Focus/Spotlight

2020 General Election | Monitoring bodies gear for polls

By Sarah Hannan

The date for the prolonged parliamentary elections of 2020 is finally set and with it, violence against political parties was reported mid-week with a political party office being set on fire in Gannoruwa and the Peradeniya Police commencing investigations on the incident.

The Election Commission (EC), with the guidance of the Ministry of Health, earlier this week, published the guidelines for each stakeholder that will be involved in the upcoming elections. This time, in addition to carrying out their observation duties during the pre-election period, on the day of elections and during the post-election period, the monitoring organisations too have pledged to adapt to the health guidelines issued by the EC and have published their own code of conduct.

Furthermore, the monitoring bodies are also tasked with making observations on whether political parties and candidates are following the guidelines that have been issued by the EC to monitor whether they abide by the Quarantine Act.

The Asian Network for Free and Fair Elections (ANFREL), the Movement for Free and Fair Elections (MFFE), the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), Mothers and Daughters of Lanka (MDL), the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), and the National Polls Observation Centre (NPOC) endorsed the code of conduct and indicated that they will remain committed to the highest standards set by international and regional instruments for their line of work.

However, to ensure that election observation takes place in the safest possible manner and does not adversely impact voters, polling staff, or other electoral stakeholders, they jointly prepared the following guidelines to be implemented throughout their respective election observation activities:

  1. Organisations are committed to following Covid-19 policies implemented by health authorities, the EC, and other government agencies. They will ensure that their staff members and volunteers behave accordingly, and will keep them periodically updated.
  2. They will prioritise online forms of communication to limit as much as possible, the need for in-person meetings.
  3. Their staff members and volunteers will be instructed to maintain a social distance of at least one metre at all times. They will make the necessary arrangements to avoid physical contact as much as possible.
  4. Their staff members and volunteers will be instructed to wash their hands regularly and thoroughly with soap or hand sanitiser.
  5. Their staff members and volunteers will be required to wear face masks in public and will be provided guidance on how to wear one properly.
  6. They will instruct staff members and volunteers to limit their use of public transportation as much as possible. Private vehicles will be disinfected before and after use.
  7. Their staff members and volunteers will be mandated to keep a daily journal of their activities, including places visited and persons met, to provide health authorities with the information needed for contact tracing, should it be necessary.
  8. They will strive to provide staff members and volunteers with adequate health insurance coverage. Their health situation will also be regularly monitored with the help of health professionals, and any person experiencing symptoms of Covid-19 will be required to self-isolate.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, CMEV, PAFFREL, MDL, CaFFE, and NPOC informed that they will appoint units to closely monitor activities on the ground as well on social media platforms.

CMEV National Co-ordinator Manjula Gajanayake

In the last week of May, we had a joint discussion with all the election monitoring organisations in the country and prepared a set of guidelines and a pledge which was to be read and signed by each organisation present. We are fully aware that there is still a threat of Covid-19 spreading in the society. Therefore, all the organisations will have to ensure that each staff member is briefed accordingly and that they will stick to the guidelines issued by the health authorities and the EC, as well as adhere to our code of conduct.

Discussions are still underway on whether we should bring in foreign election observers. The initial plan was to bring in a team of foreign election observers. However, the decision was put on hold since the date for elections was postponed. In the event we do bring in a team, we will ensure that they undergo PCR testing upon entry to the country and will require them to be placed under quarantine for 14 days.

About 3,000 local observers will be stationed at polling centres on the day of the elections, and during the poll tabulation process about 200 local observes will be deployed to counting centres. One hundred mobile units will be used to conduct election observations in vulnerable locations.

During the pre-election time period, about 160 observers are to be deployed for each electorate.

However, we are faced with a challenge due to the present pandemic situation; the monitoring organisation will have to provide observers with health insurance along with the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) as per requirements. The cost of observation duties too will increase this time as we need to take these additional measures.

Apart from this, we are looking at bringing in observers on a rotation basis, where they will have to carry out their pre-election observation duties every other day. So, we will be splitting our team to two and bringing in only 50% of them on rotation.

PAFFREL Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi

We have already deployed 160 long-term observers since Parliament was dissolved. We are also looking at deploying one observer per grama nildhari division, 1,000 postal observers, 3,000 stationary observers, and another 1,000 for mobile observation units.

While we hope that on the day of the elections the activities can be carried out in a peaceful manner, all the organisations will closely monitor as to whether all political parties are given a level-playing field to carry out their pre-election campaigns, for example, whether they are given an opportunity to come up with their own policies and create awareness about their preferential numbers.

As there are about 7,000 candidates, we are a bit sceptical as to how many of these candidates will be given an equal amount of prominence to reach the public through their online, on-ground, print, and electronic media campaigns.

