By ZL Mohamed –
In Sri Lankas’s 2015 Presidential Election, 15,044,490 voters were on the electoral rolls but the number of citizens who were of legal voting age was only 14,449,000 going by the Census data. This amounts to an unaccounted excess of 4.3% in the electoral rolls. This is alarming since the last Presidential election was decided by a margin of 3.7% and previous elections were decided by half as much. This phenomenon of “ghost-voters” was pointed out soon after the 2015 Elections by Dr. Laksiri Fernando (Colombo Telegraph, 15 January 2015) who has been studying elections in Sri Lanka in depth since 1970. He claimed that there were at least 782,460 names on the Sri Lankan electoral rolls than there were citizens of legal voting age. In the four months since Dr. Fernando put forward his claim, no one has disputed it.
As we shall see below, these ghost-voters are so numerous that they can tip the results of 15- 30 parliamentary seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Under the 20th amendment proposals, electoral reform is to increase representation in regions with increases in population. But such a reallocation of seats on the basis of the electoral rolls shall reward the regions with the most ghost-voters by 20-40 seats for decades.
Impact of delay in Voter Registration
The actual excess shall exceed 4.3% of the age-eligible population due to the fact that one begins to register on turning 18 years after receiving the electoral forms from the Grama Niladhari (GN)- who distributes these once a year. So on average it takes six month for the voter to start the registration process. Thus the excess of 595,000 from the legal age of 18 years goes up to 762,000 with the de-facto voting age of 18.5 years and to 931,000 with 19.0 years as the voting age.
Impact of citizens not registered to vote
But even counting the excess against those who are above 18.5 or 19.0 years is an underestimate. Due to emigration, overseas employment, education, refuge overseas, indifference and administrative shortcomings there are many citizens who are not registered to vote. The available estimates for emigration from 2000 to 2013 is 1,232,000, 570,000 work overseas and 122,000 found refuge overseas. These estimates from the UN and government agencies shall be under counts as many leave without an official trace. Some of the citizens overseas have also been taken off the voter rolls recently. Even if someone is available to vouch for temporary residence overseas it may not be enough. The family of one of my friends overseas from the hill has been told by the GN that he is to be taken off the voter rolls unless he provides passport and overseas address details. The children of migrants who had been born in Sri Lanka do not get admitted even if they attain voting age without presenting themselves to the Grama Niladhari. The annual distribution of electoral registration forms started in late May – so I hope we hear from about experiences from others.
From the experience of my extended family, of the 5 who have attained voting age in the last decade, only three were registered to vote and two of them have since been dropped arbitrarily. I tried to get the two others registered two months in advance of the Presidential Elections by contacting the Grama Niladhari and Assistant Government Agent’s office – but was told there was no chance even if the citizen had all the papers in hand. One just had to wait for the forms. We had been filling in the forms properly each year – but year after year, the registration was not updated and we did not know of the recourse.
So even taking the most conservative estimates –those above 18.5 years as age eligible, and a low estimate for those not registered, we can estimate that there should be a 1-1.5 million “ghost voters”. It is as if there was another province amounting to 7-12% of the electors that the rest of us know not of.
Could these registered multiple times not show up to vote?
What of the possibility that although some folks may be registered in two places, they do not actually turn up to vote in both places. The number of voters who turned up to vote in the recent Presidential Election was 12,264,377 amounting to 81.5% of those on the electoral rolls which in itself is suspiciously high. But if we consider this as a percentage of those who are above 18.5 years, then the turnout rises to 86%. Given those who are sick, overseas, or uninterested in voting, this rises to unbelievable levels. So these ghosts do turn up even for a Presidential Election!
We next look into the excess voters by district. If the excess is found evenly in all the districts, then it is less likely that there was systematic large scale voter fraud as it shall not benefit anyone.
District-wise comparison of Electoral Rolls and the Age-Eligible
Population data by 5-year age groups by district is available until 2012 along with total district populations until mid-2014. We used the same percentage of voters in the different age groups as in 2012 to estimate the age-eligible in 2014. Statistics of electoral list is available by district online from the Department of Elections and also historically from the Statistical Abstracts from the Department of Census.
Where are these ghost voters found?
