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).

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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.

OBS, PA and Personal Data – Or Govt Privacy Fail

My company recently decided to send its leadership team for a team-building activity organised by Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) and asked us to fill in OBS’ course registration form which contained the usual disclaimers but buried in the consent clause was this statement: “I also authorise the Outward Bound Singapore to disclose my personal information to its employees/agencies as it is necessary for official purposes in connection with the People’s Association (including PAssion Card) Programmes.”

Why the heck should I give my personal information to the People’s Association (PA) as a condition of taking part in an OBS programme ? A bit of background here: OBS is the licensee of Outward Bound International in Singapore and is operated by the PA. The PA is a government agency that was set up to to promote racial harmony and social cohesion. It does this through a network of Community Centres, so-called “grassroots organisations” and even a discount card programme, the PAssion Card referred to earlier.

In my last post, I speculated that the public sector would be excluded from Singapore’s Data Protection (DP) law and unfortunately I was proved correct when the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) released its Consultation Paper on the proposed DP regime. According to MICA, the public sector will be excluded from the DP regime because “public sector rules accord similar levels of protections for personal data as the proposed DP law.”

Insofar as they apply to the private sector, MICA’s DP proposals do appear to be consistent with international norms such as the OECD Guidelines and APEC Privacy Framework. Among the principles that MICA has accepted is the principle of Consent, i.e., organisations must gain the consent of individuals before processing that person’s data. According to MICA’s Consultation Paper, “an organisation may not, as a condition of supplying a product or service, require an individual to consent to the collection, use or disclosure of personal data beyond what is necessary to provide the product or service.”

How can it be necessary for OBS to release my personal data to PA and the PAssion Card programme just to enroll me in a one-day team-building activity ? There was no check-off box for me to agree or disagree to disclosure of my data to third parties, just a single omnibus consent clause. The government has never revealed its internal rules for handling personal data but suffice to say, either OBS is not following the rules or the government’s rules do not in fact provide the same level of protection as the DP Act is intended to provide in the private sector. In any case, I struck off the part about disclosing data to PA and wrote in an additonal “NO DISCLOSURE TO PA” for good measure on the form. We shall see whether I start to receive promotional mailings or phone calls from PA anyway despite my admonition to OBS not to disclose my data to PA.

In an interview with the Straits Times, the former head of the PA, Mr Tan Boon Huat, admitted that grassroots leaders may be given access to the profiles of PAssion Card members. In the Singapore context, “grassroots leaders” refers to some 30,000 office-holders in grassroots organisations around Singapore. While grassroots members are officially volunteers, they have close ties to ruling party Members of Parliament and their children receive preferential admission to schools in their district. Mr. Tan says that grassroots leaders have to follow the same confidentiality rules as PA staff but the fact is that grassroots leaders are volunteers – there is no contractual relationship between the PA and grassroots members – hence whatever rules PA may have are not legally binding on the grassroots leaders. Furthermore, because there is no employer-employee relationship between the PA and grassroots volunteers, PA is not legally responsible for the actions of a grassroots leader. According to the PA’s website there are 1,023,258 PAssion Card members today.

Quite apart from this specific case, there is a broader problem with the government’s claim that its internal rules provide sufficient protection for personal data. The basic fact is that internal rules are not the same as legislation. They can be changed at any time and even if the government were to break its own rules, affected individuals would have no legal recourse. Internationally, in a survey of 78 countries in Privacy Laws and Business International Report, all but Malaysia and India either included the public sector in their DP Laws or had separate legislation for the public sector. The United States and Thailand do not have comprehensive privacy laws for their private sectors, but have privacy laws covering their public sectors. Singapore therefore seems to be out of step with international trends in excluding its public sector from DP legislation.

I am not optimistic that the government will change its mind for this first iteration of the DP Act. However, I expect that there will be enhancements to Singapore’s DP regime in the future, and we can continue to urge the government to extend coverage of DP legislation to the public sector in Singapore in the near future.

[Previously published at Zdnetasia’s Tech Podium, http://www.zdnetasia.com/blogs/call-for-spore-data-protection-law-to-include-public-sector-62302750.htm]

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.

