Thursday, May 19, 2011

A front-row view of 'spoilt' votes

by Adrian Kwong
May 12, 2011

Potong Pasir was regained by the People's Action Party by 114 votes out of 17,327 cast. At the same time, 242 votes were rejected, a tiny number that could clearly have made a difference in the result. People are asking what "happened" with those 242 votes ("Second-lowest rate of spoilt votes since 1988", May 11).

As someone who volunteered for election duty both as a Polling Agent and a Counting Agent, though not in Potong Pasir, I offer my thoughts. (I am a Singaporean in his 30s; I do not live nor vote in Potong Pasir.)

First, not everyone knows what to do.

As a Polling Agent, I saw several voters who appeared handicapped and did not know what to do with the ballot paper. Some struggled to even hold the pen. These voters were assisted by family members to the collection point, and per Elections Department practice, escorted to the voting booths by election officials who are supposed to explain the process.

Several times during my shift, the officials - having tried to explain the process to these voters, before telling the Polling Agents that the voter could not express any opinion - proposed posting a blank vote on the voter's behalf. Surely, this must be the most appropriate vote in these circumstances.

Election officials also assisted some blind voters to mark their votes, but there were many older voters who were plainly quite weak. Looking at the actual ballot papers later in the day, I saw quite a few scratches, streaks and other indications which I believed were attempts to overcome physical limitations; some of these would later get rejected as they crossed lines or were not clear.

Second, not everyone gets their ballot slip right.

I am sure some spoilt their votes whether in protest or fear. Having said that, I also believe that some voters might have made mistakes in indicating their vote despite the clear official instructions to mark an "X".

So what happens if a vote is not clear? Under Section 50(1) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, votes can be rejected for several reasons: If they lack the official seal, are blank, bear any means of identifying a voter such as a name, show more than one choice, or are otherwise void for uncertainty.

Having said that, the Returning Officer has the discretion under Section 50(2) to allow any vote that, while not strictly in compliance with the instructions, "clearly indicates the intention of the voter and the candidate ... for whom he gives his vote". This is the all-important section that is applied to decide whether questionable votes should be awarded to a party, or whether they are stamped "REJECTED" and tallied separately.

Some ballots had a tick instead of a cross (valid), some had one tick and one cross (not valid). Some voters had ticked or marked the party symbol instead of the box (valid), others had a small line in one box and a bigger one in another (usually invalid). Some that had words in various languages and another with a signature (valid if clearly for one party and not a name that could be identified). I even saw one bearing a squiggly drawing that looked a lot like one of the party symbols (valid).

In absolute terms, though, the vast majority of votes cast are very, very clear as to the intention of the voter. In the big picture, it is a very small number that is in issue. Of, say, 3,200 votes at my counting table, perhaps only 50 were rejected, of which a third were blank. Maybe 100 more were adjudicated.

Having taken part in the adjudication process - a Counting Agent must fight for each and every vote that could be for their candidate - I can imagine how much more fiercely contested it was at the Potong Pasir counting centres.

Having seen the electoral process up close, I think the officers, even when adjudicating against me, were efficient and professional throughout. Everyone I interacted with seemed earnest and committed to doing their job fairly and properly.

I also believe that having Counting and Polling Agents from both parties present makes it harder for any one party to dominate the polls by blunt tools as forging ballots, intimidation or bribing voters. Having seen firsthand how carefully the secrecy of the ballot is enforced, I am also convinced the actual votes are truly secret, serial numbers or not.

In the end, there is more to the issue than simply saying that 242 Potong Pasir voters were irresponsible in spoiling their votes. Instead of focussing on the rejected votes - and I really do not see any legal basis for a petition to challenge the results - we should be asking ourselves what we can do to make sure that every single voter in the next election knows how to clearly, correctly and fearlessly indicate his or her choice at the ballot box, so that more votes count next time.

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