One of the complaints that many people have about the conduct of elections in Singapore is that PAP polling agents are stationed at polling stations and conspicuously mark off voters’ attendance on their own copies of the electoral register during polling. This is completely legal and while indvidual voter’s votes are secret, the practice leads to an environment that reinforces the perception of pervasive surveillance in Singapore.
When e-registration of voter attendance was first announced a few years ago, I urged the Elections Department (ELD) to retain its practice of having Presiding Officers (POs) call out voters’ particulars while issuing ballot papers. This was so that polling agents could prevent impersonation or multiple voting (the same person voting more than once). In practice, however, the only effective checks against those malpractices are the Presiding Officers (POs) who check voters’ particulars and mark 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.
I have therefore changed my position in that while I still think it is important for transparency that POs audibly read out voters’ particulars when issuing ballot papers, there is no meaningful purpose in polling agents marking their own copies of the electoral register. 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. 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 the Election Department(ELD)’s Guide for Polling Agents puts it, the role of polling agents is to “observe that polling at the polling station is carried out in accordance with the law”. They may mark voters’ attendance in their own registers but there is no legal obligation for elections officials to assist them in that task. Specifically, the ELD Guide states
5.6 Polling agents should pay close attention when the POs are reading out the particulars of the voters. They must not ask the PO to repeat the voters’ particulars or check their own copy of the register (obtained from their political party or candidate) against the PO’s copy, as this will disrupt the orderly conduct of poll.Elections Department, “Guide for Polling Agents for General Election 2020”
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. 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.
Unlike in past elections where polling agents were seated directly facing POs, polling agents are now seated further away from POs. In addition, POs were wearing face masks as a precaution against Covid-19. This made it more difficult for polling agents to hear the POs and led to much frustration on the part of POs who had to shout themselves hoarse trying to satisfy the PAP polling agents. Ironically, the POs were under no obligation to repeat themselves and should have just refused the PAP polling agents’ demands by referring to the ELD’s Guide for Polling Agents which specifically states that polling agents should not ask POs to repeat themselves. But the PAP polling agents were themselves performing a pointless task. 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 electoral registers if the concern is just to prevent wrongful issuance of ballot papers.
As another polling agent has commented, PAP polling agents seem to be so obsessed with marking their electoral registers that they don’t pay attention to anything else. Indeed, I wonder what kind of training the PAP provides to its polling agents. 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. Because marking of the register is a tangible output, the PAP’s polling agents get fixated on it to the detriment of their more important task of keeping an overview on general proceedings in the polling station.
Arguably, the PAP may gain some votes from people who are reminded of the omnipresence of PAP-affiliated grassroots organisations when they see white-clad polling agents marking their names in a file, but this has to be set against votes lost from other people who dislike seeing the PAP trying to exert undue influence on voters. Over time, the votes lost from this practice may exceed the votes gained. The PAP will have to decide when that point is reached and how long they want to continue the practice.
I do not see ELD going back on e-registration which means that in future elections, polling agents will still be seated some distance away from POs and PAP polling agents will still get tempted to ask POs to repeat themselves. But after the experience of this election, polling agents from other parties are more likely to point to ELD’s own guidelines and remind elections officials that the PAP polling agents 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.
A related issue is the provision of tables for polling agents. Tables were provided for polling agents in previous elections, but in the past, polling agents sat directly opposite POs and were much closer to voters so the tables acted as physical barriers between the polling agents and voters. In this year’s layout (see above), polling agents were no longer provided with tables. I do not know whether this was due to a general rethinking of polling station layouts after the introduction of e-registration or was a result of Covid-19 safe distancing requirements. Either way, it is a postive step. 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.
The bigger question is why the PAP even bothers to mark voter attendance at all. 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. 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.