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

Updated: Apr 5

By Thaqif Ismail, Ethan Tay and Alvina Koh

ILLUSTRATION: ALVINA KOH


The news of the closure of schools and workplaces, of course, trumps all other news. But there’s a new bill that will be introduced in Parliament next week which says that life, or rather, the elections, will go on as usual.


Maybe not as usual, but with changes to ensure the safety of voters, according to the Parliamentary Elections (Covid-19 Special Arrangements) Bill. The Elections Department gave no details of the measures, but it is likely to take a few lessons from cities, states and countries that have conducted elections recently.


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last Friday (March 27) cited Israel’s election and presidential primary elections in the United States as examples of how elections “can be done” in this period.


The day Israel had its election, on March 2, six confirmed cases of Covid-19 were reported. And in three American states — Florida, Arizona and Illinois — their primaries were held, on March 17, despite being in a state of emergency.


The general election in Singapore must be held by April 2021 and it seems the Government is leaning towards one that’s held earlier rather than later. That has upset opposition parties because they see an election during the outbreak as not only disadvantageous to them, but a risk to the current health crisis.


In two recent Facebook videos, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) secretary-general Tan Cheng Bock called for the general election to be delayed, even if it meant busting the constitutional five-year deadline. The party backed up its position by listing over 20 countries and states that had recently postponed their elections because of the outbreak.


The list included US states Ohio and Kentucky, which had postponed their presidential primaries to June. There was also Serbia, which held off its April 26 general election after the country reported more than 50 cases of infection in March.


It also included the United Kingdom which postponed its local and mayoral elections from May to a year later. While the country has not declared a state of emergency the postponement came on March 13 after Covid-19 cases in the country grew to 798 and 11 people died.


Most of the places PSP listed already had fixed dates for election. The latest date was Nov 8, for Paraguay’s municipal elections. It was moved to Nov 28.


Singapore, however, has the flexibility to conduct the elections any time within a five-year deadline. The issue, therefore, is less about the postponement of a date than whether it can, or should plan for an election after April 2021.


There are two ways to do this:

  • Amend the constitution to extend the term of Parliament beyond the five-year mark from its first sitting, or

  • Have the President declare a state of emergency for temporary laws to be enacted


Dr Tan, PSP’s chief, cited the Emergency (Essential Powers) Act which empowers the President to make any essential regulations during the emergency period required for “securing the public safety, the defence of Singapore, the maintenance of public order and of supplies and services essential to the life of the community”.


His proposal, however, had less to do with those reasons and more about the formation of a caretaker government in the interim as the current government’s mandate has expired.


The last time Singapore declared a state of emergency was on 24 June 1948, when violent attacks were waged by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). The emergency period lasted for 12 years. Midway through, the Singapore government reviewed the Emergency Regulations and invoked a new set of security laws called the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance. It grants the government powers to detain individuals suspected to be threats to national security for up to two years.


Though Singapore's constitution does not provide laws for the formation of a caretaker government, such governments are not unusual elsewhere.


In Thailand, Ms Yingluck Shinawatra served as a caretaker prime minister for five months after polls in December 2013 were disrupted by anti-government protests. She was later ousted and replaced by Mr Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan as caretaker. Mr Niwattumrong called for an election in August 2014 but his plans fell through after Thailand’s junta succeeded in a coup.


In Pakistan, caretaker governments are usually instated to create a conducive environment for genuine elections to take place. The last caretaker prime minister was Mr Nasir-ul-Mulk who served for less than three months before Mr Imran Khan was sworn in as prime minister on 18 Aug 2018.


Speaking in Parliament, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said Singapore was one of the few Commonwealth countries to hold elections regularly. Declaring an emergency, he added, would set a new precedent that should not be taken lightly.


He noted that states and countries which conducted elections during the Covid-19 outbreak made substantial changes to their campaigning and polling processes. Singapore can do the same with safety precautions and social distancing measures enforced, he added. For example, hand sanitizers could be placed at polling stations and special express lanes set up for seniors.


"We will learn from the experiences of other countries that are holding elections even during this ongoing Covid-19 outbreak," he said.


