By Gerald Giam
16 September 2010
Many Singaporeans harbour the misconception that their vote during elections is not secret. I’ve talked to many people, both educated and less educated, and the overwhelming majority seem to think this way. This is despite the fact that at every election, the Elections Department takes pains to communicate to voters two main points: Voting is compulsory, and voting is secret. I guess this is a point that Singaporeans just refuse to believe our government about.
It is even more unfortunate that some persist in perpetuating this urban myth, which only serves to strike more fear into the hearts of Singaporeans who are thinking of voting for the opposition. A letter in Temasek Review today exhorted Singaporeans to spoil their votes because, the writer reasoned, then the PAP won’t “mark” you for voting against them and if there are enough invalid votes, it will indirectly increase the opposition’s share of the valid vote.
This is wrong on many counts. I’ll highlight just two: Firstly, the PAP does not know which party you voted for, so they won’t know who to “mark”, even if they wanted to. Secondly, invalid votes do not factor in the final count, which is based on valid votes. This means that if there were 10 votes–six for the PAP, three for the opposition and one spoiled–the final tally is 66.6 per cent to the PAP (six divided by nine, with the spoiled vote excluded), not 60 per cent.
Let’s be very clear: YOUR VOTE IS SECRET. I will take you through the whole balloting process to see why:
1. On Polling Day, each voter at the polling station is issued a ballot paper without his name on it. (I’ll talk about the serial numbers later.) He/she marks the ballot paper in a booth out of sight of anyone else. No cameras are permitted in the polling station so there is no way to observe how voters vote. The voter then folds up the paper and drops it in the ballot box. Throughout the day, counting agents from each party are at the polling station to ensure the ballot boxes are not opened.
2. At the close of polling, usually at 8pm on the same day, the ballot boxes are sealed with tamper-proof seals (which are signed over by the candidates) and transported to the Counting Centre.
3. At the Counting Centre, the ballot boxes from the polling stations are unsealed in the presence of the candidates and their assistants and emptied in a common heap. The election officials (who are civil servants) then count the votes in full view of the candidates from all contesting parties, who ensure that the votes are counted properly and the election officials follow all the rules.
4. Immediately after counting, the votes, together with all the relevant records, the stubs of the ballot papers and any unused ballot papers are sealed in the boxes (again with tamper-proof seals) and transported to the Supreme Court vault for storage.
5. Six months later, if there are no disputes over the outcome of the election, the sealed boxes are transported to the incineration plant, where, in the presence of all the candidates (including the losers), the votes and records are completely destroyed by fire.
As you can see from above, at no point are the boxes opened without the candidates or representatives from all the contesting parties being present.
Frequently asked questions
Q. What about the serial numbers on the ballot papers?
This is a safeguard against election fraud such as bringing counterfeit ballot papers into the polling station, voter impersonation or casting ballot papers which have been marked by others. Many other countries, including the UK, have numbered ballot papers. As explained above, there is no opportunity for the election officials or candidates to peek at the votes and match them against the electoral roll. Remember there are no names on the voting slips, and if one wanted to match the serial numbers, one would have to sift through a huge list of thousands of voters in full view of the candidates.
It is possible, though, that in the event of a disputed outcome, the courts could order that the boxes be taken out of storage and the votes recounted. However this would again be done in full view of the candidates. In any case, there has been no court order issued to retrieve votes since Singapore first conducted elections in 1948.
Q. Why does the election official call out my name and voter number at the polling station before giving me the ballot paper?
So as to enable the representatives of contesting political parties at the polling station to verify and cross out your name on their copies of the electoral register. They will know you voted, but won’t know who you voted for.
Q. After elections, some politicians say certain blocks supported the ruling party or opposition. Does it mean they know my vote?
Nobody knows how each individual voted. Each polling station serves about 10 to 20 blocks of flats or a few landed housing estates. They may know the aggregated number from each polling district, but not the individual votes.
In summary, I emphasise again that voting is secret. So come the next elections, vote with your conscience, not with fear!