The Futility of Marking Electoral Registers

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.

Typical layout of polling station for 2020 General Election with labels for polling agents added to original drawing from ELD.

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.

Badly behaved polling agents

I volunteered as a polling agent for the Workers’ Party in Marine Parade GRC in the recent election. It has taken me a few weeks to write this up unfortunately as I was busy with work commitments.

I have been involved in every General Election since 2006 as a civil servant (elections official) or observer. Election law in Singapore does not provide for independent, non-partisan observers so observers have to be appointed as polling agents or counting agents by candidates. While this does inject an element of partisanship into the role of polling and counting agents, I have always had a cordial relationship with observers from other parties in the past. Elections offficials have also always tried their best to be fair to all sides and to follow the procedures laid down by the Elections Department (ELD).

Kirsten Han has already written about PAP polling agents’ habit of interrupting proceedings by asking Presiding Officers (POs) to repeat the names and serial numbers of voters so that they (PAP polling agents) could mark voters’ attendance. PAP polling agents have done this in previous elections too, but it was worse this year because of the new polling station layout where polling agents are seated further away. Covid-19 precautions also made it harder to hear the PO’s because their voices were muffled by their face-masks. Unfortunately, one of the PAP polling agents at the Maha Bodhi school kept demanding that the PO repeat herself and was so insistent to the point that the PO shouted back at the polling agent.

Earlier in the day, this particular PAP polling agent had taken a table from a storage area to use to mark voter attendance in her copy of the electoral register. I objected to this on the grounds that giving the PAP polling agent a table created the appearance of favoritism. As seen in this official poster from ELD below, polling agents are provided with chairs but not tables. I did not see why a polling agent should be allowed to bring additional furniture into the polling station for her own convenience, especially since the table would give her the appearance of being in a position of authority. The other PAP polling agent at the polling station was able to mark his register without a table and I’m sure thousands of other polling agents around Singapore managed quite well without a table too. After a short discussion, the Senior Presiding Officer (SPO) accepted my objection and made the polling agent put the table back. This did not stop her from marking her register of course; she just rested her file on an extra chair instead of using a table.

Standard polling station layout in 2020 – Position allocated to polling agents is circled in red. Note that while polling agents are provided with chairs, there is no entitlement for tables.
Based on https://www.gov.sg/article/how-voting-will-be-safely-conducted-if-done-during-covid-19-situation

This was not the most egregious behaviour I saw from the PAP polling agents that day. Around 11 am, two women dressed in white appeared and started talking to the two PAP polling agents. This raised my eyebrows because the women were not wearing any official passes and should not have been allowed to enter the polling station. Based on their dressing, however, I inferred that they were PAP polling agents. This was still a problem because each party was only allowed to have up to three polling agents at a time [1]. If the two women were also PAP polling agents, that meant that the PAP now had four polling agents in the polling station and had exceeded the legal limit.

Despite my concerns, I decided to cut them some slack because it was not unreasonable to have an overlap of shifts for a short time during shift changes. It was only after they continued talking among themselves for some time that I realized that the first shift of PAP polling agents was training the second shift while inside the polling station. As neither the Assistant Returning Officer (ARO) nor SPO were present at that time, I advised the PAP polling agents that they had exceeded their limit on the number of polling agents and that they should finish their handover as soon as possible. I was shocked when the PAP polling agents snapped at me in response. It was only when I reminded them that they were breaking the law that the original two polling agents withdrew. Luckily, the SPO returned at this point and after I informed him that the two newcomers were not wearing any official passes, he instructed them to leave as well. After a few minutes, the original two PAP polling agents came back and stayed until 12 noon when the second batch took over (after having been issued the appropriate polling agent passes).

I must say that the first two PAP polling agents were very much the exception. None of the PAP polling agents or counting agents I have encountered in the past have gone so far. This is the first time that I have seen such arrogant and entitled behaviour from PAP polling agents. Starting from the polling agent who thought that she had could rearrange furniture in the polling station for her own convenience to the brazen attempt to sneak in two unregistered persons and conduct a training session inside the polling station while voting was in progress, I can only describe those two PAP polling agents as behaving as if they thought it was their grandfather’s polling station.

Other than the misbehaviour of the first two PAP polling agents, polling generally passed uneventfully that morning and early afternoon. Lines were not unreasonably long and while the second shift of PAP polling agents did occasionally ask the PO’s to repeat themselves, they were not disruptive and were much more apologetic about troubling the PO’s.

I do not think that the bad behaviour of the first two PAP polling agents affected the integrity of the election. However, their actions reinforced the stereotype of the PAP as being arrogant and not playing fair. Related to that is the PAP’s long-standing practice of marking the attendance of voters in their own registers. Whatever benefit they may have gained from that in the past, I don’t think that it is a nett positive for them any longer. But more on that in another post. Akan Datang…

See this post for more of my thoughts on polling agents and marking of registers.

