The president of human rights organisation MARUAH, Ngiam Shih Tung, said that it is futile for People’s Action Party (PAP) polling agents to mark off voters’ name on the party’s copy of the electoral registers in the last general election.
Raising his points in a blog post on 3 August, Mr Ngiam said that although the practice of conspicuously noting voters’ attendance in their copy of the electoral register is legal, but the “practice leads to an environment that reinforces the perception of pervasive surveillance in Singapore”.
Mr Ngiam, who was a polling agent for Workers’ Party in Marine Parade GRC in GE2020, shared his experience in an earlier blog post on Election Day. He said PAP polling agents’ behaviour at his ward reinforced the ruling party’s image of being “arrogant and not playing fair”.
He then went to mention that there have been stories of the habits of PAP polling agents such as interrupting proceedings by asking Presiding Officers (POs) to repeat the names and serial numbers of voters so that they can mark voter attendance on their own registers.
In his latest blog post, Mr Ngiam stated that when the e-registration of voter attendance was first announced a few years back, he wanted the Elections Department (ELD) to allow the POs to tell out loud voters’ details while issuing ballot papers. This was so polling agents could avert impersonation or multiple voting.
However, in reality the only effective checks against such problems are done by the POs who check voters’ details and jot down the attendance in the official copy of the register.
“Polling agents are not allowed to check voters’ identity cards so they cannot really verify voters’ identities, and because voters may now receive their ballot paper at any of several tables, it is not practical for polling agents to keep track of which particular voters have already voted,” he wrote.
As such, the president has now changed his stance on this matter, in which he still thinks it’s important for POs to “audibly read out voters’ particular when issuing ballot papers,” but felt that there is no any use for polling agents to mark their own copies of the electoral register as well.
“For all the effort that PAP polling agents expend on marking their copies of the register, I’m very sure that Party branches just throw them away at the end of the election. Even if there were ever a dispute over the results of an election, the PAP’s marked copies of the electoral registers would have no legal standing,” he explained.
He added, “And given all the brouhaha over their polling agents not being able to hear properly, we can infer that the PAP’s records are chock-full of errors anyway.”
As a matter of fact, Mr Ngiam even highlighted ELD’s Guide for Polling Agents in his post, where it stated that the role of polling agents is to “observe that polling at the polling station is carried out in accordance with the law” and “they must not ask the PO to repeat the voters’ particulars or check their own copy of the register against the PO’s copy, as this will disrupt the orderly conduct of poll.”
“This admonition against polling agents asking POs to repeat voters’ names and serial numbers has been in the Guide for Polling Agents since the first version of the Guide was released in 2011. Historically, enforcement has been lax, however, and it was common for PAP polling agents to ask POs to repeat themselves during past elections,” Mr Ngiam wrote.
He continued, “This problem was aggravated this year because of the new polling station layout resulting from the switch to a centralized e-registration system and additional precautions taken for Covid-19.”
As such, the president said it’s “pointless” for PAP polling agents to do what they do as “their marked copies of the registers will never be used, and their presence in white-and-white is sufficient to show their Party colours.”
“There is no real need for them to go through the wayang of marking their relectoral registers if the concern is just to prevent wrongful issuance of ballot papers.”
No proper training or briefings given to PAP polling agents
If that’s not all, Mr Ngiam also stated that the polling agents for the ruling party seemed to be so preoccupied with marking their electoral registers, resulting in them not paying attention to anything else that’s happening at the polling station.
Therefore, Mr Ngiam wondered the kind of training the polling agents received.
“From what I observed as a polling agent during this election, I got the distinct impression that at least some of their polling agents had not received any training or briefings at all before showing up and just being told to mark voters’ attendance in a name list.
“It is this focus on taking voters’ attendance that leads them to ask POs to repeat voters’ particulars for fear that they will be scolded by party bosses later on if they miss out anything,” he said.
Mr Ngiam also stressed that this practice could also possibly see the ruling party lose some votes from “people who dislike seeing the PAP trying to exert undue in influence on voters” over time.
Additionally, Mr Ngiam also opined that he don’t see ELD going back to e-registration for future elections. This means that polling agents will still sit far away from POs, and if this practice by PAP polling agents still continue, then it is more likely that polling agents from other parties will remind PAP polling agents that they are “not supposed to ask POs to repeat voters’ particulars”.
“POs themselves may also become less willing to go along with the PAP polling agents’ demands,” he noted.
Separately, Mr Ngiam also stated that it is good that polling agents were not given tables in GE2020, unlike past elections.
“Providing tables for polling agents gives voters the impression that the PAP’s polling agents are acting in an official capacity when they mark their copies of the electoral registers. But they are not. They are merely observers.
“Tables are definitely not required for polling agents to do their job. If it wants to, the PAP can just buy clipboards for its polling agents in future elections,” he said.
As a conclusion, Mr Ngiam reiterated his points on why PAP wants its polling agents to mark voter attendance.
“Its polling agents’ habit of asking POs to repeat voters’ names and serial numbers just annoys both POs and voters. At some point, this practice may become a nett vote-loser for them,” he said.
He continued, “Marking the register does not help to catch electoral fraud and if I were a PAP polling agent, I would be asking my candidate why I am wasting my time and energy on a ritual that serves no useful purpose.”