No clarity on Covid-19 elections legislation

By Ethan Tay

ILLUSTRATION: ETHAN TAY


On May 4, Parliament debated the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill to authorize temporary special arrangements for an election held before the constitutional deadline of April 2021.


Only six MPs, including two Nominated MPs, asked Minister Chan Chun Sing for clarifications on the legislation, which was later passed without amendments. I wish they had pressed the minister for better explanations for some troubling concerns they had raised.


One was why the Bill is silent about providing special arrangements for quarantined voters to vote, raised by Nominated MPs Anthea Ong and Walter Theseira, and Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim from the Workers’ Party. This, as Ms Ong said, was akin to depriving voters of their right to vote.


Mr Chan replied that it was a ‘misconception’ to say that the Bill takes away anyone’s right to vote. In fact, it allowed more voters to vote. 


You have to know the law inside-out to understand his point. And whether the misconception was on his part or the part of the MPs. 


RELATED STORY: Parliament should debate the proposed election processes thoroughly


Every citizen above 21 has the right to vote, barring special cases like undischarged bankrupts. In this Covid-19 period, there would be four types of voters resident here — those infected, those on quarantine orders, those on stay-home notices and the rest who are now abiding by the circuit breaker measures. The updated Registry of Electors gave 2,653,942 as the total number of eligible voters. 


Those who are infected stay where they are — which is as it should be. But what about those on quarantine orders and stay-home notices? 


In the Bill, a Covid-19 quarantine order is defined as an isolation order to a person who is either infected or suspected to be infected by Covid-19, under section 15 of the Infectious Diseases Act. On the other hand, a Covid-19 stay-home notice is defined as an isolation order to a person who has come into contact with a person who is either infected or suspected to be infected. So there are different degrees of risk.


When Mr Chan talked about more voters being able to vote, he was referring to those on stay-home notices. If not for the Bill, they would not be able to exercise their right to vote at all since the Infectious Diseases (COVID-19 — Stay Orders) Regulations 2020 does not allow them to leave their places of accommodation without a reasonable excuse. The Bill, however, permits voting in an election as a reasonable excuse.


But this is not the case for quarantined voters, which the MPs referred to. Unlike those on stay-home notices, they will face legal repercussions if they leave their places of accommodation for the purpose of voting in an election. 


Almost all the special arrangements for electors stated in the Bill are for those under stay-home notices, such as allowing electors to vote outside of their electoral divisions, the setting up of special polling stations, and the transportation of electors to and from special polling stations. For quarantined voters, the only special arrangement stated is that they will not be penalized for not voting in the coming election. Their names will be automatically restored in the register of electors.


Ms Lim asked if a constituency’s voting turnout would be drastically affected if quarantined voters are not allowed to vote in the event of a few large clusters of infections residing in a particular constituency. With the Bill exempting those on quarantine orders and stay-home notices from voting, this may result in more absent votes in the coming election, she said.


In the 2015 general election, there were 155,000 absent votes. Will there be more in the next round?


An analysis of elections held in other countries recently showed that it’s hard to say for sure whether voter turnout will decrease during the time of the virus. South Korea’s parliamentary election on April 15 had an exceptionally high voter turnout of 66.2 per cent, the highest since 1992 when the turnout was 71.9 per cent. 


Voter turnout in Israel’s election on March 2 was also high, at 71 per cent, greater than its previous two elections in September (69.4 per cent) and April (67.9 per cent) last year. But voter turnout fell in Australia’s state of Queensland election on March 28 despite voting being compulsory. Non-voters will be penalized with a fine of AUD$136 (S$114). The country had also implemented additional voting methods such as postal and telephone voting, yet voter turnout still dropped to about 78 per cent, from 83 per cent in its 2016 election.


Perhaps, the size of the turnout has much to do with the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases during the election period. For South Korea, the number of daily cases have been on a steady decline since March, with about 30 daily cases in the week before the election. Israel only had a total of 10 confirmed cases prior to its election, whereas daily cases in Queensland were on the rise leading up to its election. The state reported 62 new cases on the eve of election day, totalling up to 555 cases.


Mr Chan reiterated that the intent of the Bill is to ensure the safety of voters in a Covid-19 election so that voters are not forced to choose between voting and protecting their health. Even so, voters may still be fearful of heading to the polls. And with the exemption clause on those under quarantine orders and stay-home notices, it makes non-voting even more appealing to them.


On May 3, the day before the debate on the Bill, there were 1,918 persons under stay-home notices and 10,059 persons under quarantine orders, not including those in foreign worker dormitories. These numbers were drawn from the Ministry of Health website, which did not segregate citizens from non-citizens. Rather strangely, Mr Chan asserted that the number of citizens of voting age under quarantine orders was fewer than 1,000 on that day. 


If Mr Chan is right, an election held on May 3 would have fewer than 3,000 citizens exempted from voting, inclusive of those under stay-home notices. This is a small number and is unlikely to affect the election outcome of a constituency.


Exemptions aside, the legitimacy of an election lies on whether the government is able to protect the voting rights of all citizens, even if some may choose not to vote. Because, ultimately, it’s the choice of the voter to exercise his or her voting right.