Notes

  1. Under Regulation 3 of the Parliamentary Elections (Polling Stations) Regulations 2019, candidates are allowed to have one polling agent for every thousand voters assigned to a polling station. In the case of the Maha Bodhi School (B) polling station, that meant that each party was limited to having three polling agents at the same time.

Sampling checks in GE 2015

The Elections Department released early indications of polling results for the first time during the 2015 General Elections by publicly announcing the result of sampling checks within 2 hours of the close of polls. Sampling checks have been carried out since 2001 or earlier, but the results were not made known to all candidates or the public until this year. The sampling check is carried out by Counting Assistants drawing a sample of 100 ballots from each counting table after opening the ballot boxes and mixing the ballot papers together. As each counting table corresponds to one polling district and there are about 2,000-3,000 voters per polling station, the 100-ballot sample per polling district corresponds to 3-4% of votes cast and is a large enough sample to make a good estimate of the final polling result

As shown in Table 1, the margin of error varies from ±1.2% points for a large GRC, Pasir Ris-Punggol with 66 polling districts, to ±4.4 % points for Potong Pasir, the smallest Single Member Constituency (SMC) with only 5 polling districts.  For simplicity, no adjustments are made to account for the variation in number of voters in each polling district, and the error margin is calculated for a 50:50 vote split.  The Straits Times has reported that the error margin for sampling counts is ±4% but this is a worst case and only applies to Potong Pasir which is the smallest SMC by far. On average, the uncertainty in the sampling check is within 1.3% points for GRCs and 3.3%  points for SMCs.

Table 1 – Error margins for selected constituencies and SMC and GRC averages
Number of polling districts Sample size Margin of error at 50% vote share
Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC 66 6,600 1.2%
Aljunied GRC 50 5,000 1.4%
East Coast GRC 32 3,200 1.7%
Bukit Panjang SMC 11 1,100 3.0%
Potong Pasir SMC 5 500 4.4%
GRC Average 45 4,500 1.5%
SMC Average 9 900 3.3%
Error margin is calculated as half the width of the two-sided 95% confidence interval (Normal approximation) at 50% vote share. All polling districts within a constituency are assumed to have an equal number of voters.

In a first-past-the-post election, however, what counts is not the actual vote share but crossing the 50% threshold. If we ignore three-cornered fights and make use of the normal approximation again, we can calculate a “victory threshold” or minimum sampling check result for which a candidate can be 95% certain of victory.  This is shown in Table 2 for selected constituencies.  Note that the victory threshold is slightly lower than would be obtained if we simply added the error margin from Table 1 to 50% because the victory threshold is a one-sided rather than a two-sided test. If you’re not statistically-inclined, don’t worry about it – that effect is small in this case. In Aljunied, despite the appearance of a nail-biting finish, the 52:48 sampling check result was above the victory threshold for the Workers’ Party and the PAP in fact had only a 0.2% chance of winning in that constituency once the sampling check result was known [See note 1].  In Punggol East, however, the sampling check result of 51% for PAP was lower than the victory threshold of 52.4% and the PAP could only be 75% certain that they would win there. Put another way, Lee Li Lian still had a 25% chance of winning even after seeing the sampling check results. In all the other constituencies, the winning party’s sampling check result significantly exceeded the victory threshold so the final result was not in doubt once the sampling checks were completed.

Table 2 – Victory threshold for selected constituencies.
No. of polling districts Victory threshold Actual PAP share in sampling check Probability of PAP win given sampling check result
Pasir Ris-Punggol (6-member GRC) 66 51.0% 73% 100%
Aljunied (5-member GRC) 50 51.2% 48% 0.2%
East Coast (4-member GRC) 32 51.5% 61% 100%
Sengkang West (SMC) 13 52.3% 63% 100%
Punggol East (SMC) 12 52.4% 51% 75%
Hougang (SMC) 9 52.7% 42% 0.0%
Potong Pasir (SMC) 5 53.7% 68% 100%
1. Victory threshold is defined as the minimum sample count result for which a candidate can be 95% certain of receiving over 50% of the actual vote (one-sided test).
2. Probability of PAP win is the probability that the actual PAP vote share is > 50%, given the observed sampling check result.

The error between the sampling check and the actual result gets smaller as the sample size increases. Hence GRCs will have smaller error margins than SMCs and 6-member GRCs will have smaller error margins than 3-member GRCs. This is seen in Figure 1 where the difference between the sampling check and the actual result was only 0.1% points in the 6-member Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC while the largest difference of 2.6% points was observed in MacPherson SMC.  The observed differences between sampling check and actual vote counts were all within the expected 95% error margins except for one constituency, but one out of 29 is about right, statistically. We also did not take rounding errors into account, which slightly widen the margin of error.

image001

The sample check is a form of a quick count, which is used in developing democracies where there are concerns with regards to the compilation of electoral results by the central government. In Singapore’s case, there is no obvious need for a quick count as the entire counting process can be observed by candidates’ counting agents and elections results have always been announced within a few hours. Nonetheless, given that the Elections Department has chosen to conduct sampling checks, the decision to publicly reveal sampling check results is a welcome one.

