2nd December 2001

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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 do so.

    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 employment overseas." 

    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 voter'.

    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 is limited. 

    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 $50.

    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 seems unworthy."

    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.

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