The Congress on Friday demanded an immediate withdrawal of the Election Commission’s decision to introduce the use of postal ballot in the Assembly elections, reported The Indian Express. The party said the move allows voters to come under “organised administrative influence”, violates the secrecy clause and makes election officials more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Law and Justice had published a notification permitting people over the age of 65 to vote in elections via postal ballot, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Elderly persons are believed to be more vulnerable to the virus, along with children, pregnant women and those suffering from co-morbid conditions.

Senior Congress leaders Abhishek Singhvi and Randeep Surjewala, in a virtual presentation before the Election Commission, argued the decision was unconstitutional and was taken without consulting stakeholders and political parties.

“The manner in which this decision has been taken demonstrates a complete non-application of mind and a shocking circumvention of any consultation process with the key stakeholders,” the party said in a petition. “Even upon a cursory examination, the numerous legal deficiencies in this decision become apparent.”

Allowing postal ballot for those above 65 years of age violates the secrecy clause in voting as a large segment of the population is illiterate and might seek assistance from others at numerous stages at the risk of disclosing their preferred candidate, the party added. The decision also “exposes a high percentage of voters to organised administrative influence or influence by the government or the ruling party or their agents or any number of individuals who shall be able to identify these individuals in advance (with ease) and influence how they vote without the protection of the secret ballot,” it said.

Besides, the Congress said the decision, which “purportedly aims to protect senior citizens and to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infection,” may have an exact opposite effect “doubly endangering not just the voters but those around them vis-à-vis exposure to the Covid-19 virus”.

The party explained that Form 13A, along with the postal ballot paper, requires to be attested and notarised, for which the voter will have to personally meet an election officer. “The voter shall have to utilise the services of a government postal office to send his or her postal ballot and therefore, will yet again risk either contracting or spreading Covid-19 infection,” the Congress added. “A better alternative would be to have a separate voting booth for senior Citizens to minimise the risk of infection.”

The party also argued that the rate of rejection of postal ballots is nearly 20%, which, if applied to the votes cast by electors of 65 years and above, is enough to completely change the outcome of any election. “In other words, and in light of these numerous requirements, postal ballots are a less reliable alternative and cannot become the norm,” it said.

The Bihar Assembly elections are expected to be held by November this year, followed by the West Bengal polls early in 2021. So far, the postal ballot facility was available only to people over 80 years of age and those working in essential services outside their home states. The notification will come into effect as the “Conduct of Elections (Amendment) Rules, 2020”.