Notes

[1] Some additional uncertainty is caused by the sampling check results only being reported as whole number percentages. The true PAP sampling check result from 5,000 samples could have been as high as 48.5% rather than the reported 48%.  However, this would still have given the PAP only a 1.8% chance of victory once the sampling check results were known.

Data

Sampling check results  and actual vote counts are tabulated in Sample check vs actual v3 (Excel format).

A version of this note was previously published on The Online Citizen, http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2015/09/how-accurate-is-the-ge-sample-vote-count/.

What proportion of Singapore citizens are on the electoral rolls ?

DOS does not publish breakdowns of citizen population by age group. The published population pyramids are for “residents” which includes permanent residents. However, the government did publish the actual number of Singapore citizens aged 20-64 in 2011 in the population white paper together with forecasts up to 2060. Chart 6 shows their forecast for the number of citizens aged 20-64 in 2015 as around 2.2 million (I use their scenario with maximum intake of new citizens). The ratio of working-age to elderly citizens is around 5 in Chart 8. This allows us to estimate the total number of Singapore citizens 20 and above in 2015 as 2.64 million.  An ELD press release on 27 July 2015 states that there are 2,460,977 electors on the electoral register. Thus, approximately 2.46/2.64 = 93% of Singaporeans of voting age are on the electoral register. For simplicity, I’m not adjusting the denominator for those above 20 but below 21.

Apart from those who were dropped from the the electoral register for failing to vote in previous elections, various other categories of people are not eligible to vote (Section 6 of the Parliamentary Election Act), but the biggest category are probably prisoners. The total number of prisoners (including drug detainees) in Singapore is around 10,000 so that should not affect the figure that much. I presume that the NPTD population figures do not include overseas Singaporeans, so that would not contribute to the missing 7% either. The predominant explanation for voting-age Singaporeans not included in the electoral register is probably be that they failed to vote in previous elections but did not apply to restore their names to the electoral register by choice, ignorance or inability to pay the $50 fee required. 93% registration is high by international standards, but does seem a bit low considering that Singaporeans are automatically enrolled when they turn 21 and only drop off (mostly) if they fail to vote without reasonable excuse.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) has published a table showing that only about half of Singapore’s voting-age population actually voted. While the first three columns are consistent with ELD figures, the fifth column, Voting Age Population, appears to have been derived by subtracting the number of residents below 21 from the total population including non-citizens. The high proportion of non-citizens (including PRs) living in Singapore, especially in the working age population, therefore inflates the denominator and the low Voting-Age-Population turnout calculated by IDEA may be literally true but not meaningful because a large proportion of the denominator are non-citizens. The numerator is also only for voters in contested constituencies. The voter participation rate is thus further reduced by the prevalence of walkovers in past elections.

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 6.03.30 am

(Documenting here for reference as the question came up in discussion recently)

Kremlinology Singapore-style: Reading the electoral district tea leaves

UPDATE: The EBRC report has been released. See comments at bottom of post.

The Elections Department (ELD) recently published revisions to polling districts. This revision comes six months after the last revision in February, which is an unusually short interval as previous revisions were spaced a year or more apart. Polling districts (PDs), also known as precints, are sub-divisions within constituencies and their main significance is that all voters in a polling district will vote at the same polling place within a polling station. Changes to constituency boundaries are normally made by rearranging polling districts into different constituencies so that ELD will not have to compile new electoral registers before the next election. However, changes to precint boundaries do not necessarily mean that those precints will be moved to a different constituency. As usual, ELD did not highlight the changes that were made, but a quick comparison of the July notificaton with the previous February one shows changes in the following polling districts.

Choa Chu Kang GRC CK10,CK11
East Coast GRC EC01, EC41
Jurong GRC JR10, JR11
Moulmein-Kallang GRC MK03, MK05
Nee Soon GRC NS53
Pasir Ris-Punggol PN69, PN70
Sembawang SB02, SB03, SB18, SB21, SB22
Tanjong Pagar TP12, TP13

(If readers spot any other changes which I missed, please drop me a note at shihtung@ngiam.net) Many of the changes do seem to be errata in the sense of just being minor clarifications or streamlining of precint boundaries. However, there are some which could foreshadow changes in constituency boundaries.

The scenic polling district with nobody living in it

ConeyIsland Pulau Serangoon (Coney Island) has been cut out of polling district EC01 and placed into its own precint, EC41. This is quite strange because I’m quite sure no one actually lives there right now. While part of it is zoned for residential use, it will probably remain a “rustic park” for several more years. Why carve it out into its own precint now ? My guess is that the intention is to move it from East Coast GRC into a new Punggol GRC so that it can be managed together with the rest of Punggol New Town. The electoral register is not publicly accessible so I do not know the actual number of electors living in Punggol estate but there are only 24 polling districts, which may be just enough for a 3-member GRC.

Hougang, Sengkang, Pasir Ris, Where Am I ?