Call for volunteers: Micro-polling results for Presidential Elections 2011

UPDATE: Results by polling district for six counting centers are posted at
https://stngiam.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/flash-results-micropolling-results-of-presidential-elections-2011/

I’m looking for volunteers who are able to help me increase the transparency of the electoral process in Singapore by volunteering as counting agents in the upcoming Presidential Elections and sharing with me detailed election results by polling district. Even though there is no legal prohibition against revealing precint-level elections results, the Elections Department only publishes aggregated results for entire constituencies – which in the case of GRCs can comprise over 100,000 voters. For more details, see my earlier post, GE2011: Micro-polling results from one counting centre.

In the case of the upcoming Presidential Elections, I expect that they will only publish figures for the whole of Singapore. This is unfortunate, because detailed results would be a very valuable resource for political scientists and other researchers trying to understand voting behaviour in Singapore. (OK, yes, it would be very valuable for politicians, too, but right now, only one party has the resources to be able to collate electoral data across Singapore. And if you believe them, they are not endorsing any presidential candidate so would not have any counting agents in the counting centres to report results to them. OK, this also requires me to assume that there is a separation between party and government, but lets’s not get into that for now.)

Please contact me at PE2011@ngiam.net if you are interested in participating in this project. What you will need to do:

  1. Sign up as a Counting Agent for any candidate. Doesn’t matter which one. This is a non-partisan project, so ideally there will be a spread of participants across the candidates.
  2. Print out the Excel template in this link (http://db.tt/90PR8OT) before you go for counting. Things will get rushed when the results start coming out so best to prepare in advance.
  3. There will be 4-6 counting tables at each counting centre. Be sure to record the counting place number, polling district number and the name of polling station for each of the tables.
  4. Record the number of votes for each candidate for each of the counting places when the results are announced. I expect the number of spoilt votes to be higher than in the last GE, so be sure to also record the number of rejected ballots.
  5. Send the results back to me at PE2011@ngiam.net. For the moment, email will do but if response is overwhelming I will think of something else.
Finally, if anyone has any connections to the candidates’ campaigns and is able to help me obtain the list of counting centres and polling districts, I would really appreciate it so that I can perform some error checking.
Please send this link to anyone you know who will be acting as a counting agent and email me at PE2011@ngiam.net if you have any questions.

GE2011: Micro-polling results from one counting centre

In an interview after the May 2011 General Election, a retiring PAP Minister alluded to the oaths of secrecy taken by candidates and advised reporters not to publish suggestions that any particular division in a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) had lower support for the ruling party because that could not be verified and might be wrong.[1]

The Minister was only partially correct. The oath of secrecy that she was referring to is a reminder to candidates and their agents that individuals’ votes are secret. Regardless of whether an oath is taken or not, the Parliamentary Elections Act prohibits anyone from attempting to determine who any particular voter voted for [2]. This is one of the ways in which the law backs up the principle “Your vote is secret.”

However, while the law prohibits any attempts to determine how a particular person voted, it does not prohibit disclosure of the total vote count for a Polling District. The Assistant Returning Officer is specifically required to announce results over the table at the conclusion of counting of the votes for a polling district, in the presence of any of the candidates or counting agents who are there. Again, this is one of the means by which we ensure transparency of the vote count. It is the responsibility of candidates to total up the reports from all their counting agents and compare that with the final results announced by the Returning Officer.

As PM Goh Chok Tong put it in 1997, “Each party- Workers’ Party, People’s Action Party – will have counting agents at the counting station. It is not something secret, which the PAP knows and the other side does not. It is transparent, it is clear as daylight. If a counting agent is alert when votes are counted, they will know how each precinct votes.”[3]

Prior to the 1997 general election, all ballot papers for a constituency were mixed together prior to counting. By 1997, however, GRCs had grown so large that it was clearly impractical to mix together over 100,000 ballot papers. Vote-counting was therefore decentralized but with the safeguard that the smallest unit at which results could be resolved would be the polling district. Polling districts appear to have shrunk over time[4] but each polling district still consists of 2,000-4,000 voters. While this is adequate to ensure the secrecy of any individual’s or household’s vote, the government has since 1996 linked upgrading of HDB neighbourhoods to the level of that neighbourhood’s support for the PAP. In the absence of public domain data on voting patterns by polling district, however, it is impossible for outside observers to verify the extent to which the government has followed through on this threat.

