EC chairman doubtful 18-year-olds can vote in 2021 Sarawak polls

PUTRAJAYA: Election Commission (EC) chairman Azhar Harun doubts if automatic voter registration can be implemented, and 18-year-olds able to vote, during the Sarawak state election, which must be called by 2021.

“I doubt so. But let us first look at the process and the timeline (which we will plan out). Then we’ll see if this could become a possibility or not,” Azhar told reporters at a press conference here.

He said while the Sarawak government must call its state election by June 2021, it could very well call it earlier than that as this was the state government’s prerogative.

“Of course, if possible, (we would like that) all this (automatic voter registration and voting at 18 onwards) can be done by then because it’ll be a good pilot programme.

“But having said so, we don’t want to make the (state) election like a test, a trial and error. We don’t want that. It must be ‘system go’… no more errors.

“We have to sit and see if we can (do this) but we don’t even know the dates (of the state election),” he said on the sidelines of a forum titled “Make a Change, Let’s Do It Together”, hosted by the EC at the Putrajaya International Convention Centre here.

On Tuesday, the Dewan Rakyat passed a historic bill to amend the Federal Constitution and allow 18-year-olds to vote and stand as candidates in elections. Also included in the amendment bill was the opposition’s proposal for the automatic registration of voters.

The bill must now go through the Dewan Negara and receive royal assent before it can be gazetted into law.

Sarawak-based NGO Rise of Sarawak Efforts has since urged the federal government to ensure that automatic voter registration and other amendments are put in place in time for the state election.

Azhar said it was, for instance, not an easy feat to update an electoral roll. Even if this was done today, he said, it would have to be shown to the public with a period for objections to be raised, in accordance with the law.

Then the objections will need to be heard and after the proposed changes to the electoral roll are made, presented to the public again, before it is finally gazetted.

“That’s why each general election, let’s say it’s in March, we don’t use the March electoral roll. We will use the December (electoral roll),” he said. “So we have to understand the whole process.”

He also clarified his earlier remarks today the that EC would need one and a half years for automatic voter registration.

He said that was what he personally wanted but it would depend on consultation with EC secretary Mohamed Elias Abu Bakar. “I haven’t met and spoken with the secretariat yet (on this),” he said.

He said this would take time as several issues had to be ironed out. For example, the EC needs time to collect data from the National Registration Department, the Prisons Department and the health ministry.

The EC would also need to work out a budget as the “substantially higher costs” would need to be taken into account, he said.

“We will take it slowly (but) rest assured, we will do it properly,” he said.

He noted that there were some who wanted to see 18-year-olds being able to vote even before the automatic voter registration system was set up while some wanted both to happen at the same time. He said this was for policymakers to decide, not the EC.

But Azhar said he planned to propose to the education ministry to have a module on voter education incorporating elections and democracy in the early part of student education, noting that in Australia this started from age nine in primary school.

Azhar, meanwhile, clarified that 18-year-old voters would not be able to vote, and automatic voter registration would not take place, until an enforcement date was set by the EC. This has not been set yet.

Until then, voters will need to register themselves the conventional way and the minimum age to vote is still 21.