Talking of Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, that GRC includes one-third of Sengkang new town and stretches all the way to Hougang Ave 8. Two of the PD’s at the border of Sengkang and Hougang estates were also rationalised in the recent revision. PN69 previously included a condominium and nursing home north of Buangkok Drive as well as 9 HDB blocks along Hougang Ave 8. In the latest revision, that PD was redrawn to include only the condo and nursing home between Compassvale Bow and Buangkok Drive. The HDB blocks in Hougang Ave 8/10 were consolidated into one precint, PN70.  This seems unusual to me because the new PN69 polling district comprises one condo with 625 units, and a relatively small (72-bed) nursing home while PN70 consists of 24 HDB blocks. If the intent of tweaking polling districts is to balance out the distribution of voters, this change would seem to go against that. Interestingly enough, however, Buangkok Drive is the boundary between Sengkang and Hougang estates. Whereas before, half of PN69 was in Sengkang and the other half was in Hougang estate, PN69 is now entirely in Sengkang. MARUAH has previously called for electoral boundaries to be aligned with URA planning areas. If the boundaries are to be redrawn, a logical spliit would be to assign PN69 to a new Sengkang GRC while PN70 is merged into a Hougang GRC.

Sengkang-Hougang

Sengkang estate is currently split between three constituencies: Sengkang West SMC, Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC and Punggol East SMC. While the government has traditionally not made major changes to opposition-held constituencies such as Punggol East, and many other HDB estates are also split between different Town Councils, it would make far more sense to simply consolidate Sengkang into a single GRC and to hive off the Hougang portion of Pasir Ris-Punggol into an enlarged Hougang or Aljunied-Hougang GRC.  Combining Sengkang West, Sengkang Central (now in Pasir Ris-Punggol) and Punggol East would give a GRC with 43 polling districts – about right for a 5-member GRC. Of course, boundary delineation is not based solely on objective estate management grounds. Government may instead leave Punggol East alone and combine Punggol and Sengkang West and Central into a Punggol-Sengkang GRC instead. If they do create a Sengkang GRC, however, that would leave 6 Pasir Ris-Punggol precincts (PN64-PN68 and PN70) which are actually in Hougang estate, orphaned. Perhaps these should be merged into Aljunied-Hougang together with another 5 precincts presently in Ang Mo Kio GRC (AM16-AM20) but which are part of Hougang estate, in exchange for Punggol East ?

Constituency boundaries are not aligned with estate boundaries
Constituency boundaries are not aligned with estate boundaries


UPDATE 8:00 PM Haha. This post was posted in the wee hours of the morning of 24 July and the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) report was released at 3:00 pm. Looks like my predictive ability can be described as half-full or half-empty.

Coney Island – Coney Island was indeed transferred out of East Coast GRC but not into a new GRC. Instead it was added to the existing Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC

Sengkang – A new boundary was indeed created along Buangkok Drive by hiving off the Hougang portions of Pasir Ris-Punggol. PN69 was retained within Pasir Ris-Punggol while PN70 went to Ang Mo Kio.

Hougang – As predicted, PN70 was transferred out of Pasir Ris-Punggol but not into Hougang-Aljunied. Instead, it was absorbed into Ang Mo Kio GRC together with the portion of Pasir Ris-Punggol south of Buangkok Drive.

Whitley Road – I didn’t get round to writing this up last night, but I did notice that MK03 and MK05 in Moulmein-Kallang GRC were realigned so that the boundary would be along Whitley Road rather than in the middle of the landed housing estate at Chancery Lane. My inference was that this was in preparation for Whitley Road to become a boundary between two constituencies, and this was borne out when Moulmein-Kallang was dissolved and MK03 went to Holland-Bukit Timah while MK04 was added to Tanjong Pagar GRC.

So overall, my predictions were accurate at micro-level but I did not do so well at higher level. My two correct predictions, Coney Island and Whitley Road, are not very consequential. Where I failed was being too idealistic in the North-East region. The PAP presumably recognised that they would face a tough fight in the Punggol/Sengkang/Hougang North area so instead of creating a new GRC for the HDB’s latest showcase estates in the North-East, they bled off the voters into AMK and Pasir Ris-Punggol, both six-member GRCs, to dilute the voting strength of the younger voters in those estates. I completely did not foresee that Sengkang would be split further, into four constituencies, with part of Sengkang going into AMK GRC. At this rate, Ang Mo Kio is becoming the new Marine Parade. Specifically, the area around Hougang Street 51 and 61 was transferred from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC to Ang Mo Kio GRC. The HDB Blocks near Street 61 have thus moved from Aljunied to Pasir Ris-Punggol to Ang Mo Kio GRC in the last three elections. In addition, one-third of the voters in Sengkang West SMC have been moved from the constituency into Ang Mo Kio GRC.

