The Real Idiot’s Guide To Casting Your Vote
By R. Wijewardene
It will soon be incumbent on each and every adult citizen of this country to do their democratic duty. To wield the mighty instrument of universal franchise and determine with a simple tick of the ballot who will and who will not lead this country for the next half decade.
The simple act of placing a ballot gives the ordinary people of this land the power to break political dynasties, profoundly alter government policy and ultimately shape the destiny of Sri Lanka.
But while that may sound very grand, in practice democracy can be a very underwhelming thing.
And it can be hard to imagine that queueing in the sun for hours in order to place what looks like a piece of toilet paper in a dubious box will actually change our political world.
But that anyway is the principle upon which the world’s most fashionable form of government is founded and for want of any better ideas we may as well have some faith; if only because it gives us something to talk about.
Choose your poison?
Now the basic idea behind democracy is choice. In monarchies for example people don’t really have much choice, and some progeny of your current oppressor is likely to become your future oppressor. Dictatorships too are much the same, if often a little less stable.
But in a democracy it is we the people who choose our leaders. Now given past experience this might seem like some particularly perverse form of masochism.
Perpetually voting for the people who will rob and cheat and lie to us for the next few years seems like a rather demoralising thing to do.
In a sense it makes us responsible for the various ills which our carefully chosen rulers inevitably vested on the country . While the ordinary citizens of North Korea and Myanmar can at least absolve themselves of responsibility for the state of their countries, we have to bear the responsibility for choosing the administrations that have brought the country to its present state.
But still democracy is what we have on this paradise isle and that means choosing.
This year presents a particular problem as we are confronted with an unprecedented choice.
22 candidates will make this the longest ballot paper in history.
Surely such a large field of candidates is a sign that the country’s democracy is in good shape. Unfortunately not.
Like restaurant menus quantity is no indication of quality.
Good restaurants typically restrict themselves to a handful of dishes well prepared and varied seasonally while more mediocre establishments tend to present a long list of literally half baked and stale dishes.
Similarly for all it’s length this year’s ballot paper will ultimately present voters with a list of half baked candidates, offering stale ideas.
In fact many voters might find that this year’s electoral menu gives them political indigestion.
Most of the light weights listed are hardly appetizers and there are only two serious main dishes available. But with their past records and current blunders the main dishes on offer this year are likely to leave many voters feeling uninspired.
One seems somehow too rich, fatty and familiar and the other un-appetizingly tough and desperately lean on ideas.
Nationalism is the flavour of both courses, with hints of corruption and the essence of authoritarianism.
And while democracy is about choosing, choosing from this list is not the most appetizing prospect.
Vote for both
If you really can’t decide which is the least bad of our very bad options — if you find yourself smitten by Sarath’s boyish grin and Wickramabahu’s leftist chin, our political system actually allows you to vote for them both plus one other — three preferences in all.
This may seem rather odd but by indicating a first, second and third preference you are well within your rights to vote for Sarath and Mahinda and maybe even Bahu.
Again rather like a restaurant, if your preferred main dish isn’t available, as is often the case with overlong menus, you can resort to a second choice…
Just mark one candidate with a ‘1’ to indicate your first preference and place a ‘2’ by a second candidate to indicate your second preference. You can even indicate a third preference.
NB. Whatever you do, don’t tick the same candidate as first and second preference, or tick more than three boxes as this will lead to your vote being considered spoilt.
The fascinating political intricacy of preferential votes comes into play if no single candidate secures more than 50% of the vote. In the case of election 2010 for example if neither Sarath nor Mahinda secure more than 50% of all valid votes cast, preferences will come into the picture.
In a scenario where Sarath gets 45%, Mahinda 45%, Wickramabahu 6%, Sivajilingam 2% and others 2% , then preferential votes will come into play.
All but the leading two candidates — Sarath and Mahinda — will be eliminated and the second preference vote on ballots cast in favour of eliminated candidates will be counted.
If you indicate Wickramabahu as your first preference and Sarath as your second in the case of the above scenario, Wickramabahu will be eliminated and yours will be counted as a vote for Sarath.
