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Is increase in postal votes driven by ghosts?

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By Z.L. Mohamed


Suspicious rise in postal votes

The numbers of postal votes increased five-fold between the presidential elections in 1982 and 2015 while the population only increased by a third. While postal votes rose by 50% in the 16 years prior to 1999, it increased by 300% in the next 16 years. Less than 20% of the government employees used the postal voter facility before 1999. Since then this ratio has doubled and in four districts exceeds 60%.

Only a part of the five-fold rise can be explained by the expansion of the armed forces. We looked into postal voting to assess the ways in which voter fraud could be taking place.



Rise of ghost voters

While there were 15 million voters on Sri Lanka’s electoral list, the population that are of voting age was only 14.2 million. Taken together with those who are not registered because they are displaced, overseas or did not care or for administrative reasons, there is evidence that there are one to two million “ghost voters” in the 2014 electoral roll [see Dr. Laksiri Fernando (Colombo Telegraph, Jan 15, 2015) and ZL Mohamed (Financial Times, June 4, 2015)].

The ballots of the one to two million ghost voters on the electoral rolls have to be delivered to the district counting centres. Postal voting takes place with more lax monitoring than regular polling and it could be one of the mechanisms by which such fraudulent votes are cast (described further in a companion article in www.slelect.net).



Postal voting in the 2015 presidential elections

The Deputy Commission of Elections (e.g. Sunday Times, 26 July 2015) noted that there were 60,000 applicants who were either attempting to cast duplicate votes in the elections or not filling up the forms properly of the 629,000 applicants for postal voting. The Elections Commission was able to establish the existence of the large numbers who were trying to vote multiple times due to its database of NATIONAL IDENTITY CARD (NIC).

The registration for postal voting has increased from 525,000 in the presidential election in January to 567,000 in the coming parliamentary elections even though the same electoral list is being used. It may be that this increase is due to the voter registration by the GCE A/L examination personnel. While no one could be added to the electoral list from the presidential polls, some employees could have retired or died and the numbers in the armed forces did decline. This expansion of postal voter registration by 8% is possible but suspicious.



Checks of postal voter fraud

The Elections Commission and the Government Agent and their staff have to ensure that avenue for multiple voting through postal votes and regular polls are closed. Even if this were the case, some postal voters could be deployed to impersonate others at the regular polls. Some of the checks against impersonation – such as the inking of the finger and the difficulty in being physically present at multiple voting places or multiple districts - do not constrain these six lakhs of postal voters. The NIC checks do not foreclose multiple voting by the same person through document fraud.

Last month, the Elections Commissioner requested the assistance of all groups to help identify voter fraud.



Deterrence of fraud

through postal vote

The Department of Elections has rejected 60,000 postal vote applications for the 2015 parliamentary elections. Still apart from rejecting the voter registration, no punitive steps are being taken. Indeed, there is a loophole for the electors to be registered twice and still not lose the vote.

Section 99 (4) of the Constitution: “Each elector whose name appears in the register of electors shall be entitled to only one vote notwithstanding that his name appears in the electoral register in more than one electoral district.”

Indeed, a person who is registered twice can even be elected to parliament. This clause can only be there to cover up errors in the election registration process but this is an invitation to fraud. Note that the draft of the 20th Amendment intended to perpetuate that loophole.



Rise in postal votes by district

At a district scale, the rise is significant in Kurunegala and Gampaha in 1994; dramatic in Kurunegala, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa between 2005 and 2010; postal voting in Kegalle, Kandy and Badulla also rose out of proportion to the national rate. In 2010 and 2015, the rise continued in all these districts and extended to Kalutara, Ratnapura, Galle and Matara.

By looking at the spatial spread sequentially, Kurunegala could be seen as a centre of rising postal voters picking up in an election with notorious fraud in 1999. In subsequent elections, the spurt in postal voting spilled over to the neighbouring districts.

To check whether the rise in particular districts is driven by increases in numbers of government employees, we can check the ratio of the postal votes to the number of government employees. The second panel of maps (below) shows that Kurunegala had the highest ratio of postal votes/government employees in 1999. However, in 2010, Polonnaruwa had the highest ratio followed by Trincomalee, Anuradhapura and Matale. In 2015, intriguingly, the ratio for Polonnaruwa dropped and Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Matale, and Kurunegala had the highest tier of ratios.