MARUAH Electoral Boundary Delimitation Position Paper

In brief,

  • The delimitation process in Singapore is opaque and not subject to public scrutiny. Some boundaries appear to be arbitrary or designed to favour one party. This results in weaker community ties and cynicism towards the political process.
  • Maruah urges the government to raise the level of impartiality, equality, representativeness, non-discrimination and transparency of the boundary delimitation process in Singapore

Slides from the press conference are here:

4GRCs-in-5-elections

MARUAH Electoral Boundary Delimitation Powerpoint Presentation

and the position paper itself is at Maruah’s website. Maps of changes in electoral boundaries from 1991-2011 are in Annex 2 (with thanks to the people at http://www.singapore-elections.com).

Guide for Counting Agents (ELD)

Looks like the Elections Department has released its’ Guide for Counting Agents in the Hougang by-election, and the sampling check for “the purpose of checking against the result of count for that counting place” remains in place. Seems fairly pointless to check “against the result of count” given that there’s no way to change what’s on the ballot papers even if the final results don’t agree with the sampling check.

The real question is whether the AROs will disclose the results of the validity check to Counting Agents at the time that it is carried out, and who receives the “sampling check” information after it is compiled by ELD HQ, but before the announcement of the vote counts at the counting centres.

http://www.eld.gov.sg/pdf/Guide%20for%20Counting%20Agents%20(Final).pdf

Background here:

https://stngiam.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/electoral-procedure-sampling-checks/

Electoral Procedure: Sampling checks in the 2011 Presidential Election

As recounted in my earlier posts, I served as a Counting Agent in both the General Election and Presidential Election last year. One of the pleasant surprises of the 2011 elections was the number of Singaporeans who stepped forward as volunteers to assist the different parties and candidates in campaigning and to serve as Polling Agents and Counting Agents in both elections. Polling agents are appointed by candidates to observe the polling process while Counting Agents observe the counting of ballot papers. Unfortunately, I think the smaller parties were overwhelmed by the response so the administration and training of their volunteers was less than ideal. Still, it is a good sign of the health of Singapore’s political development that so many did step forward to serve.

The Elections Department (ELD) also helped by publishing for the first time two guides for Polling Agents and Counting Agents. Unfortunately, these guides were only released three days before polling day so it was too late for the candidates to use them in their training sessions. Hopefully, the Elections Department will update these guides for future elections and release them earlier so that candidates, agents and voters will have a clearer understanding of the procedures and rules regarding the casting and counting of votes.

By and large, I think both elections went off smoothly and by the time of the Presidential Election, both elections officials and Counting Agents were already familiar with the procedures and in some cases, with each other, because they had met previously during the General Election. The Elected President is intended to be above party politics and I was pleased to find that at least in the counting centre that I was assigned to, there was a high level of co-operation between the Counting Agents representing all four of the candidates. Apart from Tony Tan, the other candidates did not manage to recruit enough Counting Agents to cover all the Counting Places. Nonetheless, Counting Agents for the other three candidates informally spread themselves out among the tables and held watching briefs for each other. In any case, there were few disagreements between the Counting Agents and Assistant Returning Officers (AROs) or among the Counting Agents over adjudication of ballots.

Counting Procedures

The counting procedures for both Parliamentary and Presidential Elections are substantially similar and ELD’s Guide for Counting Agents provides a good overview. One of the interesting features of the process is what ELD calls in its guide a “sampling check”

Sampling checks

5.16 During the counting process, the ARO will conduct a sampling check to obtain a sample of the possible electoral outcome for that counting place, for the purpose of checking against the result of count for that counting place.

What I observed was that after the ballot boxes were opened and the contents mixed together on the counting table, one of the counting assistants would randomly select 100 ballot papers and do a quick tally of the votes on that sample and then report the results to the Assistant Returning Officer in charge of that Counting Place. The results of the sampling check were not formally announced to those present but Counting Agents could observe the recording of the results by the AROs. As I mentioned earlier, there was very good co-operation and sharing of data between the Counting Agents representing all four candidates so I managed to collect the sampling check data for all the counting tables at our Counting Centre (Table 1).

Table 1 – Sampling check results for Presidential Election, 27 August 2011
Nanyang Junior College Counting Centre
Counting Place

Polling District

Polling Station

Tan Cheng Bock

Tan Jee Say

Tony Tan Keng Yam

Tan Kin Lian
1

GK01

MA27

Nanyang JC

33%

25%

36%

6%
2

GK02

MA24

Braddell Heights CC (B)

22%

34%

39%

5%
3

GK03

MA23

Braddell Heights CC (A)

30%

28%

38%

4%
4

GK04

MA22

419 Serangoon Central

35%

21%

34%

10%
5

GK05

MA26

305 Serangoon Ave 2

21%

32%

43%

4%
6

GK06

MA25

240 Serangoon Ave 2

26%

30%

35%

9%
Overall for Counting Centre

27.8%

28.3%

37.5%

6.3%
Sampling is conducted by taking a sample of 100 ballots at each Counting Place after mixing of ballot papers but before commencement of counting. The overall share for each candidate was computed by simply averaging the results for each polling district without adjusting for the different number of voters in each polling district.

Tony Tan came out ahead in all the polling districts in the sampling check, just as he did in the final tally (Table 2) though there was some difference between the final result and the sampling check (Table 3).