The whole system might seem arcane but given the general disgust with the squabbling main contenders, Wickramabahu and the other outside candidates stand a chance of securing enough protest votes to deny the main men an outright victory.
Variety is the spice of life
With so many options and permutations and with the chance of first, second and even third preference your options are virtually limitless.
And the best basic advice given a large number of dismal candidates is variety;
Chose something exotic as your first choice, maybe the double ‘lingamed’ Sivajilingam Kanigalingam or perhaps the monk no one knows any thing about and indicate one of the favorites as your second preference.
This tactic just might throw up an interesting result at least forcing a preferential vote count and stop the main men crowing about a great victory and popular support.
How to spoil your vote
Of course if none of these various permutations appeal; if you are completely disgusted with the cess pit of our current politics and would rather not partake in the upcoming political buffet, you can always exercise your democratic right to spoil your vote.
To do this you can: simply tick no boxes; tick more than two boxes; tick all the boxes.
Doodle a rant on the state of democracy over the ballot paper (futile, but may relieve frustration).
There are several ways to spoil your vote and you will have the satisfaction of not having played a part in the election of whichever delinquent it is who ultimately comes to power.
However anyone thinking about spoiling their vote should note that if you are wise enough to be disgusted with our political process you might want to use your vote for a more constructive purpose.
Vote instead for a spoiler candidate — perhaps Wickramabahu, simply to prevent either of the main men — S&M, from securing a victory . This will demonstrate that people aren’t fooled by their poster posturing and that it is only political starvation that has allowed two such unsavory characters to become the only viable options.
While even such minor acts of defiance are likely to achieve little a spoiler might well be the best option.
At least it will make things more interesting, and a large turn out for alternative candidates might help rattle the political establishment. After all democracy comes just twice a decade so use your choice wisely, be creative and make the best of a bad situation.
Register. In an ideal situation your local Grama Niladari will send round a registration form annually. Fill this in and return it to your Grama Niladari (GN). This is easier said than done. If as is likely your GN is not in his office, check the local taverns, gambling dens and political residences. NB: This is a vital step. If you fail to register at this point you will not be recorded on the electoral list and will not receive a polling card.
Check your mail. Those who have successfully registered will receive their polling cards in the post.
Go to the polling station (with your polling card); Again easier said than done, as these can sometimes be particularly obscure temples and schools. Remember to make it to the station indicated on your card. Make sure to get there early and avoid the heat and crowds. If your polling station is a temple or church don’t confuse the collection box and the ballot box — the candidates don’t need more money and Jesus, Buddha and company don’t need votes.
Stand in line. Now in Sri Lanka standing in line isn’t as dull as it sounds and you can amuse yourself by pushing frantically to get to the front fractionally earlier than the others.
When you finally reach the end of the queue you will, most likely, find yourself face to face with dour women seated behind a rickety table. Offer your polling card and NIC to these women and if you have got all preceding stages right you will finally receive the mighty instrument of democracy itself; the ballot paper. On receipt of your ballot paper, your little finger will be branded with some faintly canerous looking purple ink. This will serve as a badge of your democratic honor for the next few days or even weeks….
Remember that while we are all subjected to various pieces of ID — passports, driving licenses, etc. only the old National ID card is valid at the polling station — so don’t try and present you Arpico reward card. If you happen to be a refugee or one of two million or so others without a NIC you can secure a temporary ID from the Grama Niladari (a rather difficult process).
Now that you hold in your hand the great instrument of democracy — do not mistake it for toilet paper, or blow your nose on it. Read it carefully. Read to the end – don’t tick the first name you see. Despite his alphabetical advantage we don’t necessarily need Achala Asoka Suraweera as president.
Then select from the various names and symbols listed. If you only have the stomach for one candidate tick just one box. Should you wish to indicate a preference mark two or three boxes with numbers to indicate your order of preference.
Fold your ballot and place in the box. Take the rest of the day off, do not return to work on the pretext that it took you all day to vote, and bask in the glow of having fulfilled your democratic duty.