Why does it take so long to get election results ?

In a posting on his journalism.sg blog, Cherian George reminds readers of MediaCorp’s refusal to air any hints of election results prior to the official announcement by the Returning Officer:

Members also commented that while they understood the need for CNA to ensure that the results were verified before they were announced on air, the delay between announcements on other new media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and the updates on CNA did not reflect well on the latter as a national news channel.

George attributes MediaCorp’s slowness to their reluctance to attribute news breaks to a competing news organisation (George’s former employer, the Straits Times). While that may be one of the reasons, I don’t think it is the primary one. The main problem is that MediaCorp, like much of the civil service, just has an aversion to making estimates or judgement calls for fear that they might have to make a correction later. So they just wait until a “final” result is out, preferably one endorsed by a higher authority.

But that then raises the question of why it takes so long for the Returning Officer (RO) to announce the results. I’ve been involved in 3 elections – GE 2006, GE 2011 and PE 2011 – and each time, counting at the centre I’m at is done by 10:00-10:30, but the official result doesn’t come out till over an hour later. It is true that in this year’s elections, I didn’t necessarily have the whole picture, and there could be some problem in some counting centre which delayed the announcement. But in 2006, I was stationed at a Principal Counting Centre, and results from all the Counting Centres for a constituency would be in for a really long time before the RO would officially announce the results. Why such a long wait ? My recollection is hazy by now, but I think it was over an hour.

Now, it is true that this is one of those things where you really don’t want to make a mistake, and I’m sure part of the delay was that Elections Department (ELD) HQ was double-checking and triple-checking the results that we were sending in. Out in the Principal Counting Centers, we were also checking the results, both manually and in a spreadsheet I had built for the purpose. Realistically, the probability of a clerical error is very very small, especially if appropriate IT systems are used. In principle, the candidates themselves also serve as independent checks because they would also have their own count, relayed through their counting agents. So what really is the point of waiting for ELD clearance to announce the results ? Seems to go against the whole point of having decentralized counting.

And the problem gets even worse with recounts. This time round, rumors of a recount started swirling before midnight, but the official order to recount didn’t go out till almost 1:30 and the final result only came out at 4:20. The bad news is, I think this will likely be a feature of all future presidential elections. With relatively low (though probably irrelevant) eligibility criteria, multiple candidates will end up splitting the vote leading to a high probability of recounts.

And as 27-hour shifts for election officials become routine, there will inevitably be even stronger calls for electronic rather than manual voting. Call me a Luddite, but I have very very grave reservations over electronic voting. This probably warrants another blog post, but the bottom line is given the simplicity of the electoral choices in Singapore, the benefits of electronic voting do not outweigh the risks. The best way of defusing calls for electronic voting is to make the paper ballot process faster. The intial sorting and counting of the ballots may take some time, but there is no reason for it to take so long to simply add up the tally from different counting centres. At least for parliamentary elections, let the Group Assistant Returning Officers (GAROs) announce the results rather than waiting for the RO himself to do it. [I think that’s how it used to be done in the old days – Can anyone confirm ?]. Yes, it makes the job of the media a bit more difficult because they have to have reporters at more places, but so be it. At the end of the day, voters, candidates and election officials would all rather have the results earlier.