We are also looking into making the election complaint mechanism as transparent as possible with the assistance of the Police and are checking whether they could take prompt action against such complaints. Despite the pandemic, we still have to ensure that all regulations are followed as per previous elections.

Additional precautions will be taken to ensure the health and safety of our observers and we are looking at keeping everyone in a location where they could find easy accommodation whilst maintaining adequate physical distance during their duty period. We are going to reduce the use of public transportation as much as possible by adopting this method. A health officer has already been employed by PAFFREL for a period of two months to monitor the body temperatures of our staff and provide advice when needed.

As a member of ANFREL, I have also suggested that we at least bring in 10-15 election observers from ANFREL member countries. However, this is still under discussion and if they come in, this will be the first time during a pandemic that a country would be bringing in foreign election observers.

We have also raised concerns with the EC and the Police on the enforcement of the law on every political party in an equal manner. Action needs to be taken against them if they are in violation of the health and election guidelines that are issued.

MDL Co-ordinator Padmini Weerasooriya

Our organisation was given the opportunity by the Elections Secretariat to conduct election monitoring activities in 2003 when elections were held in the Northern and Eastern Provinces amidst a civil war. A total of 100 female election observers took part in the first observation activity in 2003.

Since then, we have mainly conducted monitoring activities in selected districts and for the Presidential Election 2019, we covered observation duties in eight districts – Gampaha, Colombo, Kurunegala, Kandy, Batticaloa, Polonnaruwa, and Galle.

We have a really good working relationship with the rights organisations, especially in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and with the assistance of these organisations and the Catholic and Christian clergy, we have been able to successfully carry out voter education over the years.

While on-ground observation teams would gather their observations in their respective electorates, we have two officers in our Colombo office to collate all information and send it across to the EC, where two more of our representatives, posted at the EC during the election period, co-ordinate with the relevant authorities.

Accordingly, this election too, we are looking forward to carrying out monitoring duties. Our MDL branch offices will be called in for a meeting by the end of this month to discuss how we would be carrying out our activities.

CaFFE Acting Executive Director Ahamed Manas Makeen

CaFFE has already appointed 26 district co-ordinators to carry out monitoring duties, one for each district, with the exception of the Ampara District where we posted two – one to monitor the Sinhala administrative region and another for the Tamil administrative region. All complaints that are gathered by these district co-ordinators are sent across to the EC and the relevant departments for entry and action.

Misuse of state property is sent to the EC and the head of the relevant department, i.e. if a post office is being misused, the EC and the Postmaster General will be alerted. We are looking at employing an adequate number of officials for the task and a decision will be made next week on the exact numbers.

At least three long-term observers will be deployed in each district to gather the complaints for the pre-election period. Complaints are collected through our on-ground election observers, political parties, and provincial journalists who have been trained to recognise and report such incidents. Once they report a complaint, we also cross-observe the situation through our long-term observers and district co-ordinators. Short-term observers will be employed to carry out monitoring duties on the day of the elections, for which the numbers will be decided during next week’s meeting based on the instructions that we are to receive from the EC.

We will be deploying another unit, especially to monitor social media platforms and posts, to ensure that defamatory posts are not shared against a political party or candidate. Screenshots will be taken of the said posts and be forwarded to the EC, the concerned parties, and the Police for action. Meme pages/posts too will be looked into and the necessary measures will be taken by the relevant authorities based on our reports.

NPOC National Organiser Rasanga Harischandra

The NPOC will be deploying 3,000 observers to cover all districts for this election and in addition to that, we will have a team to monitor social media platforms and government-owned print, TV, and electronic media channels, as per the guidelines issued by the EC.

Our teams will also closely monitor whether political parties are adhering to the health guidelines that were issued.

We are also keen to see how campaigning activities will be carried out by the candidates and whether certain candidates will have an unfair advantage based on their election financing capabilities. Some candidates will make use of all available channels to carry out their campaign activities, and since door-to-door campaigning is restricted to only three persons and rallies being limited to 100 persons according to the guidelines, some candidates might not be able to reach the public conveniently.

Candidates would be switching to sponsored ad promotions on social media platforms and there might be an unfairness on those platforms, as some might not be able to spend much on boosting posts.

Health guidelines to be followed by political parties, voters, and polling centre officials

It is important to practise basic measures to protect everyone from this disease such as: wearing a face mask, maintaining a distance of one metre from others, washing hands with soap and water or sanitising as frequently as possible, covering coughs and sneezes with elbow or tissue, and avoiding touching the face, nose, mouth, or eyes.