More recently, when electoral boundaries were redrawn prior to the 2011 election, seven polling districts were transferred from Aljunied to Ang Mo Kio GRC, and two more were transferred to Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. The Workers’ Party (WP) accused the government of gerrymandering and stated that they had “significant support” in the polling districts that were transferred out of Aljunied [6]. Since they had contested that constituency before, however, they could have strengthened their case by revealing the actual vote percentages of those polling districts compared to other parts of the GRC in the 2006 election.

Can we infer from their silence that in fact the polling districts concerned did not have a higher vote for the WP, and that the government was not guilty of gerrymandering ? Not necessarily. It is possible that they did not reveal actual figures because they, like PAP Minister Lim Hwee Hua, were under the misconception that revealing district-level results was illegal. It is also possible that they did not have the figures because they had neither enough counting agents nor sufficient management capacity to be able to collate those results in 2006. Unfortunately, the present policy of the Elections Department is to only publish in the Government Gazette results at single-member constituency (SMC) or GRC level. There is no evidence that the Elections Department directly provides precinct-level results to any outside party, but the PAP almost certainly has sufficient resources and administrative capacity to compile their own lists of electoral results by polling district. I am not able to say whether the WP was able to compile those results on its own in 2006. Certainly, the media and other researchers do not have access to that information.

Thumbnail precis of different election officials

I worked in the civil service for several years and was arrowed to serve as an assistant to a Group Assistant Returning Officer (GARO) during the 2006 general elections. Had I not left the service I would have served as an Assistant Returning Officer (ARO) in Tampines GRC in the recent elections. The ARO is usually a graduate officer or first-level manager, and is overall-in-charge of one polling station from opening of polls early in the morning all the way through counting of ballots at night and deposition of ballot papers in the Supreme Court vault in the wee hours of the next day. Presiding officers (POs) are the nice people you meet guiding voters and handing out ballot papers at polling stations while Counting Assistants (CAs) perform the actual counting of ballots. At counting centres, the Senior Assistant Returning Officer (SARO) oversees the counting of votes from 4-6 polling districts. The SAROs, who are typically director-level officers, report in turn to Group Assistant Returning Officers (GAROs) who are Deputy Secretaries or equivalent. GAROs would be in charge of a GRC and one or two SMCs. And the GAROs report to the Returning Officer (RO) and YouTube sensation Yam Ah Mee. Like Yam Ah Mee, whose day job is Chief Executive Director of the People’s Association, all 16,000 or so of the above civil servants perform elections duty on top of their normal jobs. In addition several thousand other police and SCDF officers are also deployed during an election. There are only about 20 full-time staff in the Elections Department itself [7].

Microanalysis of results from Zhonghua Secondary School counting centre

I volunteered as a counting agent for the National Solidarity Party (NSP) at Zhonghua Secondary School in Marine Parade GRC. Zhonghua Secondary was the counting centre for six of the polling districts in the Braddell Heights division of Marine Parade GRC (Figure 1). While MA30, MA31 and MA32 contain a mix of HDB and private housing, each of MA28, MA29 and MA21 consist entirely of landed and non-landed private properties. While all of the polling districts counted at this centre had a lower proportion of votes for PAP than the rest of Marine Parade GRC, one of the districts (MA28) was not significantly different from Marine Parade GRC as a whole (see Table 1). Interestingly, while some commentators have suggested that private property residents would be more likely to vote for the opposition because they have fewer bread-and-butter worries, in this counting centre, the highest support for the PAP was in MA28 which is made up entirely of private properties (landed and non-landed). But the lowest support for PAP was also from an entirely non-HDB polling district, MA29, and that district is immediately adjacent to MA28. The second highest vote for the PAP was from a PD, MA30, which is a mix of private and public housing with HDB-dwellers in the majority.

