By Chan Tsu Chong
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the first Bersih rally held in 2007. For over a decade, Malaysians have been demanding for free and fair elections in the country.
This is not a frivolous or unsubstantiated demand. It has even been acknowledged by the government with the setting up of the Special Select Committee on Electoral Reforms in Parliament in 2012 by Prime Minister Najib Razak himself. The committee made 22 substantive recommendations, but only two were implemented in the general election soon after.
In 2013, a people’s tribunal on the 13th general election (GE13) was established amid public outcry over electoral fraud in that election. The tribunal categorically concluded that “there were multiple failings in the way GE13 was conducted, and that virtually every tenet of a fair election was violated at one place and at some time”.
So what have the Election Commission (EC) and the government done since then to meet the tenets of a fair election? Well, they have not only failed miserably to improve the quality of our elections but instead undertook actions to make it worse!
Failure to register new voters
Voters are the main stakeholders in elections. By the EC’s own admission, there are more than four million unregistered voters in Malaysia. This is simply unacceptable as these disenfranchised Malaysians constitute more than 20% of total voters!
Such a high number of unregistered voters did not happen by happenstance. And the reason stems from the EC’s own actions.
Since 2013, the EC has withdrawn the appointment of assistant registrar officers (AROs) from political parties. This means that political parties, who are an important stakeholder in elections, can no longer register new voters.
New registrations are processed once every three months. But before the registrant can be confirmed as a voter, the EC takes a further three to six months to inspect the registrations and publish those approved in the supplementary electoral roll which is then gazetted.
The combination of a severe lack of AROs and the lengthy registration process can result in the people being denied their right to vote if they are not able to register in time.
The solution is simple. Since 2009, Bersih 2.0 has been advocating for automatic registration of voters upon reaching the age of 21 years. This can easily be done by synchronising the electoral roll with the National Registration Department’s database, which the EC is already doing to remove deceased voters and those who are no longer citizens from the roll.
Yet when it comes to using the database to easily identify and automatically eliminate problematic registrations such as those with inadequate voter details, the EC stops short.
Failure to clean up the electoral roll and prevent phantom voters
Upon receiving new voter registrations, the EC has an obligation to ensure that they are from genuine voters. The EC has the power to conduct investigations into suspicious registrations and expunge the names from the draft electoral roll if proven to be invalid.
Here, too, the EC has failed.
Bersih 2.0 recently exposed that 32 persons were found to have changed their voting constituency to one same address in Melaka, and 87 persons were using addresses without house numbers. Similar cases were also exposed in Selangor and Johor by the state assembly representatives there.
These voters are in violation of Article 119 of the Federal Constitution, which clearly states that voters must, among others, be registered according to the constituency in which they are residing.
Such anomalies are just the tip of the iceberg as the phenomenon is widespread across the country. It is done in a deliberate and coordinated manner to sway electoral results in marginal constituencies. The timing of such happenings could not be more conspicuous: We all know that GE14 is around the corner.
Such manipulation and transferring of phantom voters is not new. Bersih 2.0 and groups working on electoral reform as well as political parties have been highlighting them for the past 10 years. There were more severe cases, too: the 2001 Likas by-election petition and Royal Commission of Inquiry on Immigrants in Sabah in 2014 both exposed the existence of non-citizens who were registered as voters.
Existing laws and regulations are more than sufficient for the EC to perform its duties and enforce the laws. Article 113(5) of the Federal Constitution empowers the EC to make rules for the purposes of its functions.
But instead of doing its job and cleaning up the draft electoral rolls, the EC prefers to let them be and rely on the unconstitutional Section 9A of the Elections Act to prevent people from challenging the legitimacy of the electoral roll once gazetted.
Failure to prevent abuse of procedure
Every quarter, the EC is also required to display the draft supplementary roll for public inspection. The roll contains the list of new voters and existing voters who have transferred to the respective constituencies.
Members of public and other stakeholders can inspect the roll and file objections if they found dubious voters or illegal transfers.
In the past two years, certain parties have been abusing this process. They would randomly object to the registration of new genuine voters without any strong basis but merely based on the new voter’s race and the areas where voters tended to vote against them.
Once objected, the affected voter will have to attend an inquiry. The inquiry is held on a weekday, at the EC’s state office. This causes massive inconvenience to affected voters, and in some cases they do not even receive a notification although it is supposed to be sent via registered mail. Failure to turn up for the inquiry will result in them being struck off from the electoral roll.
While there is nothing wrong with the public objection process, anyone of reasonable mind can see that it is being abused and done in bad faith to gain unfair political advantage.
Such objections are being done deliberately, consistently, and in a coordinated manner, especially in Selangor, yet the EC has done nothing to curb them but instead is doing the complete opposite – as shown below.
Aiding and abetting the transfer of phantom voters
It has now been confirmed that starting from 2017, the EC will no longer be providing the draft supplementary electoral roll in soft copy. Previously, it had freely provided political parties with the electronic format which contains a pdf and database of the roll.
The database format is especially important to enable statistical analysis of the hundreds of thousands of newly registered or transferred voters, to identify phantom voters and make genuine objections to them.
So it is absurd that the EC no longer provides the electronic format. It gave no reason for this out-of-the-blue decision beyond that it is not required by law to do so and that interested parties can still inspect the electoral roll by visiting the designated display venues.
This is totally not on.
Firstly, the EC, as a constitutional body of significant public importance, has a duty to provide information in an accessible and useful manner. There is no reason to suddenly regress on past practices, especially when it has been providing the electronic format in the past without any issues.
Secondly, it is practically impossible to effectively analyse the draft supplementary roll by visiting the public display venues because each constituency’s electoral roll is displayed at different venues. The very voluminosity (each federal constituency draft supplementary roll may run to 500 pages) makes the hunt for phantom voters in them all the more daunting.
So why has the EC made such a decision without any justifiable grounds? Why is the EC preventing greater scrutiny of 326,925 new voters in the 2017 Quarter 1 draft supplementary roll that is being displayed over two weeks till May 22? Is there something in the draft roll that we should not know about? Perhaps many more phantom voters and irregularities, as we have found in previous rolls thanks to the efficiency accorded by an electronic database of the roll?
What can Malaysians do to fight back against phantom voters?
Truth be told, we are up against a system that is deeply flawed and manipulated. But we can still do something about it by defending our rights.
Eligible voters who have yet to register must do so before 30 June to ensure that they make it in time for the looming general election. Those who have registered must ensure that their family members and friends have also done so. Voter registration can be done at the nearest post office.
In the previous general election, Malaysians stood up against electoral fraud by coming out to vote in droves. Voter turnout was 85%, the highest in our nation’s history and among the highest in the world for a non-compulsory voting electoral system.
Malaysians can negate the effect of phantom voters by ensuring that voter turnout for the coming general election is even higher. They must also do more than just voting; they should get involved as a Pacaba (polling agent, counting agent, booth agent) or Pemantau (observer) to proactively protect our elections.
Putting the bleak political outlook aside, the integrity of our elections is not something that we can afford to give up on. The agenda for electoral reform must continue more fervently as we draw nearer to GE14.
Chan Tsu Chong is an FMT reader.
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