Reconciliation with the fact how your vote is secret but yet the Government knows how people voted to gerrymander

S’poreans should not worry about the secrecy of voting, but the act of gerrymandering in the elections

Singapore’s general election (GE) is imminent, despite a date yet to be announced by the current Government. Several Ministers had emphasised on the importance of holding the GE soon, while the country’s COVID-19 cases continue to spike to 41,216 at the time of writing.

In particular, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing noted on 20 May that the country has to dissolve its Parliament by January next year, adding that there’s “not much time” left for the Government to hold its next GE.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, on the other hand, remarked that the “elections are coming nearer by the day” when he was asked whether the next GE will be held after the start of Phase Three of Singapore’s exit strategy.

The country commenced Phase One of the post-circuit breaker period on 2 June. Two weeks later, the Multi-Ministry Taskforce announced that Singapore will go into Phase Two on 19 June with assurance that the community infection rates have remained stable.

The Elections Department (ELD) – which comes under the direct purview of the Prime Minister’s Office – had also released some information of its contingency plans that ensure a safe election process amid the pandemic.

Among its key considerations are to minimise the exposure of voters, candidates, and polling officials to those who are unwell or who may have come into contact with COVID-19 cases, as well as to ensure the safety of all involved, especially the elderly who are more vulnerable.

Opposition parties such as Workers’ Party (WP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) have called for clarity in the election campaign rules and fair access to electorate, but ELD asserted that the full guidelines will be released “no later than the day of the Writ” of the election.

Despite all these blatant hints, the ruling party – People’s Action Party (PAP) – has yet to explicitly announce the date for the GE. But some raised speculations that the next election might be held sometime in July.

“Your vote is secret”

The secrecy of voting remains an issue for many Singaporeans to this day, even though the Government has explained the vote-counting process on its official website, noting that there is a “rigorous” process to ensure the security of the votes.

The secrecy of voting was even attested by many politicians and former civil servants, urging Singaporeans to cast their vote without being constrained to the misconception that their vote would be exposed.

In 2010, WP’s politician and former Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Gerald Giam published a blog post titled “Your vote is secret” in which he explained about the balloting process.

According to Mr Giam, the ballot boxes are sealed with tamper-proof seals – which are signed over by the candidates – that will be sent to the Counting Centre at the end of polling, after which the ballot boxes are unsealed in the presence of the candidates and their assistants.

The election officials – who are civil servants – will then count the votes in full view of the candidates to ensure that the votes are being counted properly and the election officials follow the rules accordingly.

Subsequently, the votes – along with all the relevant records – will be sealed in the boxes and stored in the Supreme Court vault. If there are no disputes over the outcome of the elections within six months, the sealed boxes would be “burnt” in the presence of all the candidates.

“As you can see from above, at no point are the boxes opened without the candidates or representatives from all the contesting parties being present,” he wrote.

Dr Ang Yong Guan, who is the new member of Progress Singapore Party (PSP), recently shed light on the serial numbers on ballot papers which many people are concerned that it would undermine the secrecy of their vote.

Dr Ang explained that the serial numbers exist solely to ensure the integrity of the ballot papers. Mr Giam also noted that the serial numbers are there to safeguard against election fraud such as bringing counterfeit ballot papers into the polling station.

Events of gerrymandering in Singapore

Meanwhile, there are claims that the ruling party is gerrymandering the election result. The PAP has been governing the country for over 60 years, and the party has won 14 consecutive GE since its first victory in the 1959 election.

Gerrymandering is defined as the act of manipulating district boundaries in order to give an unfair political advantage for a particular party.

Gerrymandering, explained: Three different ways to divide 50 people into five districts

Earlier on 2 April, New Naratif published an article which focuses on the events of redelineation of electoral boundaries in Singapore. The article was penned by Ngiam Shih Tung, who is the President of Singapore human rights organization MARUAH.

While there is no specific procedure for delineating boundaries prescribed in the Parliamentary Elections Act, the Prime Minister is given the power to specify the names and boundaries of electoral divisions, said Mr Ngiam.

“Most countries delineate boundaries only when they have to; Singapore does it whenever the Prime Minister wants to,” he remarked.

Mr Ngiam also pointed out that the Kaki Bukit neighbourhood has been changed to four different GRCs (group representation constituency) throughout six elections, between 1988 and 2011. The Kaki Bukit neighbourhood in Bedok was moved from Eunos GRC in 1988, before moving East Coast in 1997. It was moved for the third time in 2006 to Marine Parade, and then to Aljunied GRC in 2011.

“Unlike other countries such as Canada (ten years), UK (eight to 12 years), and Malaysia (at least eight years), there is no fixed or minimum period between redelineation exercises in Singapore. Some neighbourhoods have thus seen multiple changes within a short period of time,” he added.

The SDP had previously brought up about gerrymandering in Singapore.

In 2011, the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) wanted to change the districts of Nee Soon Central and Nee Soon East from SMCs (single-member constituency) to GRCs. These districts, however, happened to be “where opposition parties saw major gains in the vote-share in the previous election”.

“With this tactic of gerrymandering, the PAP is able to include more GRCs and, in the process, hurt opposition’s success as parties in GRCs need to elect 4-6 members as opposed to simply having to elect only one member in the SMCs,” said the SDP.

Gerrymandering will still affect the election result, despite the secrecy of voting is secured

Although Singaporeans are granted with the secrecy of voting, the election result will still be affected by the act of gerrymandering. This is because the constituencies are divided into polling districts, and there is a possibility to predict the voting pattern of a specific polling district.

To understand the relevance of these two conflicting points, we first need to look at how the ruling party gerrymanders in the election.

Polling agents will be appointed in the contesting parties’ ward – whether it is SMC or GRC – to count and contest the votes. At the end of the polling, the contesting parties will hold a tally of the votes, which allows them to determine their performance in the district.

For accuracy on how the different blocks in these blocs vote, the residents are further separated into small clusters of blocks to vote into ballot boxes at a polling centre.

If you recall your past experience in voting, you are given a poll card that indicates which polling centre you are supposed to go to. And on that poll card, it is indicated which polling box you are to deposit your voting slip into.

Example of how a polling district is further broken down into smaller voting blocs for accurate recording of how people voted for gerrymandering
Poll card to voter stating where he or she is to vote at and to which box.

So, what this means is that the results of each box will indicate how the residents collectively voted for their blocks.

While most opposition parties contest in just a few wards for the election, the ruling party contests in all the wards nationwide. This means that the PAP possesses all the information as to how they fared in the various polling districts.

By doing this, the ruling party would be able to know how well they fare in these blocs, and subsequently determine if there is a need to shift the voting blocs to another GRCs or SMCs, or to dissolve the constituency altogether if there is no way of salvaging the electoral bloc.

For example, in 2011, former NCMP and WP’s politician Yee Jenn Jong came within one per cent to winning Joo Chiat SMC. The constituency was later absorbed into Marine Parade GRC just one month before the 2015 GE, forcing the opposition party to make the decision to contest the GRC as Mr Yee had spent the last few years walking the ground at Joo Chiat SMC building up his support base.

In a nutshell, there is indeed gerrymandering being carried out in the GE, but rest assured that your vote is secret. The officials from the ruling party will not be poking into the ballot box to see who you voted for as one would imagine it to be.

After all, they don’t have the luxury of time to be looking through the votes. Even if one tells another that their vote is known, it would be more likely due to a smart guess based on one’s daily stance of their political views rather than the cross marked on their ballot boxes.

So, go and cast your secret sacred vote this coming GE!

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