What did those states or countries do differently?


CAMPAIGNING


Political campaigns mostly moved online and to broadcast such as TV debates, radio interviews and video monologues. Physical rallies in Florida, Arizona, and Illinois were cancelled after officials banned mass gatherings.


Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden hosted a "tele-town hall” for voters in Illinois on video-conferencing application Zoom, which was unfortunately plagued by technical issues. Fellow Democrat Bernie Sanders staged an 80-minute “digital rally’’ which was more like an entertainment show, featuring musical performances and celebrities endorsing Mr Sanders.


In Israel, fears of the coronavirus did little to stem offline campaigning activities. Politicians continued canvassing for votes and shaking hands with citizens making their way to the polling stations.


If Singapore’s general election is held during the outbreak, campaigning is likely to be more virtual than physical. Recent measures restrict movements and gatherings of people beyond their immediate households. So, unless these rules are relaxed, outdoor rallies are out of the question.


Expecting this eventuality, political parties have been gearing up online. The Singapore Democratic Party posted on Facebook recorded speeches of its leaders commenting on the Government’s handling of the virus outbreak. PSP hosted a video conference with their supporters last Saturday to celebrate its first anniversary.


It is not known if the temporary arrangements that will be introduced in the soon-to-be tabled Parliamentary Elections (Covid-19 Special Arrangements) Bill will allow for a loosening of campaigning rules on election advertising and broadcasting air-time for political parties.


POSTAL VOTING


Some jurisdictions like the German state of Bavaria altered their voting process to allow voting by post.


Voters were mailed ballot papers for the March 29 runoff election which they had to post back to their town halls at least two days before polling day. They could also choose to collect their documents manually from places such as fire stations or tourist centres, and deposit them at delivery points set up throughout the state.


PHONE VOTING


The state of Queensland in Australia, too, held a controversial election on March 28 despite having the power to suspend the election under its public health emergency laws. It led to a fall in voter turnout to 78 per cent from 83 per cent at the 2016 local election.


Telephone voting previously available for homebound voters was extended to citizens in quarantine or asked to self-isolate. Local authorities boosted call centre capacity by tenfold in anticipation of the additional load.


Some 45,000 out of 2.5 million citizens opted for this method, which involved making two calls — the first to register themselves and the second to cast their votes.


SAFETY MEASURES AT POLLING STATIONS


In Bavaria, officials advised voters to bring their own pens to cast their votes at municipal elections held on March 15. Election workers stationed at polling stations routinely disinfected the display pens and hard surfaces. Sinks or disinfectants were made available at every polling station.


In Queensland, its electoral commission set up early voting centres two weeks before to reduce crowds at polling stations on election day. Election workers routinely disinfected the voting tables and pencils provided.


They also ensured that there were not more than 100 people at the booths, and that voters in the booths stood 1.5m from each other. Vulnerable voters such as the elderly were given queue priority. The commission also denied candidates’ election agents from entering the polling stations when voters were present as an added hygiene measure.


MEASURES TO ALLOW INFECTED CITIZENS TO VOTE


In Israel, 16 specialised polling booths were set up for citizens under quarantine to cast their vote. They were instructed to travel to the polling station by private vehicles and not to make stops along the way.


Upon arrival, the quarantined voters were ushered by paramedics and election officials dressed in protective gear. Ballots were handed to them in plastic envelopes, which they marked with disposable pens.


OVERSEAS VOTING


South Korea, which is expected to go to the polls on April 15, cancelled overseas voting at its 91 missions around the world, affecting some 87,000 overseas Koreans.


Israel, on the other hand, had its overseas missions open early for voting 12 days before the election day on March 2, to ensure ballot boxes could be returned and counted on time by election day.


SINGAPORE’S SYSTEM


Singapore has never conducted postal and telephone voting. Voters have to go to their polling stations to cast their vote on Polling Day, which is a designated public holiday. Stations are open from 8am to 8pm and voters can only cast their votes at the polling station allocated on their polling card.