Table 2 – Actual results for Presidential Election 27 August 2011
Nanyang Junior College Counting Centre
Counting Place

Polling District

Polling Station

Tan Cheng Bock

Tan Jee Say

Tony Tan Keng Yam

Tan Kin Lian

Total number of valid votes

1

GK01

MA27

Nanyang JC

34.1%

26.6%

34.0%

5.3%

3,237
2

GK02

MA24

Braddell Heights CC (B)

32.5%

28.6%

33.0%

5.9%

3,074
3

GK03

MA23

Braddell Heights CC (A)

31.5%

28.7%

34.8%

5.1%

3,198
4

GK04

MA22

419 Serangoon Central

32.5%

26.0%

35.8%

5.7%

3,539
5

GK05

MA26

305 Serangoon Ave 2

33.5%

25.3%

36.4%

4.9%

2,946
6

GK06

MA25

240 Serangoon Ave 2

32.7%

24.8%

36.6%

5.9%

3,434
Overall for Counting Centre

32.8%

26.6%

35.1%

5.5%

19,428
See https://stngiam.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/flash-results-micropolling-results-of-presidential-elections-2011/ for more polling-district level results.
Table 3 – Difference between actual vote share and sampling check
Nanyang Junior College Counting Centre
Counting Place

Polling District

Polling Station

Tan Cheng Bock

Tan Jee Say

Tony Tan Keng Yam

Tan Kin Lian
1

GK01

MA27

Nanyang JC

1.1% pt

1.6% pt

-2.0% pt

-0.7% pt
2

GK02

MA24

Braddell Heights CC (B)

10.5% pt

-5.4% pt

-6.0% pt

0.9% pt
3

GK03

MA23

Braddell Heights CC (A)

1.5% pt

0.7% pt

-3.2% pt

1.1% pt
4

GK04

MA22

419 Serangoon Central

-2.5% pt

5.0% pt

1.8% pt

-4.3% pt
5

GK05

MA26

305 Serangoon Ave 2

12.5% pt

-6.7% pt

-6.6% pt

0.9% pt
6

GK06

MA25

240 Serangoon Ave 2

6.7% pt

-5.2% pt

1.6% pt

-3.1% pt
Overall for Counting Centre

5.0% pt

-1.7% pt

-2.4% pt

-0.8% pt
e.g, in polling district MA27, Tan Cheng Bock actually received 34.1% of the vote compared to 33% in the sampling check, a difference of 1.1 % points.

The sampling check is not specifically called out in the Presidential Elections Act or Parliamentary Elections Act though it does not appear to be prohibited either. I did not observe the counting assistants carrying out a sampling check during last May’s General Elections. However, I did observe the ARO at a different counting centre personally pick up a stack of ballots and scrutinize them very closely. When I asked him what he was doing at that time, he answered that he was checking the validity of the ballot papers. Possibly, he was referring to Section 50(1)(a) of the Parliamentary Elections Act under which ballot papers must bear an official authentication mark to be considered valid. Given the thoroughness of ELD’s pre-election preparations and the scrutiny of Presiding Officers and Polling Agents, not to mention voters, during polling, I find it very unlikely that any unauthenticated ballot papers could slip through. In any case, the ARO is required under Section 50 to check the validity of every ballot paper when it is counted so a validity check on a subset of the ballots appears to be superfluous.

Regardless, the validity check or sampling check cannot affect election results because they are only conducted after polls have closed. Conceivably, the sampling check could be construed as being a form of exit polling and while Section 78D of the Parliamentary Election Act prohibits the publication of exit poll results on polling day, this prohibition only applies while polling stations are open. Even if a sampling check were conducted during a Parliamentary Election and the results leaked out, there would not be any violation of the Act because polls would already have closed by the the time the sampling check is conducted.

Sampling check as predictor of election result

The ELD Guide for Counting Agents says that the purpose of the sampling check is to “obtain a sample of the possible electoral outcome for that counting place, for the purpose of checking against the result of count for that counting place.” This sentence is quite awkwardly constructed and doesn’t make a lot of sense since the the final vote tally will be the official result regardless of whether it agrees with the sampling check. Presumably, what they really meant to say was that the sampling check is used to predict the outcome of the election early in the counting process.

As can be seen in Tables 1 to 3, the sampling check predicted correctly that Tony Tan would come out on top at Nanyang Junior College, though his actual vote share was 2.4% lower than that in the sampling check. The sampling check result for Tan Cheng Bock in polling district MA24 stands out as it was 11 percentage points lower than his actual vote share. I estimate a slightly more than 1% chance of this occurring by chance, which is a low probability but not exceptionally low. Of course, it’s also quite possible that the Counting Agent at that table just made a mistake because the ARO did not officially announce the sampling checks results over the table.

