6000 booths, strict COVID protocol, 80-plus to vote at home: District officer shares election plans

How different will elections be this time, held in the shadows of the COVID-19 pandemic? How are violations of the model code being monitored? G Prakash, District Election Officer, explains.

Nominated by the Election Commission of India (ECI), a District Election Officer (DEO) supervises election-related work in the district. In other words, the officer is responsible for ensuring good polling percentage, preparation of booths, setting up the grievance redressal system in coordination with the ECI, and conduct of other election-related duties. 

G Prakash, Commissioner of the Greater Chennai Corporation is the DEO of Chennai. Ahead of him lies the Herculean task of ensuring safe, smooth elections during an ongoing pandemic, as the city gets set to vote along with the rest of the state in the Assembly elections scheduled for April 6th.

COVID-19 has certainly changed the dynamics of the upcoming elections: the number of polling booths will be higher, additional staff force are to be deployed and specific safety measures undertaken. We spoke to G Prakash to understand the measures being taken as part of election preparedness. 

What are the various challenges from an organisational and procedural perspective, especially given the hurdles posed by the coronavirus pandemic?

The main challenge was to increase the number of polling booths, so that we may ensure adequate social distancing. We have been able to achieve that to a large extent. We currently have 6000 booths as opposed to the 3700 in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Creating an additional booth requires creation of paraphernalia for each of them.

Every booth should have six government officers. With the exception of pregnant mothers and the differently-abled, all officers in the government departments are assigned election duty, as per the provisions of The Representation of People act, 1951. Currently, we are assigning the staff to booths through computerised models with random selection. The staff would know about the booth they have been assigned to, only two days before polling day. 

G Prakash, District Election Officer, Chennai. Credits: GCC

We have also introduced a new system this time, whereby the differently abled voters (there are 10,000 of them in Chennai) and senior citizens above 80 years (1.15 lakh) can cast their vote at home. Voters in these categories should fill out a form 12D (before March 16th) and submit at their zonal offices. Booth level officers are distributing these forms to the households.

On the day of voting, members of the our team will go to the homes of such voters and help them vote. This is a major logistical exercise that requires officers to visit and assist the voters and take videos. But it will also require proactive involvement of these sections of voters for the system to work successfully. 

What steps are undertaken to ensure social distancing in the polling booths? 

In addition to increasing the number of booths, the ECI has also extended polling time by an hour. A booth has the capacity to accomodate about 1050 people throughout the eleven hours of polling. But, in reality each booth would actually see less than those numbers, as 100% polling is still a distant dream. 

Two officials will be deployed in each booth, only to ensure proper sanitisation. Citizens without masks will not be allowed to vote. 

Read more: COVID precautions for Rajarajeshwari Nagar bypolls

How can those in quarantine/ isolation due to COVID-19 vote? 

Citizens who are suspected to be COVID-19 positive or those in isolation can vote, with their PPE kits on, during the last hour of the polling day. Taking these issues into consideration, ECI has extended the polling time. We are awaiting more instructions from the ECI in terms of PPE expenses.

How accessible are the polling stations in Chennai? There were many cases of differently abled people struggling to vote during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections… 

All the polling booths are on the ground floor and have ramps. Every booth will have a foldable wheelchair; two volunteers from NSS and NCC will be present assisting the differently-abled. Our engineering teams are working to ensure accessibility in all the polling stations. As we have so many new booths, there could be lapses, but we encourage citizens to flag such issues wherever they spot them, so that these may be rectified before the elections. 

Could you share the data on first time voters in Chennai? What efforts are underway to get them to vote? How much is spent on these campaigns?

There are around 65,982 first time voters in Chennai. We are launching various campaigns as part of the ECI’s Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programme. We have recently conducted musical campaigns at Marina Beach and at the Book fair. 

We have unveiled a mascot called Vaakku Vaathiyar who clears all your doubts about elections. Soon, we will be roping in prominent actors to talk about the importance of voting. All these campaigns are pro bono.

The district election office (GCC) organised a campaign at the Chennai book fair to encourage 100% voting. Credits: GCC

Where can citizens report violations during the polls? Would action be taken against parties/candidates for violation of the model code of conduct? 

Cash inducement could be happening through online payment systems such as GPay. A lot of small quantum transfers go under the radar. How to completely stop such micro transactions remain an unsolved problem. Citizens should be conscious to not trade their votes for freebies. There are multiple channels to report suspicious cash transactions, liquor or gold distribution, as listed below:

  • Voters’ helpline – 1950
  • C Vigil – A mobile application where a citizen can even upload photos of malpractices they spot 
  • GCC control room at 18004257012 
  • GCC Whatsapp number – 9499933644 

Citizens can also call the returning officers in their constituency:

  • RK Nagar —NS Mohammed Aslam — 7338801243
  • Perambur — A Rajagopalan —9445000901
  • Kolathur —M Thangavel — 9443699656
  • Villivakkam —R Raja Kirubakaran — 9791139869
  • Thiru Vi Ka Nagar —G Vijaya — 9940961518
  • Egmore — S Ravi — 9655367081
  • Royapuram — R Baby — 944383682
  • Harbour — V Shakila — 9444982660
  • Chepauk Triplicane —T Mohanraj — 9123547307
  • Thousand Lights —N Angaiyarkanni — 8754456039
  • Anna Nagar — I Anandakumar —9498002650
  • Virugambakkam —R Suman — 9994657199
  • Saidapet —V Alin Suneja — 9445074956
  • T Nagar — R Rajendiran — 9445190740
  • Mylapore — R Jeeva — 9444094220
  • Velachery —VR Subbulakshmi — 9444446559

If the code is violated, a case will be booked in the concerned police station.

We have set up a media certification and monitoring committee, comprised of GCC officials, the DEO and volunteers from media, to watch out for paid news by the political parties 

Why do we need multiple helpline numbers? 

It’s good to have multiple complaint mechanisms from an administrative point of view. Citizens can choose the medium they are comfortable with. 

With such a sharp increase in the number of booths this year, isn’t it going to be a stiff challenge for the department to mitigate malpractices? How equipped is the team?

We have requested the Central Reserve Police force (CRPF) to deploy additional staff in vulnerable and critical booths. Vulnerable booths are those where there is a possibility of intimidation and caste dominance leading to distortionary voting patterns. Critical booths are those that had suspicious polling percentage (more than 90% or less than 20%) in the previous elections. According to the list from Chennai City Police, we have around 565 vulnerable booths and 30 critical booths. 

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