Barred from the ballot
Voter- friendly Australia
To blot out the ink or not ?
By Chandani Kirinde and Laila Nasry
As men and women form straggly queues on December
5, to mark that tiny cross deciding the fate of this country in the next
six years, a large group of Sri Lankans will only be able to watch the
king-making process, maybe on TV and sigh in frustration.
For though they are rightful citizens of this country and their "foreign
exchange" earnings are welcomed to keep the Sri Lankan economy from crashing,
they are the 'forgotten voters' of this land. And the numbers are shocking
_ at least one million Sri Lanka migrant workers and thousands of
others employed and studying abroad are not able to cast their vote. This
bloc of nearly one-tenth of the country's registered votes could be decisive
in swinging an election but even after 70 years of having the franchise,
no procedure has been set in motion to provide facilities for Sri Lankans
abroad to use their ballot.
Violet, 52, who worked as a housemaid in Lebanon for nine years voiced
the frustration most migrant workers felt in not having a say in who should
govern the country. "I am very interested in politics but was unable to
vote in several elections as I was in Lebanon. My children are here and
even when I was abroad I wanted to elect people who would work for a better
tomorrow. Unfortunately, I was unable to do so."
The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all
Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, ratified by Sri Lanka in
1996 clearly states that they "shall have the right to participate in public
affairs of their state of origin and to vote and to be elected at elections
of that state in accordance with its legislation. The State concerned shall
as appropriate and in accordance with their legislation facilitate the
exercise of these rights".
Many migrant workers especially in the Middle East are keen to take
part in national elections held in Sri Lanka and yearn for facilities to
Another affected group is the expatriate workers and students studying
abroad who are also eligible to vote, but have no facilities. Mrs. M. Hassim
attached to an international organisation in Central Asia said, "We should
have a say in the electoral process as we are one of the main foreign exchange
earners for the country."
Diana, a Lankan residing in America agrees that she should be allowed
to exercise this basic right. "I should be given the chance to vote from
wherever in the world I am since I am a Sri Lankan no matter what country
I reside in," she said.
"The continuation of this practice leads to the marginalisation of an
economic group within the community who are encouraged by the state to
leave for overseas employment," stresses David Soysa of the Migrant Services
Centre in a note on 'Voting rights for migrant workers of Sri Lanka'.
Representations in this regard were first made to the Commissioner of
Elections almost two years ago to get a system in place, but indications
are the response has been lukewarm.
In his latest reply of October 25, to the Action Network for Migrant
Workers (ACTFORM) which is agitating for this right, the Elections Commissioner
has stated that the Parliamentary Elections Act provided no voting facility
for migrant workers. Hence he was unable to act. Instead, he has called
for the effective mobilisation of parliamentarians to amend election laws.
Thus the matter remains embroiled in red tape.
"Those going abroad are deprived of their right and their families are
subject to intimidation and coercion to hand over the polling cards to
rig the poll," says Viola Perera, Co-ordinator of ACTFORM.
Citing a case where the mother of a migrant worker was asked for her
absent daughter's polling card and threatened with death when she refused,
Ms. Perera added that it has become standard practice at election time
in the past few years with political parties lending a hand.
Champika (name changed), a minor was asked by supporters of a political
party in Borella area to cast the vote of her sister who is employed in
the Middle East in a past election. "I took her polling card and voted
on her behalf. It was smooth sailing. All I needed to know was her full
name," said Champika who was ignorant of the gravity of her misdeed.
Meanwhile, Attorney-at-Law J.C. Weliamuna who is spearheading the campaign
to gain the electoral rights of migrant workers, said polling cards of
absent voters are used to rig the election.
There seems to be little political will to end this by ensuring a method
of allowing the genuine voters to cast their ballot. "The non-existence
of such provisions in the election laws can be attributed to the fact that
the then legislators never envisaged the mass exodus of Sri Lankans seeking
Mr. Weliamuna who appeared before the Human Rights Commission (HRC)
on behalf of the National Workers' Congress on this issue, has suggested
a Special Procedures Act under which Sri Lankans who work abroad should
be required to register. These Lankans could be categorised under 'overseas
The proposed Act sets out the criteria of an overseas voter as someone
who has migrated for employment to another country, but has the intention
of returning home after completion of employment or within five years of
leaving the country (whichever occurs first) or citizens of Sri Lanka.
Mr. Weliamuna thinks the Australian system (see box story on page 1)
seemed the best suited for Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, Commissioner General of the HRC, Faiz Mustapha said, "We
were due to make representations to the Government on this issue when the
current elections came up. We have looked at the systems of other countries,
gathered relevant material and will forward our proposals shortly."
However implementing such a system is not without its drawbacks. A majority
of the migrant workers are in Middle Eastern countries where polls are
few and far between.