For this election, analyzing the sampling check results is quite challenging because there were four candidates so the problem is a multiple comparison problem rather than the usual comparison of two proportions. In a normal two-horse race, we would just have to predict whether the votes for one candidate exceed 50% and that would tell us the outcome of the race. In this case, however, we would have had to predict the vote shares of at least two, perhaps three, candidates, but the vote shares of the candidates are not independently distributed, which makes the problem rather difficult. If any more statistically-inclined reader has a good method for estimating probability distributions for this type of problem, please contact me.

Four-way elections will hopefully remain rare in Singapore, so I present a simplified analysis of the sampling check in a standard two-way election instead. There were 782 polling stations in the last election and if 100 ballots are sampled from each one, there would be a total of 78,200 ballots in the sampling check for a nation-wide election such as the presidential election. We assume that each polling district has the same number of voters, and using the normal approximation to the binomial distribution, the 95% confidence interval for the sampling check is roughly ±0.4% points. If we don’t need to estimate the actual vote share and only need to know whether a candidate has won (i.e., received > 50% of the vote), we can be 95% confident that he has won if he receives over 50.3% of the votes in the sampling check (one-tailed test). For the elections officials, what counts perhaps is not who won but rather whether there would be a recount. To avoid a recount, the winning candidate must receive at least 51% of the final vote (2% winning margin over his opponent) so if the sampling check reveals that one candidate has scored at least 51.4% in the sample, the elections officials can be 99% certain that they would not have to stay overnight. In reality, the number of voters varies from about 2,000 to 3,500 per polling district and since voter turnout will be known by the close of polls, we could make some adjustments for polling district size and voter turnout to improve the accuracy of the forecast. Of course, there is no way to estimate the number of spoilt votes, which could affect the results, but I don’t think those would have a large effect in most circumstances.

Because the sample size is large in a presidential election, the forecast made by the sampling check is quite precise. In parliamentary elections, however, there may be as few as five polling districts in a single-member constituency (SMC) such as Potong Pasir so the sample would be smaller and the uncertainty in the sampling check larger. Assuming a sample of 500 out of a total of 15,870 valid votes in Potong Pasir, a candidate would have to receive at least 53.7% in the sampling check to be 95% certain of winning the election (one-tailed test). Hougang is larger and has nine polling districts with 23,000 voters. For that constituency, a candidate would have to poll at least 52.7% in the sampling check to be 95% certain of winning the election. Again, I’m assuming equal polling district sizes in these analyses but adjusting for polling district size and turnout would be more important in small constituencies.

Purpose of the sampling check

A rather obvious question is what ELD does with the sampling check data. As described above, one possible use of the sampling check is to predict whether recounts would be necessary and to prepare the elections officials accordingly. I do not know whether this was done during the presidential election, but I presume not, because I did not observe the elections officials at my counting centre start to make preparations for the recount until very late in the night. Since the sampling check takes place after the close of polls it cannot affect voter turnout and it cannot have any effect on the ballot papers which have already been poured out and mixed together on the counting table. The only possible effect that I can conceive is that if a candidate learns that the results are close in a particular counting centre, he could redeploy his more persuasive Counting Agents there in the hope of swaying the ARO into interpreting unclear ballots in a more favorable manner. This has less of an impact in Presidential Elections where every vote has the same weight regardless of location, but in a General Election, political parties may be able to use sampling check data to reposition Counting Agents from safer seats to more contested constituencies where they might be able to make a difference. Smaller parties in particular could benefit more from this information in that they could make more effective use of their smaller pool of volunteers whereas larger parties already have an excess of Counting Agents so have lesser need to redeploy them even in the event of a close fight. To ensure the appearance of impartiality, however, ELD should formally announce the results of the sampling check rather than leave it to Counting Agents to look over the shoulders of the AROs. While the AROs at my counting centre did not prevent the Counting Agents from jotting down the results of the sampling check, they did not explicitly announce the results in the same way that they announced the final vote count over the table.

On reflection, however, it is not really clear to me what purpose the sampling check serves. ELD does not appear to use the results to prepare its officials for recounts, and it does not officially share the results with candidates or media. Hopefully ELD would be able to explain the purpose and use of the sampling check when it prepares its Guides for Candidates and Counting Agents for the next election — whether General Election or by-election. While I can appreciate it if ELD has concerns that revealing sampling check results could raise temperatures in close elections, I also don’t think it is tenable for them to conduct a sampling check during the course of counting without being more open and transparent as to the procedure and the use of the data generated by the sampling check.

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.

Micropolling results of Presidential Elections 2011

Update 24 Sept : One more result in from Fuhua Secondary (Jurong GRC).  TCB did very well at this counting centre with 46.8%, almost an outright majority. Again, entirely consistent with media reports, and this data point brings TCB’s average up to 34.5% in this sample, closer to his actual vote share of 34.8% overall. This data set now has results from 21 counting centres, covering 278,878 voters (13.0% of votes cast).

