A risky proposition
Elections are both a starting point and defining point of any nation that claims to be a democracy. As such, the changing face of elections in the COVID era is of much interest worldwide. On the one hand, governments worldwide desire the routine functioning of the election process, on the other hand, there is an acknowledgement that the scale and nature of the activity can easily lend itself to becoming a source of infection on a mass scale. Naturally, no one is suggesting that elections should be put on hold. Indeed, many nations across the world are currently experimenting with various methods to make the whole election process safer for everyone involved. The natural solution in some ways to take things online or use other methods that minimise person to person contact.
Naturally, this being a period of trial and error, the process has not been smooth. Those who organise such elections now have additional challenges that have become particularly daunting during this period. This can range from concerns over low turnout, technical glitches playing spoilsport and even the elections themselves being questioned on grounds of legitimacy as we shift from a predominantly in-person, close contact method. Measures like mail-in voting have particularly been affected by such concerns. While studies in various countries show that there are no additional vulnerabilities in mail-in voting that hamper its use, its adoption has been mixed and the perception that it is easy to rig remains in many cases. Mail-in voting is not new but has had very limited use before the time of COVID-19. Alternatively, depending on the circumstances, a country may opt to make adjustments to the various processes that go into elections to make in-person activities safer. This involves everything from having more voting booths to requiring masks and having staggered voting hours. For much of the world, this has been the preferred method with measures like mail-in voting coming on the side. Of course, while it is relatively easier to keep control of the voting part of the election process, it is more difficult to make physical rallies safe. As experiences worldwide continue to show, it is harder to regulate rules and restrictions in large-scale rallies. The ongoing US Presidential Elections provide a glimpse at the complications behind holding large scale rallies. In America where the use of masks has become a political point, large Trump rallies often see thousands of supporters in close proximity standing maskless and fervently shouting chants. Even before he and much of his staff and family tested positive, many states had politely requested him to hold off on having large scale rallies. Critics have stated that these rallies threaten entire communities and not just the rally-goers themselves. Joe Biden, on the other hand, has run a more subdued campaign, one which embraces changes like virtual fundraisers. While many Democrats are worried over this low-key tactic, Biden himself has confidently stated that he is doing so out of respect for the public safety guidelines.
In India, the safety of physical rallies is even more questionable. It is a well-known fact that India is the world's largest democracy and our elections are the most complex events of their kind, operating on a mind-boggling scale. Even the rallies reach record sizes, a trend that has not been deeply affected by this pandemic. This has been evidenced by photos of Bihar election rallies with thousands gathered in close proximity with masks or any other sign of compliance to the Election Commission guidelines. As many news outlets have noted, norms were even flouted during events like nomination fillings. This led many to comment that COVID-19 has made only a marginal difference to the Bihar elections. If the Bihar elections were a trial run, then this perceived laxness of safety rules would only be a taste for what is to come. In the latest development, both the EC and the BJP have approached the SC regarding the latest order by the Gwalior Bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court which restricted physical rallies in the state. The HC in question castigated the political parties when delivering this order, stating that no stone had been left unturned in drawing out voters from the safety of their homes for the ulterior motive of gaining votes, The court order states that all such physical events are to be banned until the magistrate is convinced that the candidate cannot hold a virtual event for whatever reason and that too, only on the express permission of the EC. Political parties aside, even the EC has reacted to this decision with anger and has claimed that this new order not only makes light of the EC and its efforts but also threatens to disrupt a level playing field. Even the BJP complaint makes mention of the many Bihar rallies in calling to question the fairness of such measures being selectively applied. The truth is that, much like anything else to do with the 'new normal', we simply don't know enough about the effect of elections on COVID spread. The limited examples we do have contain too many variables for a clear conclusion. But what is clear is that the conversation on such matters needs to focus on the safety of the citizens first and foremost. Elections are important to democracy but so is a government that is willing to go the distance in keeping its electorate's safety.