In February 2018, Sri Lanka held a local government election to elect over 8,000 representatives under a new mixed-member proportional representation system. From maintaining roads to ensuring funding for health services in their communities, newly-elected local government representatives are responsible for key activities that directly impact the day-to-day lives of citizens. It was therefore important that all citizens could participate as informed voters in the election.
While Sri Lanka’s Constitution guarantee rights to universal franchise, certain groups – such as persons with disabilities – often face barriers in accessing the electoral process. To address this issue, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) worked with the Election Commission of Sri Lanka (EC) and civil society partners to conduct targeted voter education initiatives for voters with disabilities ahead of the local government elections.
As one of its first steps, IFES worked with eight disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) to establish a technical working group (TWG) on accessible elections that is engaging directly with the EC on disability initiatives. Ahead of the election, the TWG formally requested that national observer groups include persons with disabilities in their election observation teams. Following this request, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence engaged 22 observers with disabilities. Encouraged by this opportunity, ORHAN, a DPO based in the Northern Province, carried out their own election observations and interviewed voters with disabilities throughout Vavuniya in the north about their experiences with polling station accessibility.
“This is the first time a voter education program was conducted exclusively for the deaf community. We are thankful…for the voter education videos, which were also a first in terms of creating electoral awareness among the deaf community.” – Voter education participant
IFES also partnered with the Sri Lanka Central Federation for the Deaf (SLCFD) to conduct a voter education session for 57 voters who are deaf. Members of the deaf community have noted that they feel left out of the political decision-making process – especially as voters – due primarily to lack of accessible information, including voter information which is often communicated through radio and television platforms. One of the IFES workshop participants noted that “during the election period, many politicians come over to my house, and when they figure out that I cannot hear or speak...they don’t bother to take a real effort to make me understand how I can vote. I am a Sri Lankan citizen and I have a right to meaningfully participate in elections.”
IFES and SLCFD’s voter education session utilized simultaneous sign language interpretation and resulted in the production of five voter education videos with sign language for wider distribution on social media. The five videos were viewed over 3,000 times on Facebook alone. As one person noted after viewing the videos online: “the information was very useful, especially because seven members in my family are deaf and I was able to show all of them the videos. We learned that we can cast our vote even if the polling card is not sent to the household on time”.
In addition to these sessions, IFES distributed its polling station accessibility checklist to senior presiding officers nationwide and collaborated with the EC to develop a disability sensitization video for poll workers.
Throughout the programs, participants noted that as voters with disabilities, they had never had an opportunity to engage in voter education sessions before. They also expressed a commitment to sharing their new knowledge and skills with other local community members to empower them to vote: “I have a deaf friend who has lost her identity card. I can now tell her she can vote even without her identity card. I am determined to share my knowledge with other friends in the deaf community.” Such targeted interventions are critical to promoting more inclusive electoral participation.