Parliament should debate the proposed election processes thoroughly

By Ethan Tay

ILLUSTRATION: ETHAN TAY


The day Singapore’s “circuit breaker’’ was formally triggered, a Bill was introduced in Parliament to ensure that the next general election can be conducted safely even if the country isn’t free of the virus yet.


The Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) BilI shows the determination of the Government to call the polls before the April 2021 constitutional deadline, rejecting suggestions that this should be done only when the all-clear signal is given.


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The Elections Department stressed that the legislation is not an indication of the timing of the general election, which is left at the discretion of the Prime Minister. Unlike the fast-tracked COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Bill which contained lockdown measures that were approved in one sitting, this Bill will go through the normal process of being debated at the next sitting of Parliament. This is likely to be next month.


This gives MPs, including opposition politicians, time to scrutinise the features of the Bill and assess if it can sufficiently provide for the safety of citizens without disenfranchising them in the process.


What are some of the Bill’s significant features and what issues might MPs raise?


First, it exempts those under quarantine or stay-home orders from compulsory voting.


Individuals quarantined for having — or suspected to have — the virus will not even get to vote. Leaving the premise would mean contravening the Infectious Diseases Act, which would land them a fine of up to $10,000 or a jail term not exceeding six months, or both.


Second, those under stay-home orders or with medical certificates (MCs) for acute respiratory symptoms can still vote, though they will get a free pass for choosing not to. Separate arrangements for them to vote will be made, should they want to vote.


Normally, those who did not vote in an election would have to pay $50 or provide an “acceptable” reason to vote in subsequent elections.


With the exemptions given to some voters, the timing of the election is therefore critical to ensure the legitimacy of the mandate. As of April 11, there were 1,763 Covid-19 patients and 10,757 close contacts under quarantine, comprising citizens and non-citizens.


Special polling stations will be set up for those on stay home orders and MCs for acute respiratory symptoms, a measure that seems to have been drawn from Israel’s election on March 2. The stations may be set up in boarding premises — like hotels, hostels and dormitories — where voters are serving out their stay-home orders, or other suitable locations.


This means such voters may not have to vote at their assigned polling station. One special polling station may see voters from different electoral divisions.


In Israel’s election, 16 special polling stations were set up in the form of tents. At that time, there were only 10 confirmed cases and over 5,000 eligible voters in quarantine for suspected exposure to the virus. Only asymptomatic voters were allowed into the stations, while those infected with the virus were banned from voting altogether.


Quarantined electors had to arrange their own private transportation to the special polling stations and be clothed with protective gear from head-to-toe, including gloves and masks, before entering the stations. Staff manning the stations had to be suited up too.


In Singapore, the Bill gives leeway for the Returning Officer to transport the affected voters from their homes or boarding premises to the special polling stations. Unlike in Israel, voters will have to remove their masks when requested by the presiding officer to verify their identities. The officer will also call out the electoral district that the elector will be voting for.


One question worth asking is why quarantined cases should be denied the vote when there might be technical means to allow them to do so. Or why the exemption given to stay-home citizens should they decide that the arrangements were not good enough to ensure their safety. In fact, is there even a need for them to even venture out of their quarters?


Some countries have adopted telephone and online voting methods while still ensuring voter authentication and vote secrecy. This is done by separating the voter authentication process from the process of completing the ballot paper.


RELATED STORY: Voting in the time of the virus: How other countries did it


Australia’s state of Queensland offered telephone voting services to voters with vision impairment or those under quarantine during its local government election on March 28. Two separate calls had to be made. The first call is for voter authentication and to prompt the voter to create a personalized PIN number. The second call is for the voter to cast his or her vote using the PIN number. This way, the electoral agent on the line will not be able to link the voter’s identity to the vote casted.


There were hiccups. During the election period, the telephone voting service hotline was inundated by phone calls from voters who were ineligible for the service, but wanted to avoid the crowds in polling stations. Some eligible voters weren’t able to cast their ballots as the line was constantly busy.


The Elections Department has not raised the possibility of telephone voting, but it made its views clear about online and postal voting in 2010. Online voting, it said, was too vulnerable to hacking and service attacks. It also makes it impossible to audit the voting results in case of a petition. On postal voting, the ELD said that there is no guarantee of the secrecy of the vote, and logistical problems, such as mail delays, could undermine the integrity of the elections.