Kurunegala has the highest number of excess voters (map on left) followed by Kandy, Galle, Badulla, Nuwara Eliya, Matara, Kegalle, Anurhadhapura, Hambantota, Ampara and Matale. The districts that in percentage terms have the highest excess of electors than age-eligible were Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu but this is due to relocation after the war from Vavuniya and other locations. If one takes the Wanni electorate of the Elections Department (Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya) the percentages drops and the total numbers are small. Thereafter the highest percentages are for Matale and Hambantota followed by Nuwara Eliya, Moneragala, Badulla, and Kurunegala.
The populations of districts vary 20 fold. We should therefore pay attention to both the actual number of voters in excess of the age-eligible and the percent increase of the excess in each district. Thus if the number of voters in a district is small and the percentage is large, it is not as consequential for a Presidential Election. If there is an excess in voters by a large number in a populous district, it too may not be a signature of the worst malpractice. Thus the most egregious malpractice lies in some combination of the lists given in the previous paragraph.
Left – The numbers of electors in the voter rolls in excess of the age-eligible (above 18 year and 6 months) by district shown with a deficit in shades of blue and an excess in shades of red. Colombo has the most deficit by 126,000 and Kurunegala the most excess of 115,000. Center: The number of electors in the voter rolls is shown as a percentage of the age-eligible for that district. Districts are shaded from beige to deeper shades of red as the turnout ranges from 69% in Vavuniya to 94 % in Hambantota. Right: Each district is colored by the margin between the percentage of votes cast for Rajapakse and Sirisena. A higher margin for Rajapakse is shown in shades of blue and a higher margin for Sirisena is shown in shades of red. A margin of less than 7% is left blank.
Next, more consequentially, we can check on the numbers who actually voted as a percentage of those who were age-eligible by districts. This also is a way around the statistical distortons from voter list inflation. While the national average was already suspiciously high at 86%, this figure went up to 94% in Hambantota, followed by 92-93% in Matale, Moneragala and Badulla (see map in center). By comparison, Colombo was 77% and Vavuniya and Jaffna were around 70%.
The voter turnout in Kalutara and Ratnapura was highest in terms of those on the electoral rolls, but it is not the highest in comparison to those who are age-eligible. This example shows the need to consider the age-eligible to suss out manipulation in electoral lists.
Overall, the ghost voting is highest in Southern, Uva, Sabaragamuwa, Central and North-Central Provinces along with the Kurunegala district. There could be ghosts in other districts who are masked due to low turnout because of other factors as in Gampaha, Ampara and Puttalam.
Independent Checks on Methods
The Department of Census and Statistics provides online the data to directly estimate the excess for 2012. The latest statistical abstract provides district-wise numbers of electors and those above 18 years for 2012. There is a 2% excess of electors over those above 18 years with the highest excess being in Kurunegala, Kandy, Galle, Badulla, Kegalle, Hambantota and Nuwara Eliya. The highest percent excess is in Matale (9%) and Hambantota (8%) followed by Badulla, Kurunegala, Galle and Nuwara Eliya (7%).
The estimate of 2% of excess voters for 2012 from the Census Department is compatible with our estimate of 4.3% for 2015 as there is a doubling in ghost voters between the 2010 and the 2015 elections. Even as the national population only increased by 1.7% between 2012 and 2014, the voter rolls expanded by 4.1%.
It is instructive to check for ghost voters in past elections. If one goes back to 1981, at a national scale, there were 8,670,319 who were above 18 and the number of electors in the register in 1982 was 8,145,015. Thus in contrast to the 2% excess in 2012, the number of electors in 1982 was 6% less than the age-eligible. The total number who voted was 5,768,662 which amounted to 70% of the electors and 67% of the age-eligible. The ghost voters got on the rolls large scale around the 1999 election and surged after the 2010 election.
Thus the overall methodology is independently confirmed by the Census Department in addition to by Dr. Laksiri Fernando. The only way the estimate of a million or more ghost voters could be wrong is if the data from the Census Department is hopelessly wrong. Still, this claim is so incredulous that we must remain open to questioning the sacred cows for statistics in Sri Lanka. But we have enough confidence to go looking for a motive.