Guidelines for political parties

Propaganda meetings

  • It is recommended to use print and electronic media, especially television for election propaganda, and minimise physical meetings to avoid exposure
  • If propaganda meetings are held, the number of participants shall be limited to a maximum of 100 persons
  • Processions are not recommended
  • Organisers shall inform the area MoH at least three days before starting the meeting
  • All participants shall wear face masks at all times and chairs shall be arranged in such a manner to maintain one-metre distance with each other while seated
  • A spacious venue shall be selected so as to maintain the required distance and adequate ventilation in the venue
  • Speakers shall also maintain one-metre distance with each other
  • Distribution of handbills is discouraged during meetings
  • Microphones shall be disinfected between speakers
  • Duration of the meeting shall be restricted to three hours to minimise exposure
  • The person/organisation who organises the meeting shall keep the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of all persons attending

Distribution of propaganda materials to households

  • It is recommended to limit the number of visitors to three persons at a time
  • Any person with fever with or without respiratory symptoms shall not participate in this activity
  • Everyone participating shall wear masks and maintain one-metre distance with each other at all times
  • The person distributing the bills shall sanitise hands before and after each session
  • Entering into houses by the propaganda team members is not recommended

Guidelines to conduct postal votes

  • Arrange postal voting for health staff that would monitor the Covid-19 control activities during the election if it does not require amendments of the relevant acts
  • Consider granting postal voting for all health staff if possible
  • Heads of institutions/officers appointed shall ensure that a spacious place (e.g. a hall) is selected for the casting of votes to ensure physical distancing of one metre with each person inside the room
  • Reduce the number of agents from political parties to the minimum
  • All voters shall be informed that if anyone is having fever with or without respiratory symptoms to report for voting as the last voters in a particular session
  • Ask the voters to form a queue at least one metre apart and arrangements shall be made to get them batch-wise to minimise overcrowding
  • All officers and voters should wear masks
  • One-metre distance shall be maintained between voters, officers, and any other persons present within the premises
  • All voters shall wash or sanitise their hands before entering the voting place
  • The identity of the person shall be checked without touching the identity card and if touched, the officer should sanitise his hands immediately thereafter
  • Voters shall be encouraged to use their own pen or pencil to mark the vote
  • The voting cubicle shall be sanitised every hour
  • All voters shall wash or sanitise their hands after leaving the voting box
  • Those voters who have fever with or without respiratory symptoms should be allowed to vote at the end of the session. After such voter(s) cast(s) vote(s),
  • All the officers who attended to the voter(s) shall remove the gloves and thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water immediately afterwards
  • All furniture tops and other utensils shall be disinfected
  • All above instructions are to be communicated to all voters before starting the postal voting session and also displayed onsite
  • Responsible officers shall be appointed to supervise the health measures during the whole process of postal voting

Guideline for officers at polling centres

  • Arrange the polling booth in such a way that voters enter from one entrance and exit from another side if possible
  • Limit the number of agents at a polling booth to the minimum
  • Mark one-metre distance points in the queue on the floor both in and outside
  • Make a transparent protective screen (maybe thick polythene) between the voters and the officials with openings below for official transactions
  • Keep the maximum possible distance between officers and the voters
  • Arrange a polling agent area with one-metre distance among themselves and one metre behind the voters’ queue
  • The queue of the voters should be arranged in such a way as to not get too close to officials or other voters
  • Voters shall be provided with hand washing facilities at the entrance and all voters shall wash or sanitise their hands before entering the polling booth, and wear masks
  • All officers shall wear masks and wash their hands before entering the polling booth
  • Officers shall not touch the identity card or the polling card of the voter; instead, shall ask the voter to show it. If touched, sanitise hands immediately thereafter
  • If finger-marking is practised, ask the voter to hold the fisted left hand with the little finger out without touching the table. Paint the finger with a cotton bud and dispose of it to a closed bin. Alternatively, a drop of paint could be placed on the fingertip
  • Sanitise the voting box each hour, including the pen used for voting
  • Employ a separate worker to push the ballot papers into the ballot box with a ruler. If the ruler or the person changes, the ruler shall be sanitised
  • All hand washing points shall be provided with tissues to wipe hands
  • Provide adequate numbers of bins (with a polythene bag inside the bin) to discard the used tissues
  • Medical Officer of Health (MOH) staff shall sanitise the centre after voting is over

Conducting election in the quarantine centres

The following additional measures will be observed:

  • All officers shall wear full protective PPE (surgical mask, gloves, face shields, full body cover, and boots) before entering the election
  • Agents shall wear face shields in addition to the face mask and keep a two-metre distance with voters instead of one metre
  • All sides of the ballot box shall be sanitised after the session and then sealed and put in a polythene bag

Election officers, agents, and other staff upon returning home from election duty

  • Must wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water before entering the house
  • Must remove their clothing and shoes/slippers and leave them outside, and wash them before taking them inside or wearing them again
  • Must Leave all their belongings outside. If any item is taken inside the house, either wash it with soap and water or disinfect with alcohol sanitizer. (This applies to your mobile phone, spectacles, wrist-watch etc.)
  • Must Go to the bathroom without touching anything inside the house and take a bath