel steps to ensure those infected got the chance to vote from their homes through mail. Even those admitted in hospitals and quarantine centres could vote through post.

The infected voters were asked to register for home voting by March 28 for the April 15 election. The patients who missed the deadline could again register for early voting at special polling booths set up for them across the country. These people voted on April 10 and April 11 – much before the rest.

Those who were in self-quarantine were allowed to vote after 6 pm on April 15, when everyone else had cast their vote at regular booths. Among some of the unprecedented measures deployed at booths, each voter was screened for symptoms and those recording body temperatures above 37.5 Celsius were taken to temporary booths to cast votes. Voters were instructed to wear masks and gloves and stand a metre apart in queue. Masks were to be removed or lowered only temporarily for identification, and gloves used inside the booth were discarded in special bins at the time of exiting the booth.

All voting equipment was disinfected regularly before and during the voting. Since vote counting stations required a large number of people to be confined in an enclosed space together for a long period, enhanced disinfection was done. Any counting official with overseas travel history or displaying unhealthy symptoms was excluded from the counting team. Overseas citizens were also allowed to vote at designated places in their respective countries and ballots were counted at South Korean consulates. This was another first in the country’s electoral history. Earlier, overseas ballots were transported back to South Korea and counted in the country. With travel restrictions in place, that was not a possibility this time.

Working groups’ recommendations

Back in India, earlier, the ECI had set up various working groups to prepare a road map for transforming elections. Comments were sought from the public by March 30. The process of finalising these recommendations has been delayed due to the present crisis. They set forth certain recommendations, most of those relying heavily on the internet to conduct elections – from online nominations, to registration of prospective voters, preparation of electoral rolls, electronic voter identity cards, and the already tested online transfer of postal ballots.

When contacted, ECI spokesperson Sheyphali Sharan said the “working groups’ recommendations are still under deliberation”. Curiously, though ECI was not specific on this, it seems to have hinted about experimentation with online voting. A working group recommendation states that it is “exploring the possibility and feasibility of different voting methods which remain secure and safe to ease and improve electoral participation. Commission has already implemented one-way online transfer of postal ballots for service and implemented the same for the whole country in 2019.”

The ECI has partnered with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, to bring online voting in India through use of the blockchain technology. It is optimistic about its progress in ushering internet voting and believes India would be the first country to experiment with online voting on a massive scale.

A caveat to the excitement, though, is the apprehension over vulnerability to manipulation. The ECI maintains that there is no tearing hurry and that it would usher in internet voting only if it is “satisfied with the level of security needed for online voting, ballot integrity and secrecy, various privacy issues, and stakeholders’ acceptance”.

Are we ready for a change yet?

While the coronavirus-induced crisis might accelerate the adoption of internet voting, Bihar — and India indeed — may still not be ready for it. Official statistics indicate that only half of the country is connected to the internet in any form. While people have more than one internet connection in urban areas, only three of 10 people have access in rural parts. Internet penetration in rural Bihar is among the lowest in the country and considerably less than the national average.

West Bengal and Assam, which go to the polls next year, hardly fare better. Without equitable distribution of internet connections and bandwidth, any attempt to experiment with online voting could skew electoral outcomes towards urban India, particularly the upper middle class and the rich, who have the resources to pay for faster and more stable internet connections.

India’s wireless internet landscape, on which a vast majority of India relies, is dominated by three private-sector players — Reliance Jio, Vodafone-Idea and Airtel control more than 90 per cent of the telecom and internet market in urban and rural India. This would considerably dilute the influence of the ECI, a constitutional body. Article 324 of the Indian constitution gives ECI the power of “superintendence, direction and control of elections” in the country. Vesting the most critical part of voting in the hands of select private telecom operators could invite legal trouble and raise uncomfortable questions about constitutional propriety.

While untested voting methods might not be introduced anytime soon, tried and tested alternatives inspire little confidence. The postal ballot system allows India’s military personnel and diplomatic staff posted across the world to vote in larger numbers, but it continues to be highly unreliable due to errors in filling up of ballot papers.

In the 2019 parliamentary elections, despite innovations like sending postal ballots over the internet, two of every 10 postal votes were rejected. The rejection rate in the internet-based postal ballot system was hardly better than what was recorded a decade earlier in the 2009 elections, when postal ballots had been sent and received through India’s postal system.

So, what’s the most viable option?

“In this crisis, the ECI should seriously consider online voting. Additionally, it should consider the option of holding elections in phases, in a more staggered manner, to maintain social distancing and minimise the risk of infections during queuing up for voting. The Bihar elections, and then West Bengal and others that go to the polls in early 2021, could well be the testing ground for these measures,” says Major General (Retired) Anil Verma, who heads the non-governmental body Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR).

Staggered voting at a single booth allows voting over several days instead of the single-day model of 8 am to 6 pm voting followed across India. “That would be logistically difficult because the election body is grossly understaffed. That’s why we have to rely on teachers, bank workers and government employees to operate polling booths. A single team is virtually on a 24-hour duty in a booth on the polling day. It would be hard for them to work three days on trot in a staggered election,” adds Quraishi.

With few real options, the immense interest in South Korea’s successful pandemic poll model is discernible among top Indian officials. But then South Koreans are counted among the most disciplined and law-abiding people globally. Bihar, or the rest India for that matter, could be a different ball game altogether.

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