Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Bill – Speech by Png Eng Huat

(Delivered in Parliament on 1 October 2018)

Mr Speaker, it is hard for anyone to believe that in this modern age, we still cannot have a clear definition of what constitutes a valid vote in an election.

I have seen a ballot paper with a faint squiggly cross marked inside the demarcated box rejected by an Assistant Returning Officer (ARO) on the basis that the intention of the voter was not clear. I was flabbergasted and perplexed at the same time on how the ARO could have arrived at such a conclusion. The said voter could easily be an elderly person who, for some reason, could not imprint a more forceful mark on that ballot paper but that did not mean his or her intention was not clear in any way.

I have also seen ballot papers with a tick and a diagonal line drawn across it, well within the demarcated box for the preferred candidate, being marked for rejection. The reason, a tick means ‘yes’ but the diagonal line across it forms an ‘X’, which means ‘no’. Yes and no at the same time, so the intention of the voter was not clear. Yet I have seen an ‘X’ marked on the party logo area counted as valid. I have also witnessed symbols and expletives in the demarcated box of a ballot paper counted as valid as well.

When I asked the Returning Officer to adjudicate on the validity of the rejected votes, he said the individual ARO at the respective counting tables has the authority to decide on such matter. Sir, in the two general elections I contested, there were at least six counting tables in each of the counting centres. So I am looking at potentially, six different interpretations of what constitutes a valid vote, just in one counting centre alone. How can we call ourselves a developed country when we cannot even define, in simple term and without ambiguity, what is a valid vote?

So while this amendment bill seeks to issue clearer guidelines on what the Returning Officers and their assistants should look for in a ballot paper when determining the intention of the voter, I wish to seek some clarifications from the minister on some of the proposed changes.

First, Clause 11 of this bill, which amends section 42 of the Parliamentary Elections Act, introduces a new subsection (3AA), which states that “the voter’s mark on the ballot paper must be made in the area demarcated on the ballot paper for that purpose, and not elsewhere.”

Sir, to the visually impaired or elderly with poor eyesight, putting a mark squarely within the area demarcated on the ballot paper can be challenging, especially if these voters do not want any help to do so for whatever reason. I am sure many of us in this House would have come across ballot papers with the voter’s mark imprinted outside the area demarcated for that purpose. I believe the intentions of these voters were in no way unclear. However, such votes would be deemed invalid under the proposed amendment to section 42 of the Parliamentary Elections Act.

We are an ageing society and we will see more and more elderly voters in time to come. I have utmost respect for these voters who, despite their advanced age or disability, are determined to play a role in shaping our democracy, come what may. It would be sad to know that their effort and passion could be in vain with the proposed amendment. I seek more information from the minister to address this concern. Separately, I hope the Elections Department could also look into designing a ballot paper with a larger area demarcated for the voters to mark with greater ease.

Second, Clause 15, which amends section 50 of the principal Act, introduces a new subsection (2A) to instruct the Returning Officer, when determining whether a mark made on a ballot paper clearly indicates the voter’s intention to vote for the candidate or group of candidates, to disregard any mark that is not made within the area demarcated on the ballot paper for that purpose.

I wish to ask the minister, does that mean that as long as a voter’s mark is made within the area demarcated on the ballot paper for that purpose, a voter is allowed to exercise his artistic licence anywhere else on the ballot paper and it would still be counted as a valid vote, since the Returning Officer must disregard other mark found on the ballot paper as directed under this new amendment?

If a voter were to cross out the name of a particular candidate with words like “clown”, “my hero”, or “Mr Bean”, and then proceed to put an “X” in the area demarcated on the ballot paper for that purpose, would the Returning Officer be compelled to treat it as a valid vote under this proposed amendment to section 50 of the Parliamentary Elections Act? I hope the Minister can provide more clarity on this amendment, else it will only cause more confusion.

Voting is a serious act of civic responsibility. I believe we should not allow the ballot paper to be marked in any other way other than prescribed in the Act. There should be no other mark other than the mark left by the voter in the area demarcated on the ballot paper for that purpose. Returning Officers should not be tasked to disregard any other mark found on the ballot paper but to designate such ballot paper as outright invalid. Voter education is also important. Beyond showing voters where to mark on a ballot paper, the Elections Department should also educate voters on what will invalidate their votes.

At this juncture, I wish to reiterate the Workers’ Party’s stand on the NCMP scheme. We oppose the scheme as we believe in the fundamental principle that having more NCMPs is not the way forward to make our political system more robust. So barring the amendment made to section 52(1) of the principal Act to revise the formula to determine the number of NCMP to be declared in an election, I do support the amendment bill.