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Vol. XXX No. 23, April 1-15, 2021

City gears up for the Assembly Election as it fights to stave off second wave of pandemic

by Our Special Correspondent

The sixteenth legislative assembly election of Tamil Nadu is to be held on April 6 and, according to the Election Commission of India, 62.6 million people are eligible to vote, of which 40 lakh voters are attributed to Chennai. The elections come at a time when the city is struggling against a new swell of corona virus cases – for instance, Chennai saw a 100% rise in fresh cases over a span of three weeks, according to an NDTV report.

One of the reasons for the new surge is thought to be ‘covid fatigue’, which has resulted in lax discipline towards preventive guidelines and social distancing – the practices of wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining prudent distancing seem to have largely gone out the window. In fact, the new cases are reported to be workplace and family clusters, with the latter arising out of a failure to comply with home quarantine measures. Reports say that electioneering efforts from political parties are adding to the strain, with party gatherings and campaigns adopting loose enforcement of the covid protocols outlined by the Election Commission of India. The city’s medical community is reportedly bracing itself for an exponential rise in fresh covid cases. Given the situation, sanitary voting arrangements are expected to be a crucial line of defense against a second wave of covid – after all, most things that one takes for granted in voting is a red flag in these pandemic days, from crowded polling booths to the voting machines.

According to a report in The Hindu, the Election Commission has increased the number of polling booths in the state from 68,324 to 88,937 in a bid to reduce crowding at the polls. As for enforcing covid protocols, district Election Officer G. Prakash has been quoted saying that citizens without masks will not be allowed to vote. It is also reported that voters will get their temperatures checked upon arrival with an infrared thermometer; those showing signs of infection will be issued a medical certificate and allowed to vote during a special schedule. Every voter will also be provided a hand glove to cast their votes, while citizens who have tested positive will be provided PPE kits to cast their ballot at the voting booths. It remains to be seen how far these efforts will go in curbing the spread of infection on election day.

One’s thoughts immediately turn to the possibility of e-voting, of course. While no such mechanism exists currently, it seems to be a large scale project that may come to fruition only during next election season – the Election Commission of India is reported to be collaborating with IIT-Madras to develop remote voting operations based on blockchain technology. In the meantime, absentee voting has been rolled out for the first time in the state for a small group of people comprising senior citizens above the age of 80 and citizens with disabilities. Mr. G. Prakash explained that the process of absentee voting involved complex logistics, where the voting machines would be physically taken to voters’ houses based on prior appointment. It is reported that 1.59 lakh elderly voters have opted for this route and voting is already underway.

Given the scale of the operation, it is understandable that the current process cannot be rolled out to a larger voter base; however, one cannot help but wonder why more effort was not taken to introduce other remote voting options to the general public. For instance, the recent US presidential elections come to mind, which leveraged the postal network to allow mail-in ballots. Restricting postal ballots to a small section of the voter base may not have a significant impact in reducing risks, especially if the younger family members of a household or residential complex are forced to visit a booth to vote.

One feels that Digital India can do much better. After all, we’ve been living with the pandemic for over a year and knew that we had an election year in the offing. With many across the city reluctant to brave the crowds and cast their votes, it remains to be seen how far voter turnout will be affected.

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