ELD: Uneven voter turnout, COVID-19 safety measures, limited resources at large polling stations resulted in “long queues” during GE2020

The “abnormally long queues” that voters experienced during the recent General Election was due to uneven voter turnout, following COVID-19 safety measures and limited resources available at large polling stations, said the Elections Department (ELD) on Thursday (10 September).

There were “longer than usual queues” at 199 of 1,097 polling stations on polling day, ELD noted in its review.

“However, 68 polling stations saw sustained long queues in the afternoon and 47 polling stations with sustained long queues throughout the day.”

Uneven voter turnout

Unlike other General Elections, the recent one had the highest number of local voter turnout in more than a decade, since the GE2017, at 95.63 per cent.

ELD stated that despite introducing the allocated time-bands for voting in GE2020, voter turnout was not evenly distributed across the voting hours.

The morning time-bands were meant for senior voters, however one-third of voters who turned out in the morning were non-senior voters.

Additionally, the higher concentration of senior voters in the morning also reduced the pace of voter flow-through rate, given that more assistance and support had to be given to them by election officers.

Meanwhile, some polling stations with a high number of younger voters also saw long waiting line in the afternoon due to large number of voters and the smaller 7-hour voting window, after excluding the morning window that was allocated for seniors and the 7pm to 8pm special voting hour.

Therefore, ELD noted that “the allocated time-bands did not succeed in spreading out voter turnout evenly through the day”.

“In retrospect, we should not have concentrated all senior voters in the morning,” said ELD.

It added, “Going forward, we will see how best to spread out senior and non-senior voters across time-bands. Given our ageing population, we will also review the logistics (e.g. wheelchairs and availability of seats), and the location and set-up of our PSs to ensure that they are well accessible to our senior voters.”

Limited resources at large polling stations

ELD pointed out that in GE2020, there were a total of 1,097 polling station, which is an increase from the 832 in GE2015. It explained that the polling stations were added in this election as to allow safe distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, 36,000 election officials were deployed, which is 20 per cent more than in GE2015.

As for the average number of voters per polling station, ELD said that it was about 2,400. However, 25 polling stations had more than 4,400 voters, out of which 22 experienced long queues of voters.

“There were also a number of large (polling stations) in previous GEs, so size alone was not a factor for the long queues. But size combined with the precautionary measures must have aggravated the situation,” said ELD.

“Some premises also had two (polling stations), and the two queues merged into one some distance away from the polling area, further lengthening the queues.”

Based on this, ELD suggested that the pool of reserve manpower and equipment will be increased for future elections.

“We will increase the reserve pool of EOs, who can be deployed quickly to (polling stations) to augment the onsite team to handle contingencies, including any unforeseen build-ups in queues,” said ELD.

It added that it will also give more e-registration devices and implement a “more robust redundancies” to replace spoilt devices.

In the recent GE, problems with e-Registration devices surfaced. The pre-COVID-19 plan was for election officials to scan voters’ NRICs.

“However, with the COVID-19 situation, voters were asked to self-scan their NRICs,” ELD said, adding that some voters were unfamiliar with the devices.

“For GE2020, the procurement of e-registration devices was done before COVID-19, and the vendor could not supply more devices to create a comfortable buffer in time to match the increased number of PSs due to the COVID-19 situation,” added ELD.

On top of that, ELD also recommend that the number of voters at large polling station be reduced in upcoming elections.

“Wherever feasible, ELD will split large polling stations. For GE2020, larger polling stations at HDB void decks and pavilions were split into two due to their small available spaces, but larger polling stations at schools and community clubs were not,” the department said.

Safe distancing measures due to COVID-19

Lastly, the department also highlighted that practicing COVID-19 safe distancing measures also led to the long queues.

Measures like checking temperature, wearing disposable gloves, hand sanitising and keeping 1m safe distancing requirement resulted in long queues.

“These measures were necessary and effective … There were no reported COVID-19 community cases affecting voters and election officials as a result of their participation in GE2020,” said the ELD.

“However, the precautionary measures also contributed to a reduction in the efficiency of polling.”

PM Lee Hsien Loong called for GE amid COVID-19 pandemic

In a televised address on Tuesday (23 June), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for GE2020, noting that by holding the GE now it will “clear the decks” and give the new Government a “fresh five-year mandate”, considering that the current COVID-19 situation is “relatively stable”.

Holding an election now – when the coronavirus crisis is “relatively stable” – will clear the decks and give the new Government a fresh five-year mandate to focus on the national agenda and the difficult decisions it will have to make, said the Prime Minister.

“The alternative is to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic. But we have no assurance that the pandemic will be over before this Government’s term must end next April,” he added.

Mr Lee noted that he had to be certain that voters can vote safely and political parties can campaign effectively before proceeding with the decision.

“After studying the issues, I am satisfied that both of these can be done,” he said.

According to Mr Lee, Singapore is not the first to hold an election during the COVID-19 pandemic as other countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and several European countries have done so as well.

“With our arrangements and precautions in place, I am confident we can hold a proper and safe election,” he asserted.

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