Some states have tried electronic voting but the process has always been accompanied by security fears. During the 2016 United States presidential elections, more than 30 states offered some voters the option of voting electronically. It was later reported that their voting systems were infiltrated by Russian hackers who attempted to delete and alter about 15 million voters’ information prior to the election day. Although voters’ ballot papers weren’t affected, the incident goes to show how susceptible electronic voting systems can be to security hacks.


Postal voting might seem like a terribly old fashioned method but it has been used in the United Kingdom and some German states, with varying degrees of success. In Germany’s state of Bavaria, its runoff election on March 29 was conducted purely by postal ballots. The Bavarian government had activated postal service company Deutsche Post on the evening of March 28 to make an additional run to collect the postal ballots. By the night of election day, all postal ballots were delivered to the election offices.


However, in England, postal voting issues arose. In the 2019 by-election of the parliamentary constituency of Peterborough, about 400 postal ballots were singled out as having discrepancies relating to voters’ signatures and date of births when compared to official records. There were also allegations of electoral fraud involving postal ballots.


In 2010, Singapore’s ELD said it was wary of adopting postal voting because of the difficulties in authenticating the identity of the elector who cast the vote. Again, it raised concerns about the secrecy of voting.


Although the different methods employed by other countries might not be foolproof, they afford every citizen the chance to exercise his or her vote in safe conditions. It is worth asking the ELD about its 2010 stance and whether that still remains, given that there would be security advances made to secure voting since that time.


Nothing, however, was said in the Bill about arrangements for overseas voters, who might be restricted in movement in their host countries. The protocol is to set up overseas polling stations in areas where there are a sizable number of Singaporeans living. In the 2015 general election, 10 polling stations were set up at Singapore embassies and high commissions. A total of 3,415 Singapore citizens made their way there to cast their vote. The number of Singapore citizens overseas might well have fallen by now since most have made their way home after the outbreak spread worldwide. South Korea had cancelled overseas voting in 41 embassies and legations for its upcoming parliamentary election on April 15, affecting over 80,000 South Korean voters overseas.


Other than providing temporary arrangements for voters under Covid-19 stay-home orders in the upcoming election, the Bill also modified nomination proceedings for aspiring candidates under quarantine or stay home orders. They need not submit their nomination papers in person to the returning officer on Nomination Day. Instead, the Bill allows a representative to submit the papers on their behalf.


The Bill doesn’t deal with campaigning processes although it is likely that any social distancing measure in force at the time would still hold.


There is, however, some leeway given to the Minister to introduce new regulations during the elections. These might well cover some nitty-gritty hygiene issues, such as the use of hand sanitisers, cleaning processes or the number of people allowed at any one time in the polling station.


One suggestion: The Minister could instruct election agents to deliver the ballot papers to the doorsteps of those who have been quarantined. Given the small size of Singapore, and the consistent monitoring of whereabouts, this should not be a tough exercise in logistics.


The success of any precautionary measure, however, depends on how assured voters are. Even though voting is compulsory in Singapore, the fear of contagion might well keep some people away.


The recent election in Queensland conducted during the virus outbreak showed a drop in voter turnout from 83 per cent in the previous election to about 78 per cent, even though social distancing measures were put in place to minimise the health risk of voters. Voting is compulsory and non-voters would have to pay a fine of AUD$136 (S$114).


In Bavaria, polling and counting officers made themselves scarce, requiring other people to step into their shoes.


Voter turnouts in the last seven Singapore general elections have constantly exceeded more than 90 per cent. However, turnouts have been declining. Elections in 1991 and 1997 had voter turnouts of over 95 per cent, while the recent 2011 and 2015 elections had about 93 per cent. No reason has ever been put forth for the declining numbers, which in the 2015 GE number was about 150,000 absent voters. Nor has there been reports on investigations into the matter and the numbers dealt with for non-compliance.


On April 15, Wednesday, South Korea will head to the polls for its parliamentary election. The country has implemented two days of early voting on April 10 and 11 to reduce crowds in polling stations on election day.


Covid-19 patients are allowed to vote in the eight special polling stations that are set up within their quarantine premises. Non-patients under self-quarantine because of suspected exposure to the virus are not allowed to enter these stations.


"Those in self-quarantine should also be ensured their right to vote. The concern is how to minimise the risk of further infection during the voting process," said Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip. The Government is considering allocating special time slots for them to vote in the normal polling stations.


It appears that South Korea is working hard to ensure that every citizen gets to vote in its coming election. As a democratic country, Singapore should do the same as well.


By NUS Communications and New Media

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