A requiem for the wooden ballot box


By Tissa Devendra

News item: The Election Commissioner has begun replacing the old wooden ballot boxes with see-through plastic containers topped with a flip-flop aperture for ballot papers.

It is, indeed a sad day for those sturdy brown guardians of democracy that have lasted well over half a century and undergone many travails – carried along jungle paths, up steep mountains, across rivers, lagoons and in the boots of cars and jeeps escorted by an ‘honour guard’ of Election Officers. I pay this valedictory tribute to this old wooden box as one who has participated, for many years, in the rituals of democracy called Elections, both as official and voter.

I leave the genesis of these brown wooden boxes to researchers in Universities and research institutions. They were probably built by the Kolonnawa Govt. Factory, a sturdy left over from Colonial times. My hunch, however, is they date from the first General Election after Independence in 1948. I rely on the oral history of my father as to the quaint system of voting introduced after the Donoughmore Constitution of 1934. Voters were presumed to be illiterate – though not colour blind! Each candidate was accorded a specific colour. Vari-coloured boxes were installed in a screened room. Voters were given blank slips of franked votes and ushered into the voting cubicle to put their votes into the box painted in their candidate’s colour. Inevitably this led to incredible vote-buying. Voters, never searched post-voting, pocketed their voting slips and quietly sold them to the candidate who had paid him an advance. Once the candidate had a reasonable bunch of purchased votes, he sent a trusted voter who duly stuffed them all into the correct box. The other ruse was to spoil a rival candidate’s votes by pouring acid, or other liquid, into the box of his rival’s colour. This farcical system ended in 1948 with printed ballot papers, voting cubicles in plain sight and in place of honour, the wooden ballot box [painted in the neutral stodgy brown] in front of the Presiding Officer and candidate’s representatives. Corrupt practices, as was inevitable, flourished – but the ballot box per se played no part in it.

My mind goes back to, what I consider, the true grass-roots democracy of Village Council [Gansabhava] Elections in the 1950s and early 1960s The Presiding Officer and his acolytes gathered at the Kachcheri Election Office to collect all the paraphernalia necessary for the elections in the Ward allocated to him. These were primarily the list of voters and ballot papers. The rest were purple copying pencils (where are they now ?) for the indelible marking of ballot papers, plenty of forms on which to report activities, and voting numbers , stationery, foot ruler, sealing wax, candles, matchbox, red tape, twine etc. All these, as well as a hurricane lantern in case counting votes continues after sunset, were stuffed into the ballot box which was then packed into the boot of the Presiding Officer’s car – which also carried his wife, now designated Lady Presiding Officer [LPO].

The Presiding Officer and his entourage set off for their Polling Station accompanied by a Policeman with a shotgun to deter potential hijackers of ballot papers. Those were the days before women clerks invaded the all male enclave of Kachcheries. The role of the LPO was to put women voters at ease when entering an all-male Polling Station, as well as to assist old, feeble and poor sighted women to mark their votes before tottering to the ballot box to slip in their vote. Here is where the foot-ruler came into play. If and when the ballot paper got stuck in the aperture, if too crumpled or badly folded. The Presiding Officer used his foot-ruler to shove it in. Simple!

The Polling Station was invariably a one-roomed school with half-walls. The paraphernalia was unpacked from the ballot box, notices hung up, box duly installed in front of the Presiding Officer’s [PO] desk. Candidates present were invited to view the now empty box and assure themselves there were no marked votes lurking inside. The procedure was explained to them and, soon, after the voters started coming in. This they did in dribs and drabs as the population in a Gansabhawa Ward was not very great.

At last the voting ended, the ballot box was upended on the counting table and its emptiness exhibited once again to the candidates. Counting was quickly concluded. The PO announced the winner to the cheers of his supporters and the ballot box reverted to its humble status as the repository of the completed forms and depleted materials. Back it went to join its fellows in the dim recesses of the Kachcheri.

Although the procedures followed by the PO and his staff were almost identical, General Elections were more dramatic given the bitter rivalry among candidates and an ill-conceived suspicions about the staff manning the Polling Stations. This was to be seen in their minute examination of the ballot box before it was closed for voting. It became most obvious when the candidates were invited to place their seals on the box once it was sealed. A few were not yet satisfied and receiving staff at the Kachcheri were faced with quite a few boxes sturdily wrapped in brown paper or polythene to prevent tampering. At last all boxes were emptied and exhibited to candidates and their agents to allay their suspicions. Their democratic duty done these artifacts so important a few hours earlier, now reverted to being – just boxes. That is, till the next Election.

Let us bow our heads in gratitude to the that cornerstone of democracy in Sri Lanka the humble brown wooden ballot box now headed to dusty death.

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