Some of this rise in could be due to an expansion in the armed forces. These personnel are likely to register for postal voting at higher rates (up to 60-70%) compared with other government employees.

At a national level, the rise in armed forces by 200-250,000 can explain only part of the rise in postal voters; it cannot explain the rise in postal voting after 2009, as the armed personnel numbers stabilized or declined slightly.

Voting patterns by district during 2015 presidential polls

If one looks at the gains in postal voting percentages for either major candidate, there is a split between the votes for the incumbent and the opposition (see companion article at www.slelect.net). While there is suspicious patterns in the postal voting one can rule out across the board fraud.



Districts that puzzle

  • Colombo is home to the largest number of government employees from 1982 to 2015. Yet, by 2015 there are eight districts that have more postal votes than it. Some observations regards Kurunegala, Trincomalee, Jaffna, Gampaha, Colombo are provided below. The districts of Anuradhapura, Kandy, Matale, and Matara are also suspect.
  • Kurunegala: Has had both the highest number of postal voters and the highest number of ghost voters since 1999 – a year which has been widely reported to have had outrageous voter fraud which was not punished. If indeed fraud through postal voter did it take place, it could explain up to 40% of the ghost voters.
  • Trincomalee: has the highest ratio of postal votes to government employees. Is it correct to surmise that the recruitment to the armed forces from this district shall be limited given its demographics? If so what accounts for its large number of postal voters? Of relevance is the discovery of 15,000 fraudulent ballot papers in Kantalai 10 days prior to the 2015 parliamentary elections and the arrest of a deputy minister for walking in unauthorized into a postal voting booth in Trincomalee.
  • Jaffna: Why did postal voting in Jaffna rise up dramatically in 2015? Is this simply the removal of bottlenecks to voting – if so how does one explain the 60% ration of postal votes/government employees?
  • Can we surmise there is little hiring to the armoured forces from Jaffna residents?
  • Are there estimates of persons who re-settled or have migrated to Jaffna?
  • Could this be explained by relocation of residence of officials from the Wanni to Jaffna after 2009? Of relevance is that the voter lists from 2008 were used in the 2010 elections.
  • Gampaha: has low voter registration than the age-eligible population but its share of postal voters has been rising dramatically in relation to Colombo. The rise is quite large after 1999 and has continued in recent years particularly after 2010. This was a district tended by Basil Rajapaksa for the 2015 elections.
  • Colombo: has had the highest number of government employees, but its contribution to the postal votes ranks ninth of 25 districts. This may be partially explained if the recruitment to the armed forces is extremely low in Colombo.
  • Polonnaruwa: The district that had the highest ratio of postal votes to government employees in 2010 dropped to the second tier in 2015. Could it be that the voter fraud operation in the district in 2015 was compromised as one leader went over to the opposition?
  • The rise in postal voting in Kalutara, Ratnapura, Moneragala, Nuwara Eliya and Hambantota districts while significant was relatively smaller than the rise in ghost voters.


What have we learned?

In attempting to unravel the 4.5 fold rise in postal voting, we have been constrained by

  • the lack of postal voting data at electorate or polling division level
  • the lack of district based estimates for armed forces domicile
  • lack of information on practices and policies
  • Insights from different government establishments.
  • Still the analysis shows that
  • Postal voting shows excessive rise in districts with higher ghost voters – but not all districts that have highest ghost voters are in the high tier of postal voting.
  • The rise in postal voting can only account for a modest fraction of ghost voting. At most, there could be only be two lakhs of votes cast on behalf of ghosts – that was estimated to range from 10-20 lakhs
  • The unusually large postal voting shows a spatial pattern in its evolution. It starts in Kurunegala in 1999 and spreads to neighbouring districts in a creeping pattern from election to election. There is a second locus of more modest rising postal votes in the South.
  • The rise in ghost voters corresponds with the rapid increase in postal voters in Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Matale, and Polonnaruwa.
  • The exceptions to this are in Trincomalee, Jaffna and Gampaha. These districts may be also having high voter fraud.

[These insights bear refinement and we hope you can contribute to this effort. This work has been carried out by a volunteer effort by a collective of Sri Lankans (Sri Lankan Election Analytics) to contribute to fair elections and informed citizen. You can contribute at www.slelect.net, reach us at slelect@mail.com and mail@slelect.net and be updated via our Facebook and @select.]

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