Sri Lankan Electoral System

January 17, 2023

By Kalpani Gunathilaka

Mrs. Kalpani Gunathilaka is a Research Assistant at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on National Security established under the Ministry of Defence. She has successfully completed BA (Hons) in Economics degree at Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka.

Elections are usually held in Sri Lanka every five years to elect the president and other members of parliament. In addition, local authorities elections and provincial council elections are also held in the country. An election is a globally accepted method of selecting leaders to represent the will of the people. Political elections are organized by governments and non-political elections are organized by businesses, informal organizations, and non-profit organizations. There are several electoral systems in the world such as paper ballots, optical mark sense ballots and punch cards, etc. The election is the only way that available to Sri Lanka as a democratic country to select representatives. Sri Lanka is still using hand counted paper- based voting method for all kinds of elections.

Drawbacks of Traditional paper-based voting system

There are number of major issues with traditional paper-based voting systems including personal identity problems, vote duplication and misused ballot papers, high labour intensiveness, too much paper works, transport difficulties, high cost, high storage difficulties, and not being an eco-friendly method. Moreover, the existing manual voting system is more complex and mainly having privacy and confidentiality related issues. Due to the election violence created by the current paper-based voting system, people are disappointed with the existing voting system. As well as this process delay publishing results by taking a long time to count votes and candidates should appear in the election centers to cast their votes. It creates an inconvenience for voters and reduces the casted votes in the election. In addition, persons with disabilities such as blindness and visual impairments are facing lots of difficulties when they are voting traditionally and unfortunately most of them are unable to cast their votes because of their disability.

Benefits of implementing online voting system

The world is becoming globalized and information technology is having a huge impact on people’s lives. At a time when the voting system in developed and developing countries has become an utmost issue, developing an online voting system is a very valuable solution to speed up the traditional voting process. Traditional voting method is less efficient as people have to wait in line for hours to cast their ballots and have a lot of routine activities to vote. Hence, online voting system is an efficient way to encourage people to cast their ballots without going to polling stations and wasting time waiting in long queues. Professor Emad Abu-Shanab, Dr. Michael B. Knight & Professor Heba REFAI explored in 2010 the factors affecting the use of an electronic voting system in a university environment in Jordan by using 302 bachelor’s degree students as a sample. Their findings revealed that greater flexibility and accessibility for the disabled, reduction of election conducting cost, greater accuracy and speed in placing and tallying votes, and increased voter participation are the key benefits of the e-voting system. However, they identified programming errors and access of external parties to the voting system as risks associated with this system. Subash N. Ariyadasa in 2016 revealed the need of an e-voting system in Sri Lanka while identifying the disadvantages of the existing paper-based voting system and the advantages of an e-voting system. He pointed out increased participation rates, cost savings, convenience to vote, reduced administration, reduced human errors in vote counting, and integrity of the vote as the benefits of the use of the e-voting method.

Electronic voting includes different forms of voting that use the latest technology for voting and electronic voting machines, paper scanners and online voting applications are some forms of e-voting that can be used instead of paper-based voting. This voting system is beneficial to enhance security, greater transparency, efficiency, traceability, and speed of transactions. In addition, this method boosts work speed, generates accurate results, reduces mistakes and expenses, and increases convenience. Computerized e-voting system enables to record, store, and process election data as digital information while enhancing security, reliability, accuracy and confidentiality.

Countries that used online voting systems

Sri Lanka is a democratic and developing country. Some democratic countries have moved already to the e-voting systems to minimize the defectives in the conventional paper-based voting system. Our neighbor India is the best example for that because they also use such kind of e-voting system. Telangana, a state in India has developed a mobile e-voting solution with the aim of helping disabled, senior citizens, citizens in notified essential services, patients who cannot come to the polling stations and polling personnel and they held an election successfully in their state with 90% of good ratings. Estonia is the only country in the world to allow for online voting option in their national, local and European elections. Estonia introduced I-Voting in 2005 and it was recorded a slightly increase of voter participation in elections from 2005 to 2015 due to the use of I-voting. In addition, Canada, USA, Switzerland, Panama, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico and Armenia used online voting, but, they have not continued it due to the security issues.

Why an online voting system is vital for Sri Lanka?

Electronic technology is growing fast in 21st century around the globe, but there is still a question as to why governments are not shifting from the paper-based election system to electronic form to avoid fraud and corruption. Sri Lankan existing manual voting system has a higher probability to occur errors such as missed counting, duplicates counting, inaccurate votes caused by undue influence by political parties. Counting votes is one of the main activities in the election process. It should be reliable, accurate, and transparent to instill confidence in the public about the election. However, the current system is largely failing in this. Considering the recent history of the country, it is no secret that there are conflicts between people at polling stations. Thereby, some conflicts were very difficult to control and it is reported that even underworld goons were involved in these conflicts. These situations cause threats to public security as well as to national security of the country. When there is an online voting system, voters do not require to go to the polling stations therefore, number of gatherings are less. Hence, the probability of occurrence of violence during the election periods will reduce and it will protect both public order and national security of the country through peaceful elections.

Online voting is a technologically advanced and timely relevant technique for elections in Sri Lanka. In the recent past, the technology field was developed rapidly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic situation. Among them, web applications became very popular platforms to provide information and services via the internet. Such platforms demonstrate high accuracy, high efficiency, reliability, time saving, convenience to use, reduced storage difficulties, and reduced forge access for voting. The COVID-19 pandemic caused to change everything in Sri Lankan society. The voting system also is impacted largely and needs to undergo quick changes in the post-COVID-19 situation. To control the pandemic, voters should be restricted from going to public voting booths. Hence, almost every country is exploring what are the new voting options and what can be added to the existing system.

Apart from that, Sri Lanka is facing a severe paper shortage due to the inability to open Letters of Credit (LC) as a result of the lack of foreign exchange reserves in the country. It led to cancel school exams of millions of students and suspend print editions of Sri Lanka newspapers. With this situation, Sri Lanka has to spend a considerable amount of money on-paper ballot printing at the elections due to the country depends on the traditional election system. When there is a paper shortage like this, it is difficult to hold an election traditionally due to the higher cost of paper and lack of sufficient paper stock in the country. Sri Lanka has a possibility of implementing an online voting system as the computer literacy rate (34.3%) and digital literacy rate (57.2%) of the country has increased considerably according to the latest data issued by the Department of Census and Statistics. However, it is a big challenge to implement online voting in the whole country at the same time. It is applicable if it is implemented first targeting an urban area as the urban sector shows more literate in both digital and computer literacy. Considering the social, political, and economic situations of Sri Lanka, the electronic voting system is a unique solution to ensure a secure and efficient election in the country.

-The Ministry of Defence bears no responsibility for the ideas and views expressed by the contributors to the Opinion section of this web site-