SINGAPORE: Changes to the Parliamentary Elections Act were passed in Parliament on Monday (Oct 1), with six Members of Parliament speaking about issues related to the tampering of ballot boxes, election deposits and the question of what constitutes a valid vote.
In moving the Bill for a second reading, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing detailed the changes, pointing out that they will improve the administration of parliamentary elections while ensuring the integrity of the election process.
"The changes will ensure that our electorate continues to have high trust and confidence in our electoral system," he said.
The changes, which were first tabled in Parliament on Sep 10, include the simplification of the computation of election deposits for candidates who wish to contest in a General Election. They will also have the option of paying for their election deposits by electronic funds transfer.
The amendment Bill also replicates some of the changes made to the Presidential Elections Act in 2017.
It specifies that only markings that are made within the demarcated area of a ballot paper will be valid, and removes the need to apply for a vote recount if the difference in the number of votes between the top candidate and any other candidate contesting the same election falls within the stipulated limit of 2 per cent or less.
The number of Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) will be raised from nine to 12 less the total number of elected opposition MPs, a suggestion first mooted in 2016 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
WHAT CONSTITUTES A VALID VOTE?
One of the concerns raised by some of the six MPs who spoke was the definition of what constitutes a valid vote.
In his speech, Workers’ Party (WP) member Mr Png Eng Huat detailed various examples of ballot papers he has seen that were deemed valid or not valid.
For example, he said he saw one ballot paper with a "faint squiggly cross" marked in a demarcated box rejected, on the basis that the intention of the voter was not clear.
Another ballot paper with a tick and diagonal line drawn across it – well within the box for the preferred candidate – was also marked for rejection, he said.
"The reason? A tick means yes, but the diagonal line across it forms an X, which means no. So yes and no at the same time, the intention of the voter was not clear," he said.
"Yet I've seen an X marked on the party logo area counted as valid," he added. "I've also witnessed symbols or expletives on the demarcated box on the ballot counted as valid as well."
"How can we call ourselves a developed country if we cannot even define, in simple terms and without ambiguity, what is a valid vote?”
Using the above examples, he asked for more clarity on how the amendment which states that a vote will only be valid if marked in a demarcated box will be implemented.
Expressing concerns that even this may be a challenge for the elderly or the visually impaired, he suggested that the ballot paper be designed with a larger demarcated area.
NCMP Dennis Tan also pointed out the importance of having a "clear, unequivocal set of rules" for officers counting votes.
"Such rules must ensure that expletives written in the demarcated box for one candidate cannot sensibly be regarded as a vote for that candidate," he said.
In response to these concerns, Mr Chan noted that the Elections Department routinely conducts training for officers so they can do their jobs professionally.
In his round-up speech on the debate, he also pointed out that the issue should also be viewed in context: Very few votes go into adjudication. However, he stressed that the Government would constantly ensure that the training conducted is done "systematically and professionally".
"And Mr Png may like to help us to remind voters to mark the X in the demarcated area rather than to exercise their artistic talent in the polling station," he said.
WP OPPOSES NCMP SCHEME: PNG
In his speech, Mr Png also reiterated the WP’s stand on the NCMP scheme, pointing out that the party opposes the scheme as it "believes in the fundamental principle that having more NCMPs is not the way forward to make our political system more robust".
In response, Mr Chan noted that the House has already debated the scheme in previous sittings. He suggested that if the WP feels their party cannot support the scheme, there are two choices.
"One is for the WP candidate to, during an election, publicly declare that he or she would not take up the NCMP seat even if offered. The second option is for the WP to impose a rule on all its members to not take up the NCMP seat even if it is offered, and this will be the Workers' Party guideline," he said.
"The WP can take its pick about what it wants to do. But it would be rather disingenuous to say that we oppose the NCMP scheme and, at the same time, take up the NCMP seat."
TAMPERING OF BALLOT BOXES
A few MPs raised concerns about an amendment regarding the tampering of ballot boxes.