Ms Lim pointed out that in South Korea’s election, quarantined voters were allowed to go to the polls after polling booths were closed to the general public. She asked whether Singapore’s elections department could do likewise.


Mr Chan replied: “The Elections Department will consult the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Home Affairs nearer the election date, to assess if the public health risks of allowing these two categories of voters (those under quarantine orders and stay-home notices) to leave their homes and making special arrangements for them to vote in-person at polling stations can be managed.”


For voters on stay-home notices, even though the Bill authorises the Returning Officer to make special arrangements for them, Ms Lim and Assoc Prof Theseira noted that it does not make such arrangements compulsory for the Returning Officer. The Bill seems to give a lot of powers to the Returning Officer, allowing him to use them at his own discretion. 


Mr Chan did not clarify this concern in his wrap up speech, so we can only assume that this will be done whether or not it is written into the law.


Besides those under quarantine orders and stay-home notices, two other groups of voters are affected. One group is those exhibiting acute respiratory symptoms. Clause 8 of the Bill states that the Returning Officer or the Director of Medical Services may advise those exhibiting acute respiratory symptoms not to vote. Pasir-Ris Punggol GRC MP Zainal Sapari asked Mr Chan if they could go against the advice. The answer is no. Mr Chan said that public health risks still need to be minimised in an election to ensure the safety of others. But he added that the clause refers only to public advisories that are directed to voters in general and not to any particular voter. It is not clear how many people belong in this group.


The other group comprises overseas voters, for whom no special arrangements have been made. In GE2015, there were 10 overseas polling stations located in various cities and states. Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng raised the possibility that some of these cities and states may, in the future, have a lockdown in place at the time of the election, making it difficult for voters to cast their votes. He asked if something could be done for them.


Mr Chan said that if the virus transmission is high in these cities and states, overseas voting in these locations will be abandoned, as allowed in the Parliamentary Elections Act. But the decision will not be taken lightly, he said, and the Returning Officer will carefully assess the situation for each overseas polling station. In the 2015 general election, 3,415 overseas electors cast their votes in overseas polling stations. This was 70 per cent of the total number of registered overseas electors at that time.


He raised a valid point that it is difficult to preserve the voting rights of overseas citizens because the governance of these cities and states lies beyond the reach of Singapore. South Korea had cancelled overseas voting in 65 embassies and legations during its recent election, affecting over 80,000 South Korea voters overseas.


Assoc Prof Theseira asked why the Bill didn’t include remote voting methods like online voting which may allow overseas voters, voters with acute respiratory symptoms, and quarantined voters to vote. He pointed out that there have been security advances over the years to ensure that voting can be made secure. 


Mr Chan replied that the Elections Department is still wary of implementing online voting because it is difficult to prevent impersonation and ensure voting secrecy. He added that the fundamental issue is to verify a person’s identity and at the same time to ensure that the vote is secret and cannot be traced back to the person. But it appears that countries like Australia have resolved this issue by separating the voter authentication process from the ballot paper so that votes remain anonymous.


No one raised the possibility of postal voting, though it seems like Mr Chan would have answered it similarly to that of online voting. In fact, it may be even harder to prevent impersonation through postal voting because signatures and date of births could be forged and copied.


Another concern raised by both Assoc Prof Theseira and Ms Lim was why the Bill didn’t stipulate campaigning rules and regulations, considering that the intent of the Bill was to protect the health and safety of voters and candidates in a Covid-19 election. Typical campaigning activities, such as holding rallies, usually involve significant human contact which may expose people to the virus.


Mr Chan responded that the Bill is a supplementary Act to the Parliamentary Elections Act, which covers only some aspects of campaigning, such as election advertising. Other aspects of campaigning, such as rallies and walkabouts, are covered under the Public Order Act, which lie outside the scope of the Bill. The Elections Department will release campaigning guidelines in due course, he added.


A look at the Public Order Act revealed that there are only general rules pertaining to the assemblies and processions in public places, which are methods for campaigning. No additional rules were stated for election campaigning. However, Clause 47 authorizes the Minister to make additional regulations ensuring the public order and safety of individuals in such assemblies and processions.


It seems like South Korea did not mandate changes to campaigning in its recent election amid the outbreak. Its election commission had only asked candidates not to conduct large gatherings. So, candidates went online to hold live talk shows and speeches. The typical scene of vans with politicians blasting speeches through loudspeakers were largely missing. 


In the American state of Illinois which had its presidential primary on March 17, state officials banned large gatherings, forcing candidates to conduct virtual rallies online. But it’s unclear whether this ban is directed at the general public or is a regulation changing the way campaigning activities are allowed to be carried out amid the virus outbreak.


There seems to be a contradiction between voters’ right and public safety but at the end of the day, the hope must be that all eligible citizens will be able to vote under safe conditions. The key is gauging the right time to hold an election to convince citizens that their health and safety are being safeguarded even as they exercise their vote. Countries like South Korea and Israel had timed their elections when infections were low, or at least tapering off. Singapore still has until April 2021. With luck, we could get the all-clear sooner rather than later, and the general election can be carried out in the usual manner.


By NUS Communications and New Media

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