India, like rest of the world has been in the throes of COVID 19, a pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2.This has been causing death and infection since late December 2019. Global and Indian statistics read as: 47.4 million infected and 1.21 million succumbing, 8.31 million infected and 124,000 succumbing respectively. Lately, post-infection sequelae have joined the morbidity list.
Vagaries of the virus viz; mutation, high infectivity, clinically more serious re-infections, subsequent waves of infections in regions like Europe which had plateaued the viral graph, dearth of effective ‘one-stop’ treatment strategy, and a vaccine has veritably demanded humanity to fend for itself. Thus far. Nine months of battling with the crafty virus has convinced healthcare providers that denying entry of the virus into the human body is the only method to checkmate it. This is achieved by physically distancing ourselves by at least a meter, closing of portals of infection by proper use of masks, and preventing the virus from reaching these portals by meticulous hand hygiene, cough and sneeze etiquette, and by doing away with public spitting and unnecessarily touching the face.
In the interest of physical distancing, society has undergone sea change functionally. Cinemas are closed. Work from home and online classes have replaced offices and classrooms. Worship too is online! Invitees to public functions have been trimmed.
But there remains a major avenue for viral transmission on large scale- elections. This could be disastrous in a nation with a population of 1.3 billion. Bihar is just done with assembly elections. Kerala is preparing for polls to local self-governing bodies, which health experts opine could cause another bout of viral flare-up. Viral transmission in a typical Indian electoral setup can occur big-time 1.while queuing to vote, 2.while verifying voter identity using valid documents, 3.while signing on registers at the booth, 4.while voting using the EVM or paper ballot. These involve handling common substances by a large group of people and officials.
To limit this, imaginative changes in electoral procedures merit consideration.
Ideally, until the pandemic eases alternatives to voting at crowded booths must be targeted to limit fomite transmission.
Before examining various methods to achieve ‘away-from-the- booth’ casting of votes, every Indian voter must be provided with a secret, unique and dedicated password which must be used at the time of voting, irrespective of voting method used. This password can be generated when the voter applies for inclusion in the voters list through a dedicated portal, at which time relevant identification documents can be verified. Enough time and opportunity must be provided to voters to complete this process, which will call for large-scale and coordinated efforts from various agencies. Casting of votes will be possible only after entering the password, whatever the mode of voting.
Various ‘away-from the booth’ methods of casting votes that merit consideration are:
- Postal voting. This is being practiced in India. Though postal ballot may be allowed on request, it is limited to people unable to travel to a designated polling station, people employed with Armed forces, state police, and the Indian government, but officially posted abroad, and those on election duty at polling booths. Postal ballot must be made available to larger section of people after rendering it fraud-proof. Postal voting must also be made password-based.
- Vote from home. Just as ‘work from home’ and ‘study from home’ have become new normal, ‘vote from home’ can also be considered. India has the technological knowhow to make this possible. Every citizen must be able to vote from safe environs of their home. Vote from home must be made functional through a fraud-proof portal, which contains voting eligibility of every citizen whose identity is verified. The voter must be allowed registration in the portal only after identity is satisfactorily clarified using valid documents. A bar-code or QR code-enabled ID proof from which the portal can verify the voter identity can be thought of. This form of voting must also be password-enabled. To prevent bogus or fraudulent voting, the actual voting may be allowed through a second password which can be received on a mobile phone, computer or the gadget being used to vote. The voting process will therefore require two passwords; (1) at the time of registering in the voting portal, and (2) while actually voting. This security-elaborate system will be gadget-heavy, as voters will need a computer or a mobile phone to vote. How many Indians can own a mobile phone, computer and similar gadgets? That this can be made practical in a country as vast and technology-not-so-savvy as India has been proved by the huge success of online education that is being imparted since the pandemic.
- Vote from office. Citizens could exercise their franchise from their office seats on the same lines as ‘vote from home’. Password/passwords -based voting can be made without losing man-hours or having to avail leave from work.
- Way-side voting kiosks can be considered across India. These too must function on security-tight fraud-proof-based technology. Security of such kiosks in remote Indian hinterlands might impose increased workload on security and law enforcing agencies. Meticulous adherence to COVID-specific protocol like social distancing, use of masks and hand hygiene must be observed in such kiosks. Voter identity verification already been carried out while registering in the dedicated voting portal can obviate physical verification of voter identity at these kiosks limiting fomite transmission of the pandemic. Hoodwinking apparently watertight technology using technology itself is the order of the day. Operated by law-breakers. Technology-backed fraud and bogus voting can be expected which could, to a large extent be checkmated by employing double password-based electronic voting away from traditional crowded booths. Password-based digital voting will be inaccessible once a voter votes to prevent digital ballot-stuffing.