Under the changes, if one ballot box from a polling station is lost or destroyed, all counting of votes from that polling station will be abandoned.
If the number of votes from the affected polling station is enough to sway the electoral result for that constituency, voters at the affected station would be required to go through a fresh poll.
In his speech, MP Gan Thiam Poh described the amendment as “unpalatable to many voters" who strongly believe that every vote is sacred, and questioned why the votes from unaffected, sealed ballot boxes could not be counted.
“Why should all the votes at the affected polling station be nullified due to a single lost, damaged or tampered box?" he asked. "This is a recommendation which a number of constituents are uncomfortable with and find difficult to accept."
He added that the re-poll of the affected electoral division "does not necessarily ensure a fair and equitable election".
"This is as good as holding a by-election, especially when the national results have already been announced,” he said.
In his round-up speech, Mr Chan pointed out that fresh polls will only be conducted if the election results for the electoral division are in question, in which case all voters from the affected polling station will have to recast their votes.
"This is because when voters drop their ballot papers into the ballot boxes in any polling station, they have a choice," he said.
"It will not be possible to ascertain which voters cast their votes in the affected ballot box. So that's why it goes by the polling station rather than the individual voter."
Associate Professor Walter Theseira also spoke on the topic in his first speech as a Nominated MP. He pointed out that the amendment also reserves some powers for the minister to decide how a re-poll can be done. This, he said, may create conflicts of interest.
"When Parliament is dissolved, the incumbent Cabinet holds office until the first sitting of the new Parliament. Therefore, the Minister’s ability to form the Government may depend on the outcome of this single polling station," he said. "In another country, the results of a recent general election were unclear well past the midnight hour. Rumours of political interference were rife.
"I suggest we consider reserving these powers to the returning officer to avoid any appearance of partiality."
Addressing Dr Theseira's point, Mr Chan said that one of the new sections in the Act clearly spells out the procedures to be undertaken by the returning officer, when a ballot box is lost or destroyed after the close of polls.
If there is a need for a fresh poll, the returning officer will need to specify the date, hours of the poll and the location of the polling station. There is a provision for the minister to prescribe "other operational details", if required.
"If indeed ballot boxes are lost or damaged, the amendment would lay out clearly in the law the steps to take to deal with such a scenario to ensure the integrity of the election process," he said.
Mr Chan also noted that there have been no previous cases of tampering with ballot boxes.
REDUCING THE ELECTION DEPOSIT
MPs Gan Thiam Poh and Murali Pillai also made suggestions on the topic of the election deposit. Mr Gan asked if the deposit can be further reduced by pegging it against the median gross monthly income from full-time work. This works out to about S$4,232.
"This will further strengthen the efforts made by the Government to ensure the building of an inclusive society," he said. “The deposit should preferably be set at a level that will not discriminate against those who have less wealth but have the qualities and willingness to serve.”
Under the changes, the election deposit will be computed based on an elected Member of Parliament’s fixed monthly allowance, rounded to the nearest S$500. Given that the current fixed monthly allowance is S$13,750, the election deposit will be rounded down to S$13,500. In the 2015 General Election, the election deposit was S$14,500.
Meanwhile, Mr Murali suggested that cash payments of election deposits continue to be allowed, pointing out that at this point, a significant portion of society still uses cash.
“Would it not be better not to hurry this until our society has really become cash-free, which is not the case now?” he asked.
In his round-up speech, Mr Chan agreed that the election deposit should not be set at an amount so high that it becomes a barrier to entry.
"But we also need to strike a balance, and setting it at the current rate of one month of an MP’s allowance has worked reasonably well since we first had elections in Singapore,” he said, adding that the purpose of the deposit is to ensure that only those who are serious in contesting the elections step forward.
In response to Mr Murali’s suggestion, Mr Chan said the amendments have increased, rather than decreased, the options in payment modes.
“As for cash, this is something the returning officer would allow when there are technical issues with the electronic funds transfer system," he said. "So we’ve increased the number of choices rather than narrowed (them)."