Voting is also compulsory, and eligible Singaporeans who do not vote will have their names expunged from the Register of Electors and cannot vote in the next general election. A “good and sufficient reason” must be provided, or a fine of $50 paid in order to restore their names to the register, according to the Parliamentary Elections Act.


The law currently allows the presiding officer to regulate the number of voters admitted at a time. It is likely that this power will be used to ensure safe distancing measures are adhered to.


A possible measure the country could take could be to stagger voting times for different groups of voters. Steps would also have to be taken to distance the election officers that man the polling stations, who number as many as 30,000 civil servants.


Overseas Singaporeans intending to vote must register themselves as overseas voters before they can cast their ballots at one of the 10 overseas polling stations located at Singapore’s High Commissions, Embassies or Consulates.


The Elections Department has introduced several new features to ease the voting process for the coming election and which could be useful in reducing contact between people or with contaminated surfaces. Features include eRegistration at polling stations, where voters need only to scan their NRIC to register. Previously, election workers had to check the NRIC manually against the electoral roll.


Mechanical counting machines will be employed to speed up the counting process. Paper ballots were previously counted by hand. It just remains for the new “self-inking pens”, used to stamp a cross on the voting paper, to be routinely disinfected after use.


PROBLEMS ENCOUNTERED


Countries that have held their elections during this pandemic have, however, run into difficulties.


In Queensland, the local government election had gone ahead despite warnings from medical experts of the “lethal risk” of further spread of the virus and charges that the election was undemocratic because voters under self-isolation were “disenfranchised” from voting.


About 800,000 out of 3.3 million eligible voters did not vote even though voting is compulsory and failure to do so will mean a AUD$136 (S$114) fine. Telephone voting services were clogged.


One citizen told ABC News he did not vote because “the electoral commission couldn’t provide a safe place to vote”.


In Bavaria, its decision to go ahead with its local elections on March 15 drew criticism that it was putting people at greater risk of infection, including by comedian Addnfahrer who said the government should be “ashamed” of themselves.


On the eve of polling day, it was already the second most affected region in Germany, with 681 cases out of the 3,800 cases across the country.


Some election officials in its capital, Munich, refused to turn up to count the votes due to fears of infection. Others took medical leave, leaving the electoral commission to call on teachers help out on short notice.


Elderly homes were converted into polling stations, local periodical Merkur reported, leaving voters perplexed.


A sociologist in Jagiellonian University estimated that the election led to a spike of 2,000 coronavirus cases.


Five days later, on March 20, the state went on lockdown for two weeks.


In the second round of election on March 29, held entirely by post, the state again ran into problems. There was a shortage of election workers and the city of Munich could not declare a winner on polling night. Other municipalities complained of inadequate rooms for counting votes.


In Israel, election officials refused to count the votes from quarantine individuals, local media reported. The Israeli Central Election Committee had to appeal to the emergency services to do the counting on their behalf.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the outbreak to his own benefit, shifting public attention away from corruption charges laid against him. Due to face trial for his criminal indictments, his handpicked Interim Justice Minister Amir Ohana declared a state of emergency in Israel’s court system and froze court activity on March 15.


Mr Ohana said his actions were “part of the national effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus”. PM Netanyahu’s trial was postponed to May as a result.


In Singapore, the President has the authority to postpone the election if it is deemed “a health hazard”, under Section 56(A)(d) of the Parliamentary Elections Act.


Infection cases in Singapore have climbed rapidly over the past week, passing the 1,000 mark on Wednesday. Yesterday, the country reported 56 local cases with 16 unlinked cases. A sixth death was reported on Saturday.


PM Lee had said that picking a date for the election would be a question of timing.

“You have to make a judgement in this situation with an outbreak going on with all sorts of exceptional measures implemented in Singapore,” he said in a doorstop interview with the media.


That was said, however, before he announced stricter social distancing measures that will last at least for the month, if the so-called “circuit breaker’’ works in stemming the contagion.


Former People’s Action Party MP Inderjit Singh wrote on Facebook that if Singapore takes approximately the same amount of recovery time as China to control the virus spread, the country should be able to stabilise the outbreak by June.


A June election anyone?


By NUS Communications and New Media

  • Instagram - White Circle
  • Telegram