Who benefitted from the Ghosts?
The districts which had more percentage of ghosts (map at center) also coincide with the districts that the incumbent came ahead (map at left). Where there were more excess voters (deeper shades of red at center), the incumbent did better (deeper shades of blue at left). The exceptions are few with the biggest being Nuwara Eliya, Gampaha and Polonnaruwa. In statistical terms, the correlation is highly significant (r=0.612, p<0.0015) and clearly the ghost voters were to be benefit of the Rajapaksa regime This pattern of unreasonable and consistent higher voter turnout in regions where incumbents are favoured is a signature that is used to detect balloting fraud (Klimak et al., Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 2012).
The low turnout of North-East voters and in Colombo counters the argument of Rajapaksa supporters that North-East voters were taking advantage of the improved roads to vote in the Western Province as well but does not disprove it. The 70% range in these regions is what used to be the case in the 1970’s across most of Sri Lanka. The Southern province on the other hand had ghost voters even in 1982.
Could Voter Roll Manipulation be an Explanation?
The Election commissioner, respected international observers and the organisations that monitored the elections (CAFFE, CMEV, PAFFREL) had proclaimed the last election fair even while they acknowledged various shortcomings including the lack of protection of the independence of the Elections Commission. In a previous article (Colombo Telegraph, May 11, 2015), I had pointed out how the pattern of high voter turnout in areas that favoured the incumbent was contrary to the opinion of most that he had lost the enthusiastic support of the voters, unless there had been fraud in turnout. The evidence in this article is overwhelming that the voter rolls had been fraudulently inflated in areas that favoured the Rajapaksa regime. There is anecdotal evidence of bottlenecks to registration in other areas. Along with voter roll inflation, there needs to have been voting by minors, by the same person multiple times, repeat voting by postal voters or ballot stuffing.
Given the critical importance of the vote to politicians, we may be naïve not to expect voter list manipulation and voting malpractices – it is the easiest way to win votes. The registration process is opaque and detection of electoral fraud difficult. The focus of most of us is on what happens during the election campaign, and even if fraud is detected, it is left as anecdote. It is now widely acknowledged that government services have been politicized, and that fraudulent practices took place routinely within the government machinery such as the national broadcasters, the transport services, the poverty alleviation programs and even the tourist board.
Indeed, Dr. Laksiri Fernando wrote in a follow up article (Colombo Telegraph, 21 January 2015):
For a long time, the SLFP organizers were manipulating the electoral registers, to my information and knowledge, through their appointed Grama Niladari’s and other functionaries.
We learn from the police of the detection of an instance of a Ministers spouse getting a second birth certificate and a second passport under a new identity. The official in the emigration department as a matter of routine just gave in. Under these circumstances, it seems reasonable that the Grama Niladhari’s shall succumb more readily as they are more vulnerable. If birth certificates can be faked, it shall also get past a conscientious Grama Niladhari.
Some of the politically supported officers may also have willingly abetted fraud. In this case, an easy way to suppress voters – completely legally would be to delay registering voters and taking voters off the list – in areas that do not favour the incumbent.
Interpreting the last Presidential Election Results
The last Presidential election was decided by a margin of 3.7% or a margin of 470,000 votes. If the million excess votes cast was largely cast for the incumbent (80%), then the majority for Sirisena shall go up to 1,070,000 or 8 to 9% of the votes cast. Sirisena shall have garnered 60 lakhs and Rajapaksa 50 lakhs of genuine votes. Even if the votes cast had followed the pattern of each district, still the vote margin for Sirisena shall increase by several lakhs. If fraud of this scale is factored in many interpretations of the election results such as number of districts and electorates won, the percentage of majority voting for the candidates and the outcome to follow in the parliamentary elections would be very different.
Impact on the coming Parliamentary Elections
The electoral rolls may be stripped of its ghosts in the future but it shall not follow automatically with a new government. The officials who were complicit in creating the ghosts remain in place and could suppress the shortcomings. The next parliamentary elections shall be compromised in favour of those who were close to the former regime – the impact of ghosts is more potent in some districts and the precise estimation of their impact requires further analysis. If one goes by the overall percentages, then 10-25 seats may be tipped by the ghosts. What is required is identification of the problem, attention to it an independent and transparent audit of the voter lists and better detection of voting fraud.
