Even as Home Minister Amit Shah addressed a virtual rally in poll-bound Bihar on Sunday, the Election Commission of India (ECI) is trying to figure out how to hold state assembly elections in the times of Covid-19. Elections are due in Bihar in October-November with the term of the assembly ending on November 29.
On the table before ECI are few options so far—to hold elections in the traditional way with people queuing outside polling booths and also to try out, in a limited way, holding e-elections in a few seats. An exhaustive meeting of ECI is scheduled for June 15 to take the discussion ahead. The ECI is also studying the South Korea model as the country managed to hold its parliamentary polls in the middle of the pandemic, taking all precautions and with social distancing norms in place.
Outlook spoke to several stakeholders to find that there are challenges involved in both situations. The country is not yet ready with foolproof technology that can enable e-elections wherein voters don’t have to come out of their homes and can cast their vote online.
As of now, it appears that Bihar elections will by and large see voting in the traditional manner with people queueing up at polling booths while maintaining social distancing norms. However, digital polling may be tried in a few assembly seats as a test case.
Postponement of elections doesn’t seem likely according to top government sources. They say that delaying elections would be the last resort, only in a force majeure situation.
Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sunil Arora declined to give details about the ongoing discussions in ECI and talked about some “baby steps” that have been taken towards digitisation of voting. “We are working on blockchain solutions to enable remote voting. The Technical Experts Committee (TEC) of ECI is working to develop a blockchain system that would allow voters to exercise their votes when they are physically away from their constituency,” he said. The TEC comprises experts from IITs across the country.
Director of IIT (Bhilai), Prof Rajat Moona, is part of the TEC . He said they have been working on the possibility of remote voting for some time. He refered to a 2015 conference where the issue was discussed. “As an outcome of that Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) was initiated.”
It was done for people using postal ballot, such as the armed forces and other services. In this, the ballot paper is transmitted to the voters through electronic mechanism. The PDF file is then downloaded by them, a print taken and their vote cast. It is then mailed back through normal postal system. There is no system in place yet to send the same back electronically.
Dr Jaijit Bhattacharya, president of Centre for Digital Economy Policy Research, says that holding e-elections under the current infrastructure is extremely challenging. “People need to have their e-signs and it is far-fetched as of now. Penetration of smart devices is still not deep in India. Enormous amount of training and system build-up is needed before we move towards e-elections,” he says. There is also the need to devise a way so that the secrecy of the ballot is maintained as e-signs or digital signatures could give away the identity of the voter.
Holding elections through traditional means is also a daunting task. Bihar, with a population of 9.9 crore, is much bigger compared to South Korea’s 5.16 crore population. The sheer logistics involved in holding elections in the state at such a time are intimidating.
Consider this: total number of polling booths in Bihar, as per 2019 Lok Sabha elections, are 72,227. Each booth ideally caters to 1200 to 1500 voters, which can turn out to be a nightmare for social distancing. The ECI is in the process of figuring out the ideal number of voters per polling booth.
“If we allow only 500 voters per booth, we need 70,000 more officials to man the increased number of booths. And if we decide to have 800 voters per booth, we need 51,000 additional officials. We are working on all these issues,” an official says. Each booth needs at least six officials to man it – first polling officer, second polling officer, third polling officer, presiding officer, micro observer and digital camera person. The role of each is well-defined and cannot be curtailed.