MARUAH: Sampling check results should be announced to parties for transparency

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Letter by MARUAH on the transparency of the election process in Singapore

By Ngiam Shih Tung, Chairman of MARUAH’s Election Watch committee

TOC has reported that the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) sent a letter to the Elections Department (ELD) asking for clarification on the procedures for admittance of candidates’ agents to polling stations and counting centres, and on election advertising. Given that election administration is not part of the day-to-day jobs of the civil servants selected as elections officials, it is understandable that there may have been a lack of understanding of some of the procedures despite ELD’s efforts to train the elections officials.

In their reply to the SDP, ELD acknowledged that elections officials had not been consistent during the 2011 General Elections in certain areas. To its’ credit, ELD subsequently released guides for the Presidential Election and by-elections describing polling and counting procedures, including the rules for admittance and re-admittance of candidates’ agents. These guides can be used as a basis for candidates to train their volunteers to understand their rights and responsibilities as polling agents or counting agents.

Overseas best practice

Another frequent point of contention during elections is the interpretation of ballots where the voter’s intention is unclear. In the UK, the Electoral Commission publishes guidance for Returning Officers on adjudicating doubtful ballots. In Singapore as in the UK, the decision of the Assistant Returning Officer (ARO) on the ground is final.

However, it would be useful for ELD to publish the training materials that it uses to train AROs so that all counting agents would be aware of the criteria used by AROs in deciding whether to accept or reject uncertain ballot papers.

Sampling Check

A unique feature of the counting process in Singapore elections is the “sampling check“. As explained in the Guide for Counting Agents

5.16 During the counting process, the ARO will conduct a sampling check to obtain a sample of the possible electoral outcome for that counting place, for the purpose of checking against the result of count for that counting place.

This sampling check is not specifically mentioned in the Parliamentary Elections Act but from the description in the Guide for Counting Agents, it appears that it is used by ELD to predict the result of the election early in the counting process. From my observations as a counting agent in past elections, the check is performed by the ARO or his assistants taking a sample of 100 ballot papers immediately after the mixing of the ballots and counting the number of votes for each candidate within that sample.

In developing democracies, “Quick Counts” are estimates of the overall result of an election based on the actual results (not exit polls) at a sample of polling stations. In large underdeveloped countries, compilation of results by the central government may be problematic even though the count at local level is monitored by elections observers. Quick counts thus help to ensure the reliability of official results which may not be available for some time after the election.

For example, in the Presidential Elections in Indonesia last year, quick counts showed that President Jokowi had won the election within days of the election even though final results were not released until two weeks later.

Transparency

In the case of Singapore, the sampling check should be redundant, considering that final election results have always been released within hours of close of polls, and the entire counting process is conducted by ELD’s own elections officials observed by candidates’ counting agents. Nonetheless, if ELD still believes that the sampling check is necessary, the ARO should announce the results of the sampling check over the table for the sake of transparency at the time that the check is performed.