Impact on Allocation of Seats under the 20th Amendment
The proponents of the 20th amendment proposals say that additional seats shall be allocated on the basis of the increase of population and this sounds fair on the surface. However, if the reallocation is undertaken with the existing voter rolls, it shall reward the regions with more ghosts for decades. One cannot be precise without details of the proposal to be implemented and further drilling into the voting list but certainly the benefits shall be of the order of 10%. One can estimate overall that it shall add 15-30 MP’s to the Southern, Uva, Sabaragamuwa, North Central and Central Provinces and the Kurunegala district at the expense of the Western, Northern and Eastern provinces.
If delimitation of electorates and re-allocation of seats must be undertaken now, then the population data from the Department of Census and Statistics should be used to mitigate the inflation of the voter rolls of the Elections Department.
Voter Suppression and Citizens Overseas
Even with that corrective, delimitation of electorates/reallocation of seats shall remain unfair due to consequences of the war and likely voter suppression in unfavourable places. There has been systematic under-registration of citizens in the Western, Northern, and Eastern provinces and also in some pockets in other provinces. Voter registration has to take place affirmatively including for those overseas, those finding refuge due to war, those who are displaced or those having difficulties in registering, if one is to be faithful to the constitution to give every citizen an equal right to vote.
Robert.R / June 6, 2015
I predict lots of ghost voters in Mannar next election. Who is doing this? You guess, its not very hard.
Supun Jayawardhane / June 6, 2015
In case Meeharakthadiya would be backed by 5.8 Mio, he would get elected to the parliament. But he will have no chances to perform as had been before. That is for sure. UNP, JVP, TNA and all others are made stronger than had been before.
Pygmalion / June 6, 2015
Fine analysis Mr.Mohamed.
It is the Grama Niladharis who were and are responsible for the creation of these Holmangs.
From registration of voters to Samurdhi all come under the purview of His Excellency the GSN!
zlm / June 7, 2015
Thanks you for your comment.
The loyalities of the GN has changed and I think we have not been paying attention to the politicization of the role even while they hold enormous power.
Whereas the GN used to be grizzled headmen type from each village, now they are younger, more beholden to politicians and are transferable. The older GN’s used to retire among the same people. So their was some accountability to the local people.
Appointment of the 227 Gampaha GN in 2014 is deemed worthy of inclusion in
Basil Rajapakse’s Youtube feed – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7n7urAOBWQ
He not only gives them the appointment but he also instructs them on their role in implementing Mahinda Chinthanya including on elections. He was also the SLFP organizer for Gampaha.
Amarasiri / June 6, 2015
ZL Mohamed –
RE: Elections & 20th Amendment Profit Electoral Swindlers
Thank you. There is corruption ans swindlers, and need to be vigilant. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cronies have a team of them.
gamini / June 6, 2015
In order to weed out Ghost Voters the Registered voters list should be cross checked with the grass roots by all Political parties and reported to the Elections Com Office. In 2005 when MR won with a 180 thousand majority, over four hundred thousand names were taken off from the voters list in the South and almost all of them were UNPers. Myself and my family being victims, I informed RW and his Sec. Dayaratne to open a register for all those who lost there right to vote, to register. Grama Sevakas who have flouted, should be removed forthwith with no excuses.
Samuel Jayaweera / June 6, 2015
There are village headmen that have not even OLVELs – they can only support idiotic politicians – chances must never been open to the like again. Right at this turning point of lanken politics, where all the needful amds getting passed – there they the autohriteis should also focus on all fine areas. Germany after the war is over made all the consitution intact – today when studying them, even a tiny item is constituent there in terms of anything. For example – water pollution and the like areas- I happened to read lately, my god, Germans’s water analytik paragraphs contain almost everything if anyone woudl violate the laws. Proper law and order setting paved them to develop the nation within 50 years. But ours would not take that long, if the law and order is done to the word.
zlm / June 7, 2015
Yikes! So RW and his aides did not follow up on the voter fraud then.
The way folks respond to statistical information is coloured by their levels of comfort – but RW does shows comfort with economic data. Maybe he did not have the tools to respond.
