Ramzan PIL: Low voter turnout reveals that the EC may have missed a trick

Ramzan PIL: Low voter turnout reveals that the EC may have missed a trick

Bar & Bench

The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a petition filed by advocate Mohammad Nizamuddin Pasha asking for poll timings for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections to be advanced on account of the intense heat wave prevailing in several parts of the country, and the onset of the holy month of Ramzan.

Pasha had prayed for polling to commence at “5:30 or even 6:00 AM (instead of the notified time of 7:00 AM)”on account of the same. He had filed a similar petition that was disposed of by the Supreme Court on May 2, 2019, with a direction to the Election Commission to pass necessary orders.

However, the Election Commission on May 5 dismissed the representation made by Pasha saying it has already taken festivals and the acute hot weather conditions into account. The poll timing has been fixed to start at 7:00 AM so that electors can start voting before the day becomes hot, it said. The EC also said that it has already issued an advisory on dealing with the impact of the heat wave, therefore nothing further needs to be done. A copy of the advisory was supplied to the applicant along with the May 5 order.

Attached to the order was an advisory dated April 6, 2019, where the Election Commission had forwarded Dos and Don’ts issued by the National Disaster Management Authority to all Chief Electoral Officers for compliance, with copies supplied to all political parties. The advisory suggested that for heat risk reduction, people should avoid going out in the Sun, especially between 12:00 PM and 3:00 PM, and should drink sufficient water, even if not thirsty.

Pasha challenged the order of the EC before the Supreme Court and argued that this was a mockery of his request as voters had to get out to vote and couldn’t “avoid going out in the sun”. He also pointed out that Muslims couldn’t drink water during their fast.

Interestingly, Section 56 of the Representation of the People Act provides that the total period allotted on any one day for polling at elections cannot be less than 8 hours. So, if the period of 12:00 PM to 3:00 PM is excluded as suggested by the EC, the statutory minimum of 8 hours is not met in several constituencies in Bihar and Jharkhand, where polling ends at 4:00 PM. Pasha’s petition also argued that,

“The reasoning given by the respondent (EC) in its order dated May 5 is ex-facie self-contradictory as the respondent claims it has already taken acute hot weather conditions and festivals into account in fixing poll timing but still has passed orders fixing the same standard polling hours that are issued in every election at any time in any part of the country.”

The petition had prayed for commencing polling early so that voters, particularly the elderly and Muslims, had a sufficiently large window of time to vote and return home before the day’s heat intensified. During the course of the exchange, Justice Sanjiv Khanna said that he had checked the temperature in Indore at 7:00 AM and decided that it was cool enough to go out.

Pasha sought to argue before the Court that voter turnout figures released by the EC showed that compared to the first four phases of voting, voter turnout had fallen by around 6% in the last two phases since the Meteorological Department issued its first heat wave warning on April 30.

As per figures released by the EC, voter turnout has declined steadily with the onset of the summer heat from 69.50% in the first phase two phases on April 11 and 18 to 63.50% in the last two phases on May 6 and 12. Voter turnout has also been lower than that in the 2014 elections, in several parts of the heat-affected region. For instance, Delhi and neighbouring parts of Haryana recorded a fall of 4-6% compared to 2014, while Allahabad recorded a fall of 3% from 2014.

However, the Bench of Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice Sanjiv Khanna was unimpressed, observing that fixing polling hours was the discretion of the EC and the Court would not interfere in this function.

The EC in its May 5 order also said that changing poll time was not feasible as it would have to make additional logistical arrangements and additional administrative arrangements, and that its polling officials would have to work very long hours on polling day. This is the second time in the recent past that the EC has cited administrative inconvenience in refusing to accommodate demands that would make the elections more participative or more transparent.

Last month, the EC opposed tooth and nail the demand of 21 political parties for counting a larger percentage of VVPAT slips saying it would be too much work and would take too long. The EC’s stand on both the VVPAT counting as well as the Ramzan PILs raises an important issue as to whether administrative convenience of polling staff can trump the need to increase voter participation and voter confidence in the elections.

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