600,000 denied right to vote

By Chathuri Dissanayake, Pic. by Saman Kariyawasam

The mandatory production of the National Identity Card (NIC) at the recently concluded Western Provincial Council elections challenged the individual’s right of franchise, with a large number of voters being denied the right to receive a ballot paper.

Elections monitors said more than 600,000 were denied their right to vote due to their inability to produce any of the nominated forms of identification (ID).

Many who were denied the vote were under the impression that Grama-Niladhari certified photographs or the temporary identity slip (B form) issued by the Grama Niladhari when applying for an NIC was adequate at the elections too.

This voter who was turned away from the St. Anne’s polling booth at Negombo holds up the identification paper she presented to election officials.

Nilmini Senanayake from Gampaha who applied for her NIC three months ago and could only produce the B form as identification was turned down by the Senior Presiding Officer (SPO) of St. Anne’s polling booth as it was not a prescribed form of ID according to the Election Commissioner’s instructions.

“I was under the impression that the B form was a valid form of identification at the elections too. I applied for the NIC about three months back but I still have not received my NIC. When I inquired from the Grama Niladhari he told me that it had not been received from the Registration of Persons Department. Even when I went to meet the Grama Niladhari on April 24 I was not instructed that the B form was not valid at the elections,” she said.

Many estate sector voters who failed to produce a valid ID were under the impression that the ID issued by the estate superintendent was valid at the provincial elections. During visits to the polling stations The Sunday Times observed that closedto 5 to 6 people were turned away almost every hour due to failure to produce a valid form of ID.

Further it was observed that at polling booths in the remote areas of the province such as in the Matugama area, a higher number of voters were denied their right to vote due to lack of a proper ID.

According to statistics provided by election observers of Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) close to 30 to 50 people in every polling station out of 308 polling booths which were under survey in Colombo district could not cast their vote due to failure to produce a valid form of ID, while close to 25 to 40 people in each booth out of the 369 stations observed could not vote in Gampaha district. The number of voters who could not vote in Kalutara district ranged from 30 to 50 individuals per station out of 228 polling booths observed by CaFFE.

Many who were unable to produce an accepted form of ID were ignorant of the new procedure and were under the impression that the B form would be accepted at the polling station as well. Many had applied for the NIC months in advance but had not received their NICs in time.

Siththy Subeda from Dematagoda was turned down at the polling station as she had only the B form to prove her identity. She had applied for the NIC eight months back but has not received the NIC yet. When she inquired from the Grama Niladhari she and her husband were instructed to inquire from the Registration of Persons Department. Since then the couple has visited the department thrice but has not been successful in obtaining their NICs.

A brief survey done by this paper revealed that many applicants have to wait as long as six months to get their NIC, under the normal process. When an applicant inquires from the Grama Niladhari, the usual reply given is that the officer at the relevant Divisional Secretariat who is responsible for filling in the rest of the application form of the applicant and submitting it to the Assistant Government Agent (AGA) has taken necessary action and that inquiries should be made from the Registration of Persons Department.

Poor Uva people can’t even vote

Campaign for Free and Fair Elections National Organizer Keerthi Tennakoon said that according to a survey done in Badulla in the Uva province one out of every four voters in the province will lose their right to vote due to their inability to submit the NIC.

“This is a serious situation and it should be looked into very carefully. The system of issuing temporary IDs for each and every election is not the solution to this problem. There should be a proper permanent solution. The majority of the people who do not possess a form of ID accepted at polls are people from the lower segments of society.

They cannot afford to spend Rs. 200 to 300 on photographs and spend time to obtain the temporary ID for each and every election. I am not against making the NIC mandatory. It has reduced election malpractices but concrete action should be taken in tackling this issue,” he said.

People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Deputy Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said that it is not the sole responsibility of the Elections Department to ensure that people are well informed and are equipped with IDs for the election.

“The political parties and the voters themselves also play a role in the issue. The political parties should take an interest to see if the voters have the ID and inform them of the procedures. Further they should ensure that the supporters in their electorate are registered. The voters should take an interest to obtain the IDs if they do not have one,” he said.

95% of Colombo voters have NICs: Elections official

Colombo District Assistant Commissioner S. Senanayake said according to the voting register 95% of the people have NICs and many others carry some form of an ID accepted at the polling booth.

“Only about 500 had applied for temporary IDs and they were issued with one. There was a comprehensive awareness programme that was conducted and many were informed.

We displayed notices in many of the Government offices such as AGA’s offices, Grama Niladhari offices and Divisional Secretaries’ offices and we published advertisements in papers over three times,” he said.

Kalutara district Assistant Commissioner of Elections Rasika Peiris speaking to The Sunday Times said that his officials had done their best to ensure that the voters are facilitated to obtain a valid form of ID for the elections.

“We have gone beyond our duty to help people get an accepted form of ID for the elections. It is not our duty to issue IDs but we went ahead and issued a temporary ID valid for the elections to safeguard the right to vote. We carried out awareness campaigns and informed Grama Niladharis and estate superintendents on the issue and gave them clear instructions. Beyond that matters are beyond our control,” he said.

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