Maybe AKD who has done Physics for his B.S is a better target.
ekelbroom / June 8, 2015
Allegations of Electoral Lists being manipulated by GN’s have been floating around for a long period of time. This may explain the reluctance on the part of the UNP to initiate any kind of inquiry into this matter. If one develops the corresponding estimates (based on Occams Razor) for the 1989 General Elections, similar distortions become evident. Once started, successive Governments may have continued with this method of ‘vote-tampering’, in much the same way that the technique of ‘ballot-box stuffing’ was copied and refined by many political parties during the past decades. Having said that, it must however be acknowledged that this analysis by ZLM has certainly thrown some light into this serious issue. The debates and discussions can now center around the intensity of the ‘crime’ rather than on the ‘crime’ itself.
There are three points that I would like to make in this regard :
Firstly, the grand total of 838,185 may be an over-estimation of the difference between the total in the Voters List and the estimated Age-eligible Population. If the method of ‘Age-Cohorts’ is used in lieu of ‘the same percentage of voters in the different age groups as in 2012’, this total will drop to approximately 310,000.
Secondly, the fact that this incidence of ‘GN-manipulations’ does not appear to have occurred in two of the more populous districts, Colombo & Gampaha raises many questions, especially since BR was virtually the ‘King of Gampaha’.
Thirdly, it is also a matter of practice for many households to include the names of family members who may not be resident at the time of filling the Voter Enumeration Form because such proof of residence is often necessary for various legal purposes. For example, when there is a death in the family, copies of the Doctor’s Cause of Death Certificate and the GN’s Proof of Residence Certificate (based on the Voter’s List) must be submitted to the Registrar of Births & Death for the issuance of a legal Death Certificate. Factors such as this must be taken cognizance of when offering an explanation of any disparities in the corresponding numbers.
zlm / June 8, 2015
Thanks for your comment.
I take your point about the UNP having somethings to hide.
I left out the historical analysis of what happened electon after election from this article because it was too long – shall try to put it together.
1. There are some discrepancies in the age-group stats between the Census, Registrar of Persons and Central Bank records for age distribution around the 1990’s – partly because our census in the N-E was compromised in 1991 and 2001 and partly because these folks have not sorted out the contradictions. But if you stick to one set of sources – say Census, the percentages have not changed by much. Shall try to detail this in a follow up article. So dont think using cohort method shall change estimates. But I may be missing your point and am open to correction. If you wish pl correspond via email zilm at mail.com
2. You are right about Gampaha – one can read it in two ways,
that it has too few electors given King BR or you could also say there are too many in comparison to Colombo. Shall be fascinating to dig in further at finer scales.
3. Valuable to learn of the tactical behaviour of household members. So I guess, there is a need for cross-checks by the Registrar of Persons on the voter list.
gamini / June 6, 2015
Gramasevakas were elected in place of the former Village Headmen by the SLFP that appointed their henchmen. So it is nothing surprising that some of the GS are corrupt and Electoral Registers are tampered to introduce Ghost Voters to support MR. What will these GS not do, when MR’s MPs have fudged the No confidence Motion against RW by signing more than once just to boost the numbers. I believe this is a very serious matter and such MPs who have signed more than once should be taken to task.
Jagath Fernando / June 7, 2015
Cannot understand as to why the whole process cannot be computerized and a simple data analytics job will eliminate most of the ghost voters.
zlm / June 7, 2015
Thanks for your comment. Yes, much of the duplicate voters could get identified if they are registered in two places with the same NIC. There may be more who shall still get through. Colombo University’s Computer Institute helps the EC with release of the results – they can easily do what you suggest, if given the voter lists.
bo / June 7, 2015
What do you expect when even leading politicians wives pretend that they have more than one identity: for opening different accounts, for obtaining illegal passports etc. When caught they have all sorts of excuse, like the fellow that climbed the kitula. Everyone else’s fault except their.
maali karunaratne / June 7, 2015
Thanks for this research. But then how do we get the bogus names out of the register for the next election . That is the crucial question at the moment. Simply what next ??
