Making Voting Accessible to an Isolated Community

For residents of Kalpitiya, a group of fourteen islands in the Northwestern province of Sri Lanka, the closest polling station is 23 to 35 kilometers (15-22 miles) away, accessible only by boat or an unpaved road.  

With a grant from Internews, journalist Prasad Purnamal researched the voting rights of and challenges facing the isolated fishing community. Villagers told him that they believe authorities are purposely avoiding setting up a polling station in their community, as well as other infrastructure, so that residents will voluntarily leave the islands, allowing the land to be converted to commercial tourism. The islands are known for their scenic beauty and ideal conditions for kite surfing.  

Because of the difficulty getting to the polling station, only 54% of registered voters in the community cast ballots in the 2015 parliamentary election, compared to a turnout rate of 82% across the whole country. 

Authorities respond after Purnamal’s story is aired 

Following broadcast of Purnamal’s story at prime time on the leading media channel Capital Maharaja, as well as on news platforms like BBC Sinhala, the Chairperson of the Election Commission of Sri Lanka stated publicly that the Commission did not know of the issues facing this community and agreed to arrange transportation to the existing polling station for parliamentary elections in August 2020.  

They said it was too late to set up a new polling station close to the village, but pledged to rectify this issue in the next election.  

3 men lift a woman who is seated in a wheelchair into the back of a truck
A resident who uses a wheelchair is assisted into a tractor which will make the journey on unpaved roads to the polling station. Credit: Prasad Purnamal

Due to the public attention this issue received, Transparency International Sri Lanka sent a team of election monitors to Kalpitiya on election day to assess whether voters were able to reach the polling station.  

Purnamal accompanied the team and collected footage of the difficulties faced by the voters due to strong winds. This footage was also broadcast on Capital Maharaja platforms as part of their election day coverage. Transparency International Sri Lanka is said to have reported their findings to the Election Commission, along with recommendations to prevent such inaccessibility in the future. Data as to what percentage of voters made it to the polls in Kalpitiya is not yet available. 

Internews’ project in Sri Lanka is funded by the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL). Story grants are provided to journalists under the Information in Sri Lanka that Advances Democracy (ISLAND) project. 

(Banner photo: Residents of Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka need to travel by boat to reach the closest polling station. Credit: Prasad Purnamal)