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
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
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.
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
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.
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.