Do we send this to the El commissioner. What are his powers to undo what has been done.
zlm / June 8, 2015
I like how action oriented you are – urgently needed. Pl follow through. shall he happy to support with research.
Here is my take of immediate steps.
We need to be checking out the facts of this issue as much as possible, and shine a bright a light as possible on this issue.
Along these lines, what shall really pinpoint the issues is if we are able to get polling division or GND level data – electorate level data is already available, so more work needed there.
Apart from that, I suppose our best chance lies in getting people’s attention to the problem. This is particularly urgent now for the general public as voter registration forms are being distributed, and tabulated starting a few weeks ago.
We need mechanisms to support folks who have grievances but dont have the resources to take remedial steps or at least for folks to register their disenfrancisement very easily.
Maybe now someone realizes they have a problem becuase the GN are under instrutions to aggresively remove citizens who are overseas from the lists.
We need awareness on the part of citizens overseas – the more they are disenfranchised, the more the ghosts can be camouflaged and ballot fraud shall happen. We need a mechanism so that they those overseas can report in the issues even if they dont act. Longer term, we need them to be registering and voting overseas as well.
There is a role for public interest law groups to clarify whether the practices of removing citizens form voting rolls as at present is constiutional and to educate the public. The 20A needs to be examined to see whether it requires voting rights enshrined into it esp for overseas citizens.
We need awareness on the part of the political parties, to the election monitoring orgs and to other civic organizations. Am trying to get the document translated.
We need someone who knows the administrative service and the elections department to demystify what is happening there.
We need some investigative journalists to dig into this issue.
Longer term, there are other issues such as grievane procedures the govt can do.
Ahfzll / June 7, 2015
Folks, in looking for a solution – Please, Please don’t ask our parliamentarians for any suggestions!
In the NO CONFIDENCE motion – some of them have signed twice.
The people who collected the signatures and the signatories should be held responsible and forced to resign from Parliament.
Ahfzll / June 7, 2015
Thank you Mr. Z.L. Mohamed for the in depth study.
Having identified the Problem and the modus operandi what steps should be taken to eliminate or minimize these ghost voters?
In doing your research, you must have come across different case studies in the international arena where such elimination has been attempted.
Seems to me that this would have to originate from grass root levels, where the grama sevaka and such officials are held responsible, by “we the people”, for acts of omissions, commissions, collusion etc. be it as a result of fear or for favour.
Let us put our heads together and figure out of way where we hold the G.S’s responsible without political interference. Can we the people demand a change of the G.S. for inefficiency? Could we the people, nominate a suitable person to be appointed G.S. sans political interference?
Please keep us informed on different aspects of the problem and its legalities so that we, the people, can make a positive impact of the first past the post system of electing parliamentarians.
Jayasingha / June 7, 2015
Can we have the comments of the Commissioner of elections on this report soon. The voting public has a right to know the correctness of this from the real authority.
ZLM / June 8, 2015
I hope that the Department of Elections comments.
I queried them a month ago via their link on their website
querying them on Dr. Laksiri Fernando’s claims in CT article of Jan 15
but they did not respond.
On the other hand, you often do not get responses via email in SL and they could have thought I was a crackpot, in spite of dropping Dr. Fernando’s name and article.
Dr. Laksiri Fernando / June 8, 2015
Thank you Mr. Mohamed for elaborating some of the points I happened to raise on distorted voter lists and ‘ghost voters’ and further analyzing some of the new points. It is rare on the part of many writers to acknowledge others. Thank you for that and hope that your findings would come to the attention of the Election Commission as well as democratic political parties and civil society organizations. It might be good to come up with some feasible solutions for the future.
zlm / June 8, 2015
Dr. Fernando – Means a lot to have your imprimatur on this article – especially given how crazy all this is.
Giving due credit to you helped me there – not only can you see farther, when you stand on the shoulders of giants but you are also seen to be taller.
My only worry was that I did not give due credit – I read your book on Presidential Elections a few times last month, for both content and the succint manner in which you capture events. And I had not not cited that. Nor some articles by others.
But, yes, plagiarism is such a horrible problem even in our Universities even normally ethical folks are nonchalant about it. Inable to bear grading assignments, I wrote an editorial about it in the alumni newsletter – it was not very collegial.