Figure 1 – Polling districts counted at Zhonghua Secondary School Counting Centre

Table 1 – Polling results by polling district

Votes

Significance

Polling Station

Polling District

Housing type

NSP

PAP

p

Zhonghua Sec A (AZ01)

MA28

Private

1,134

(44.8%)

1,398

(55.2%)

0.149

Zhonghua Sec B (AZ02)

MA29

Private

957

(48.4%)

1,019

(51.6%)

0.000

St Gabriel’s Sec A (AZ04)

MA30

Mixed (more HDB)

1,419

(45.1%)

1,725

(54.9%)

0.044

St Gabriel’s Sec B (AZ03)

MA31

Mixed (more private)

1,611

(46.2%)

1,878

(53.8%)

0.001

Maris Stella High School (AZ05)

MA32

Mixed (more HDB)

989

(48.0%)

1,071

(52.0%)

0.000

Maris Stella High Schol (AZ06)

MA21

Private

1,235

(46.1%)

1,442

(53.9%)

0.004

Marine Parade GRC (Total)

59,926

(43.4%)

78,286

(56.6%)

The last column refers to the level of significance of Fisher’s two-tailed exact test for the proportion of PAP votes in that PD compared to Marine Parade GRC as a whole.

Spoilt votes

The proportion of rejected ballots (spoilt votes) was consistent across all the polling districts and were not significantly different from that in Marine Parade GRC as a whole (Table 2). In Tables 1 & 2, I have described MA30-MA32 as “mixed”, with both private and HDB housing present. In principle, it would be possible to calculate the exact number of electors residing in HDB vs non-HDB properties based on their addresses shown in the electoral register. However, I do not have access to the electoral register, and more importantly, the Parliamentary Elections Act specifically limits the allowable uses of information from the register [8]. Without information on the number of potential voters in each polling district, it is also impossible to calculate the turnout by polling district even though we know that the overall turnout for the GRC was 91.5%.

Table 2 – Rejected votes by polling district

Polling Station

Polling District

Housing type

Rejected ballots

As a proportion of total ballots cast

Zhonghua Sec A (AZ01)

MA28

Private

55

2.10%

Zhonghua Sec B (AZ02)

MA29

Private

40

2.00%

St Gabriel’s Sec A (AZ04)

MA30

Mixed (more HDB)

61

1.90%

St Gabriel’s Sec B (AZ03)

MA31

Mixed (more private)

71

2.00%

Maris Stella High Schol (AZ06)

MA21

Private

55

2.00%

Marine Parade GRC (Total)

3,082

2.20%

Note: I failed to record the number of rejected ballots in MA32

Non-governmental organisation Maruah has produced a video on the election process and several volunteers have also described their experiences as polling agents and counting agents [10, 11]. These are positive steps in demystifying the electoral process and reassuring Singaporeans of the integrity of the system. Unfortunately, I think disproportionate attention has been placed on the issue of spoilt votes, even in the mainstream media [12]. To be frank, some of the more egregious cases mentioned by commenters (not Alex Au himself) on Yawning Bread sound to me to be more like hearsay than reliable reports. The overwhelming majority of rejected ballots I saw had clearly been deliberately spoilt by voters. The most common method was simply marking both boxes, but I was amazed at how accurately some people could draw a cross freehand across the ballot paper with the centre of the cross exactly intersecting the line dividing the boxes for the two parties. Even in the few doubtful cases, I would not fault the decision of the ARO. Realistically, civil servants are sensitive to accusations of bias, and if anything, where the guidelines allow them to do so, they are more likely to sympathize with the underdog, not just in election administration but also in other areas of their day-to-day work. I am therefore very disappointed with the typically Singaporean clamour for “clear guidelines” in interpreting doubtful ballots. The narrower more specific the guidelines the more likely that nonsensical outcomes (e.g. interpreting any mark, even profanities, as a mark for a candidate) will result. The ARO of course has to act within workable parameters set by the Elections Department, but within those parameters, and after hearing the views of the counting agents present, the ARO on the ground has to be empowered to use her common sense and just decide.

