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Sunday, 19 May 2013

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Power of the ballot

Elections are a major feature of any mature democracy. The principle behind elections is rather simple. We select a group of representatives to speak on our behalf through a vote. Called public representatives, they are our voice in Parliament and other public bodies. Everyone from the President downwards is selected by a ballot in democracies.

Sri Lanka was one of the first in Asia to uphold universal franchise - voting rights for everyone (male and female) above 18. Many countries did not allow women to vote at first, but Sri Lanka was very progressive in this regard.

Voting at any given election is a voluntary process in Sri Lanka. However, in some countries the picture is different. Everyone, including citizens living abroad, have to vote. In other words, voting is compulsory. There are pros and cons of both these methods, but voting voluntarily somehow seems more democratic, given that democracy is all about choices.

In an election, every vote counts - literally. Hence the imperative need for voting and the adage that bad governments are elected by good citizens who do not vote. Every vote is a vote for democracy. Every vote is valuable.

The sad fact is that many voters have no idea about the enormous power they wield through the vote. Many voters refrain from voting and worse, do not register to vote. This stems from the notion that voting is "useless" in the backdrop of local politics.

This attitude is highly prevalent among the upper and middle classes in urban areas. On the other hand, there are overzealous voters who had registered in two different places, but this seems to have been prevented with the latest measures taken by the Elections Department.

Awareness

The Department of Elections has now stepped into create awareness on voter registration. It has proclaimed June 1 this year as the day for safeguard the voting rights of all citizens.

To mark this day the Department has organised public awareness programmes on May 30 and 31 in all districts with the participation of various sectors and a march on June 1 to educate the people about the need to get their names registered in the Voters Register.

Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya has correctly pointed out that it is only through free and fair polls that people's democratic rights of all citizens could be safeguarded.

As such it was mandatory for all citizens reaching the qualifying age limit to get their names entered in the voters register. In view of this the awareness campaign would focus mainly on 10 segments of the population.

They are people belonging to low income families in urban areas including tenement gardens, upper middle class sections in urban areas, difficult villages with poor transport facilities, dwellers in luxury and semi luxury flats, plantation Tamil community, former residents of the North resident in other areas, displaced persons living in the North, people living in rented houses, those hospitalised for long periods due to chronic ailments, residents of Elders houses and cured mental patients remaining in Mental hospitals due to lack of guardians.

This is a laudable initiative that should garner a fairly good response. Some sections of the population cited above had been neglected in the electoral process for far too long. Their votes too are essential to reflect the voters' will. However, the message should also be directed at the general population.

There is another group that the Department should look at. They are Sri Lankans living abroad, including migrant workers and all other migrants who have not yet renounced Sri Lankan citizenship. A mechanism should be evolved to enable them to cast their vote at the respective embassies or consulates, at least for major elections such as the Presidential and General elections.

The authorities should study as to how other countries such as the United States enable citizens living temporarily or permanently abroad to vote at major elections.

Accurate

A proposal to enable electronic voting has also been in the air for some time, though we are yet to see it in action. It is already a reality in many of our neighbouring countries including India.

The system is said to be tamper proof and accurate. It also lessens the chance of spoilt or rejected votes. (Some voters are known to deliberately spoil their votes by marking wrong symbols or even writing words on their own). It also leads to the possibility of extending the deadline for voting, which is now 4 p.m.

Electronic voting also makes counting an easy affair. As things stand now, overnight counting takes a long time.

The disabled, including the visually impaired, will also benefit. It might also be possible to reduce the expenditure on elections-a major election is an enormously costly exercise in terms of finances and manpower. Again, we should study how other countries do it-the following description is about the electronic voting system in Venezuela.

"Venezuela employs one of the most technologically advanced verifiable voting systems in the world, designed to protect voters from fraud and tampering and ensure the accuracy of the vote count. Accuracy and integrity are guaranteed from the minute voters walk into the polls to the point where a final tally is revealed.

"The system Venezuela uses has some of the most advanced and voter-friendly security features in modern elections. Voters use a touch-sensitive electronic pad to make and confirm their choices. After confirmation, the electronic vote is encrypted and randomly stored in the machine's memories.

"Voters audit their own vote by reviewing a printed receipt that they then place into a physical ballot box.

"At the end of Election Day, each voting machine computes and prints an official tally, called a precinct count. It transmits an electronic copy of the precinct count to the servers in the National Electoral Council's central facility, where overall totals are computed."

In the awareness campaign planned by the elections authorities, special attention should be focused on first-time voters - people who register at 18 and have the chance to vote at 19 or 20. Educating them on the electoral process is vital.

That can begin from the school itself, which can be described as a foundation of democracy.

 

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