The migrant workers are also poorly organised and their ability to induce
the government to provide facilities for them to exercise their franchise
Sri Lanka is moving in the right direction towards enabling all its
citizens to exercise their voting rights.
"We will be able to have a system in place within a year if we start
laying the ground work now," Mr. Weliamuna concluded.
Voter- friendly Australia
How do other countries get voters living abroad to
participate in their elections? We decided to ask Australia as it has just
concluded a general election.
A Commonwealth country like our own, Australia has a voter-friendly
system that enables citizens living or travelling overseas to take part
in any federal election held in their absence.
They can participate in the polls by casting their vote at Australian
Embassies, High Commissions or Consulates in the country they are in or
they can vote by post, says Deputy Consul Neil Carlyle.
The Australian Electoral Commission encourages people to enrol and vote
while overseas although it is not compulsory. Within the country, however,
voting is mandatory by law and non-compliance results in a fine of Australian
Australians living overseas at the time of an election are expected
to cast their votes if they have access to a polling centre or by post,
if they have timely notice that a poll is to be held on a particular day.
Federal elections in Australia are always conducted on a Saturday for
the convenience of voters.
In the Australian context, "absentee voting" means electors casting
their vote outside their enrolled electorate but within their home electorate
and "overseas voting" means electors casting their votes from another country.
Hence what is relevant to Sri Lanka is the method known as "overseas voting".
Prospective overseas voters can enrol for the facility upto two years
from their date of departure from Australia and maintain their entitlement
to vote for six years. If the voters decide to stay away for more than
six years from Australia, they can apply to have their registration extended
one year at a time.
Those who have not registered while in Australia can also do so by filling
out an application for enrolment from outside Australia. The application
can be downloaded from the Internet and any substantial expenses they incur
are borne by the state.
In the 1996 Australian federal elections, over 46,300 exercised their
vote from outside the country.
Australia has a unique method of voting for those working on the remote
islands of the Antarctic. Ballot papers are faxed to supply ships, docked
at the islands and the voters come to the ship to cast their ballots. Once
they have done that, the papers are faxed back to the Commission.
The country also has mobile polling for patients in hospitals and prisoners
who are serving five years or less and thus entitled to enrol and vote.
To blot out the ink or not ?
Hora chanda, stuffing of ballot boxes, 'vanishing
boxes', buying votes, intimidation of voters and the novel ways of rubbing
the ink off that tiny finger and voting once again have become a way of
life in Sri Lanka in recent times.
The methods 'ingenious' voters employ to get rid of that supposedly
indelible ink have been many. Some try the annasi treatment, others the
lime. Many use simple soap and water and a scrub.
Interestingly, however, a respected Elections Commissioner held strong
views with regard to the practice of inking a voter's finger as a check
against ballots being cast by the same person over and over again.
"I have always felt that the need to mark a voter with indelible ink
is a blot on our national character. We are not a nation of criminals who
need to be fingerprinted to prevent us from voting twice," said Commissioner
Felix Dias Abeysinghe.
Mr. Abeysinghe advocated the abolition of the use of indelible ink in
his report on the 8th Parliamentary General Elections to the 2nd National
State Assembly of Sri Lanka conducted on July 21, 1977.
Ironically, he had much faith in the integrity and honesty of the Sri
Lankan voter. "In my view the system of marking voters with indelible ink
before they are given ballot papers should be given up now. Ninety-nine
percent or more of our voters would not do so whether indelible ink is
used or not. The need to mark everyone because of a small criminal element
His report came at a time when elections were fought on the first-past-the
post system, where the candidate who secured the highest number of ballots
'earned' his seat in Parliament.
Commenting on the imminent change into the proportional representation
system, Mr. Abeysinghe noted that the keenness of competition amongst candidates
would be less and supporters would be less likely to even consider impersonation.
The quality of the indelible ink and whether it was actually indelible
were also in doubt despite it being obtained from abroad at considerable
expense, sampling and certificates of guarantee.
Explaining that virtually every adult has an identity card, Mr. Abeysinghe
suggested the introduction of provisions requiring some form of identification
to be produced in cases where the identity of the voter was suspect.
What is the system followed in other democracies? Australia with a nearly
100-year history of franchise, has never contemplated marking voters to
curb election malpractices. The only indication of a vote already cast
is the name of the voter being crossed off on the electoral register. "The
polling cards have a sworn declaration that its holder is the same person
as the registered voter so there is no question of impersonation," says
Australian Deputy Consul Neil Carlyle.
Stressing that poll rigging is never resorted to, Maria Poulos, another
High Commission officer adds, "Political parties believe in democracy,
the rule of law and free and fair elections and respect the people's choice."
What would be good for Sri Lanka in general and the local voter in particular
in the present context? Throwing out the indelible ink and appealing to
the sense of justice and fairplay of the average man and woman or bringing
in a more stringent method of monitoring the casting of ballots?
Maybe we need a referendum to decide that.