Crowdsourcing precinct-level election results

As PM Goh Chok Tong put in in 1997, all candidates have the opportunity to observe voting patterns at the precinct level [3]. However, this opportunity can only be made use of by a party which has sufficient resources to put a counting agent in each counting place and is disciplined enough to compile the results after the excitement of the hustings have passed. In any case, even if an opposition party has reached the level of organisational capability to compile results for the constituencies that it contested, it would not know the results from other areas. In principle, opposition parties could pool their data and share polling results but given the present state of the opposition in Singapore, I doubt that this will happen any time soon. Even if the political parties were to get their act together, however, the public would still be left in the dark. This makes it impossible for independent observers to assess whether there has been any gerrymandering or the degree to which public monies are allocated according to voter support for the ruling party.

During the 2011 elections, I came to know of two attempts to crowd-source precinct-level results by collecting results directly from volunteer counting agents. Unfortunately both attempts came to naught. One of the challenges is that while there is no legal prohibition on releasing the results, political parties may want to treat the data as proprietary and prohibit their counting agents from releasing the information.

It is not clear yet if there will be a contested presidential election this year, but that would be another opportunity to test out the feasibility of an independent non-partisan analysis of micro-level voting patterns in Singapore. Given that candidates are required to resign their membership of any political party, I would hope that the candidates would embrace transparency and non-partisanship and allow their counting agents to participate in such a study or perhaps even to release the data that they collect themselves during the course of counting. Better yet, we can hope that the Elections Department changes its policy and publishes polling district level results on its own accord !

References

  1. ‘Noting that candidates were under an oath of secrecy, she told reporters “My only advice is to tell you not to continue to publish things that you can’t verify because they could be wrong.” Teo Xuan Wei, Today, 12 May 2011, “It is a surprise for us that the resentment is so deep”.  http://www.todayonline.com/Singapore/EDC110512-0000330/It-is-a-surprise-for-us-that-the-resentment-is-so-deep
  2. Parliamentary Elections Act, Section 56 (5) Every officer, clerk, interpreter, candidate and agent in attendance at the counting of the votes shall maintain, and aid in maintaining, the secrecy of the voting, and shall not —
    (a) attempt to ascertain at the counting the number on the back of any ballot paper; or
    (b) communicate any information obtained at the counting as to the candidate or group of candidates, for whom any vote is given by any particular ballot paper.
  3. Chua Mui Hoong, Straits Times, 1 Jan 1997, page 1, “PM: Precincts with greater support get upgraded first”
  4. The average number of voters in each polling district in Cheng San GRC in 1997 was 5,200. Straits Times, 1 Jan 1997,”GE 97: On the drawing board”
  5. Chua Mui Hoong, Straits Times, 12 Jan 1997, page 3, “Let’s weigh the balance of tying voters’ support to programmes”
  6. http://wp.sg/2011/02/workers’-party’s-response-to-the-electoral-boundaries-review-committee-report/
  7. http://www.elections.gov.sg/about.html
  8. Parliamentary Elections Act, Section 21A (1) Any candidate or his election agent who or any political party which, on payment of any fee, acquires from the Registration Officer any copy (whether in printed or electronic form) of any register of electors —
    (a) shall use any information recorded in the register only for communicating with electors;
    (b) shall not use any information recorded in the register for commercial purposes; and
    (c) may disclose any information recorded in the register to others only after obtaining their written acknowledgment that they are bound by the restrictions in this subsection.
  9. http://maruah.org/2011/05/03/votewithoutfear/
  10. http://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/counting-agent-me/
  11. http://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/counting-agent-me-too/
  12. Anna Teo, Business Times, 14 May 2011, “In S’pore’s GE, ‘X’ marks the spot, right ?”
Revision history
8 June 2011 – The significance level in the last column of Table 1 had been mistakenly calculated with spoilt votes included in the denominator. The p-value for MA30 was thus originally reported as 0.071 when it should be 0.044 if only valid votes are included in the total. While this pushes MA30 below the customary 0.05 threshold for significance, it does not change any of my observations regarding the relative strength of support for the PAP among the six PDs.