Update 11 Sept 11:00 pm : Thanks to Donaldson, BK, Betty, Paul, Wei Ming, Justicia, Yingru, Dexter , Jacqui, WF, Randi and others who prefer to remain unnamed 🙂 We now have results from 20 out of 162 counting centres, representing 268,865 voters or 12.5% of the 2,153,037 votes cast in Singapore. Breakdown of votes for each candidate and spoilt votes by polling district are available in 11 out of the 20 counting centres. In the other cases, the Counting Agents who responded were only able to provide totals for the counting centre, or I was not able to match the counting tables to a specific polling district. For polling district boundaries, see this gazette notification on ELD’s website. Not very user-friendly, unfortunately, but I don’t know of an easy way to convert the text descriptions to graphic maps. Ideally, we would map the polling districts to interesting characteristics, e.g. income, age, education etc, but that’s beyond my capabilities at the moment. Are there any readers who could help ? Having four choices instead of a binary choice also complicates the statistical analysis. I would be very happy to receive any suggestions as to how to analyze the data rigorously. Eyeballing the data, this sample confirms media reports that TCB dominated the Western part of Singapore but failed to overcome TT’s smaller but more spread out advantage in other parts of the island. Raw data is in http://bit.ly/ocqvUB (Alternate URL http://db.tt/2WiQ39I ) and for avoidance of doubt, I will state that this post and the compilation of election results is released into the public domain. Attribution would be appreciated but is not required.

Update 31 Aug 11:30pm : We’re up to 15 Counting Centres, representing almost 200,000 votes or 10% of the votes cast. Keep the data coming 🙂 As always, latest data in http://bit.ly/ocqvUB

Update 30 Aug 8:45pm: Several other counting agents have responded and I now have results from a total of 11 counting centres. If you wish to download the data, the spreadsheet at http://bit.ly/ocqvUB will be kept up to date, through there may be a lag before I can update the chart in this post.


Five Eighteen other counting agents responded to my call so I am now able to post results for six twenty-one counting centers, nine eleven of which are broken down by polling district. This is essentially raw data, but I am posting it early so that other people would be able to make use of this data for their own analysis. I am still hoping to get more data. If you volunteered as a Counting Agent and still have the vote tally from your location, I would be extremely grateful if you could forward the results to me so that I can add it to the publicly available information on voting patterns in Singapore.

Micro-polling results from selected Counting Centres - Presidential Election 2011

Tan Cheng Bock did very well in Jurong West, Choa Chu Kang and Bukit Panjang in the Western part of Singapore,  and also edged ahead of Tony Tan in Sengkang and Punggol East. At Fuhua Secondary in Jurong West, TCB received close to an outright majority, with 46.8% of the vote, ahead of TT by almost 18%. Tony Tan’s best performance was in the Orchard-Tanglin-Farrer Road-Sixth Avenue area (SCGS counting centre). In one polling district, in fact, TT almost achieved an outright majority with 49.7% of the vote. TCB still managed to achieve 36.9%, higher than his national average, at the SCGS counting centre, but TJS clearly rattled the voters in this area, with as low as 13.9% of the vote in one of the polling districts. As I mentioned before, if you were a counting agent, know someone who was, or better yet, know someone inside the campaigns who would be willing to share their data, I would really like to hear from you at PE2011@ngiam.net. An example of the results from one counting centre are shown below, and the complete data table can be downloaded at http://bit.ly/ocqvUB. Please note that this is NOT OFFICIAL DATA and was reported by volunteers after a very late night. As the Election Department’s favorite saying goes, “the decision of the Returning Officer is final”. See my earlier post for more background on counting procedures. And of course, a big thank you to the counting assistants, facilities, security and other personnel who worked through the night to ensure an orderly election despite the recount. Kudos especially to the AROs and ELD officers who worked over 24 hours straight, from 5 am on Saturday to 7 am on Sunday.

Constituency Marine Parade GRC
Counting Centre Nanyang Junior College
Counting Place GK01 GK02 GK03 GK04 GK05 GK06
Polling District MA27 MA24 MA23 MA22 MA26 MA25
Polling Station Nanyang JC Braddell Heights CC (B) Braddell Heights CC (A) 419 Serangoon Central 305 Serangoon Ave 2 240 Serangoon Ave 2
Valid votes for
Tan Cheng Bock 1,104 1,000 1,006 1,150 986 1,124
Tan Jee Say 861 880 917 921 745 851
Tony Tan Keng Yam 1,099 1,014 1,113 1,266 1,071 1,257
Tan Kin Lian 172 180 162 202 144 202
Percentage of Valid votes
Tan Cheng Bock 34.1% 32.5% 31.5% 32.5% 33.5% 32.7%
Tan Jee Say 26.6% 28.6% 28.7% 26.0% 25.3% 24.8%
Tony Tan Keng Yam 34.0% 33.0% 34.8% 35.8% 36.4% 36.6%
Tan Kin Lian 5.3% 5.9% 5.1% 5.7% 4.9% 5.9%
Rejected ballots 61 52 77 52 41 59
Total Valid Votes 3,236 3,074 3,198 3,539 2,946 3,434
Total votes cast 3,297 3,126 3,275 3,591 2,987 3,493

See http://bit.ly/ocqvUB for complete data set.