The elections to the local self-government bodies in Kerala pose unprecedented challenges in the time of COVID-19. Almost 73 per cent of the state's population are entitled to cast their votes in the elections. There are more than 74,000 candidates trying their luck. Let's have a look at how the local body polls in Kerala will be held amid the pandemic.
There are 1,312,039 more women voters than men and 1,72,331 first-time voters.
Most number of voters
Least number of voters
For Gram Panchayats
For Block Panchayats
For District Panchayats
From the notification of elections and the examination of electronic voting machines to the training of personnel and the scrutiny of nominations, the State Election Commission has its hands full during the busy election season.
About 2 lakh government employees have been deployed for the conduct of elections. All of them have been provided with masks, face shields, gloves and sanitizers. They have been trained in batches of 40 people at the most. At training centres seats have been arranged at a distance of 2 metres from each other. Halls and furniture have been disinfected. Air-conditioning has been done away with to prevent infection. Wearing masks are mandatory at the workspace. All offices have been supplied with enough sanitizers, soaps and water. The health department initiated a temperature check of each election official before they were sent for training. Those from the containment zones or are in quarantine were separately trained.
In a bid to put across the message from the State Election Commission effectively, the collectors of all 14 districts had convened a meeting of political parties, inviting one person each to represent a political party. These meetings had a cap of 40 attendees. They met in spacious and airy halls after making sure that each of them wore a mask and rubbed their hands with sanitizers. The seats were arranged 2 m apart.
Engineers from the Electronic Corporation of India went to all district headquarters in the state to check if the Electronic Voting Machines were ready to use. The engineers who travelled from other states were put in quarantine for a week and tested for COVID-19. The first-level checking of the machines went on for a month in every district. Specially equipped halls were arranged for the elaborate exercise. Not more than 30 people were allowed in a hall. Only one representative was admitted from each political party. All first-level checking centres had enough supply of sanitizers, soaps and water. Everyone was expected to wear a mask and maintain social distancing.
The process of filing nomination papers to contest the polls was also different this time. Only one candidate was admitted at a time to the office where the nomination was accepted. All the candidates were given time slots in advance so that the office was never crowded. Candidates were urged to avoid the usual hordes of supporters accompanying them and convoys of vehicles. They were required to wash their hands with soap and rub sanitizers before entering the hall. They could only go inside in groups of three, including the candidate and the person nominating him or her. The officer who accepted the nomination was also supposed to wear gloves, mask and face shield.
Candidates in quarantine or those from containment zones were given separate time slots to submit their nominations. In case the candidate was in quarantine or tested positive for COVID-19, they could file their nomination through nominees. They were allowed to take an oath and sign on the papers before an officer authorised by the election commission.
The scrutiny of the nomination papers was held in disinfected airy halls. Only candidates and their proposers and agents were allowed inside for the scrutiny for each ward. Not more than 30 people were allowed inside. Candidates and their companions were led to designated seats kept in such a way as to maintain social distancing. Officers scrutinizing the nomination papers wore gloves, masks and face shields all through the process. They used sanitizers as well.
Officers called for meetings of candidates and representatives of political parties to explain the model code of conduct related to the elections. Candidates from multiple wards were let in but the number of participants was not more than 30 in any case. All the meetings were subject to COVID-19 security protocols.
The activity most affected by COVID-19, however, was the election campaign. Not more than five people, including the candidate, could go on house-to-house campaign. Not more than three vehicles could be used for road shows. Election rallies, marches and huge meetings were completely avoided. Public meetings and family meetings were subject to COVID-19 restrictions. Candidates and political parties had to obtain prior permission from the police before they organised public meetings. They were also encouraged to cut down on notices and leaflets and utilise social media platforms. Also missing were the garlands, bouquets and shawls usually showered on candidates as a show of support. Candidates were under strict orders to keep away from campaign as soon as they were found positive for COVID-19 or ordered to go into quarantine. They could return to public space only after testing negative, that too as per the directions of the health department.
The setting of candidates' names on the Electronic Voting Machines was also held subject to the COVID-19 restrictions. Each booth was ordered to store the supplies they needed a week ahead of the election date. The officers in charge of their procurement were required to wear masks and gloves and use sanitizers. Centres from where polling equipment and supplies were distributed were ordered to be sanitized the day before the distribution and on the polling day. Polling officers were given separate time slots to collect the supplies. They were given kits containing polling materials in specially designated vehicles. They were required to return the supplies in designated vehicles after the polling.
The pre-poll voting, days ahead of the scheduled polling days of the three-phase local body elections in Kerala, commenced from December 2. Covid patients and those in quarantine are eligible to vote as long as their names appear in the special voters list drawn up by the State Election Commission to allow such people to exercise their franchise. Till November 30, about 30,000 people were shortlisted for the first list of special voters in Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha and Idukki, the districts that are going to polls in the first phase. If any COVID-positive patient or those in quarantine have not been included in the certified list, they can download the special application form from the State Election Commission website and apply for the special postal ballot.
For the first time in the history of elections in Kerala, the state will have 'special voters,' casting their ballots in the upcoming local body polls. Special voters are those people who are quarantined as per the regulations of the Health Department of the state or those who are undergoing treatment for COVID-19. They will be provided with the ballots for voting. Polling officials, wearing PPE kit and assisted by the police, will come to the place of stay of such voters and collect their votes. They will be notified via SMS or phone of the time and date of the officials' visit. They may either register their votes at the time of the designated official's visit or the ballots can be sent via post. Over 1,500 officials have been tasked to perform the assignment during each phase of the election. The list of special voters was prepared as per directions of district medical officers. If a voter is included in the 'special voters' list, he or she won't be allowed to caste a vote at the polling booth.
Polling starts at 7 am and will go on till 6 pm, an hour later than usual. All polling booths would be disinfected a day ahead of the election. Polling officers are required to stay in the polling booths on the previous day. Soap and water would be kept outside their premises and sanitizers inside the room. Voters are supposed to stand in the marked areas — separate for men and women — to ensure that they are maintaining social distancing.
Voters have to rub their hands with sanitizers while entering the polling booth and exiting it. They must wear masks at all time, except when their identity is checked against the document. Only three voters will be allowed inside the polling booth, subject to the social distancing norms. COVID-19 patients and quarantined persons can vote in the last hour of polling.
No candidate should send more than 10 booth agents. They must be located in accordance with the social distancing norms. They have to wear masks and use sanitizers. They must store sanitizers, soap and water at the place where they distribute slips to voters. Not more than two persons should be deployed to distribute slips to voters. Those who distribute postal ballots and those who receive postal ballots should wear gloves and masks and use sanitizers.
The counting of votes starts at 8 am on December 16. Counting centres would be disinfected on December 15. Counting officers, candidates and counting agents must wear gloves and masks. The counting tables would be placed in such a way as to conform to the social distancing guidelines. Anyone entering or exiting the counting centres should rub their hands with sanitizers.
No matter who wins the election, the prime objective is to ensure that the coronavirus doesn't win. The State Election Commission has issued strict directions so that all precautions against virus transmission are taken throughout the election process. That includes victory rallies too!