VOTERS like myself, who reside and work in urban constituencies in our home states where we are registered to vote, seldom face logistical difficulties when it comes to casting our ballots on polling day.
Our polling stations would generally be within driving distance and we would not need to make additional travel arrangements to get there.
But for Sarawakian (and Sabahan) voters residing in peninsular Malaysia, as well as west Malaysian and Sabahan voters in Sarawak, to be able to exercise their responsibility as voters means having to travel home and incurring the related expenses.
For example, People Association for Development and Education of Penan Sarawak (PADE) vice-chairman Peter Paris said many of his relatives in the peninsula found it too expensive to return home to vote in the last two general elections.
“When I asked them whether they were coming back to vote, they asked me in return if I would pay for their airfares.
“They would need to take three flights to go back to Lawas or Ba’Kelalan and the cost would be at least RM750 a person,” he said.
PADE was one of nine Sarawak NGOs and civil society groups which endorsed a memorandum on electoral reforms handed over by Bersih Sarawak to the state Election Commission this week.
According to Bersih Sarawak vice-chairman Ann Teo, the memorandum highlighted two “important and urgent” reforms which would enfranchise Sarawakian and Sabahan voters if implemented ahead of the coming general election – absentee voting and automatic voter registration.
Teo said absentee voting regulations should be reformed to allow Sarawakian and Sabahan voters residing in the peninsula to vote there instead of having to return to their home states during elections.
About 150,000 registered voters from Sarawak and Sabah are estimated to live in peninsular Malaysia.
“It is no secret that due to the prohibitive costs of travel, Sarawakians normally ‘reserve’ their paid leave and finances to come back home to see family during festive seasons like Christmas and Gawai only,” she said.
“We hold the view that it is the constitutional duty of the Election Commission to realise the voting rights of all Malaysians and in this particular instance, the votes of Sarawakians who reside outside their home state.”
Teo said granting absentee voting rights to “out-of-region” Sarawakian voters would boost the turnout for Sarawak, which was 75% in the 2013 general election, the lowest in the country.
“Usually these fellow Sarawakians remain very much attached to Sarawak and what is going on here.
“We want these voters to be eligible for absentee voting,” she said.
The memorandum also called for automatic voter registration in view of concerns that many young people aged 21 to 30 were not registering themselves as voters.
Teo cited a recent survey by the Merdeka Centre which found that among unregistered youths, 53% said they were too busy to register, 30% said their vote would not make a difference and 17% said they did not know how to register.
“Nationwide, the estimate is that 2.5 million young people have not yet registered to vote.
“For Sarawak, we believe that out of 400,000 who are unregistered, two-thirds are from the 21-30 age bracket.
“It is imperative for the EC to look into automatic voter registration which we believe is possible to implement in a very short time,” she said.
Hopefully, the EC will consider these reform proposals, which will not only enable Sarawakian and Sabahan voters in peninsular Malaysia to exercise their constitutional rights but also west Malaysians in Sarawak and Sabah to do likewise.
Whether voters choose to cast their ballots or to abstain from voting is another matter, one for political parties and civil society groups to address, but facilitating the opportunity to vote is something the EC can look into.
Let it not be for reasons of difficult and expensive travel arrangements that a voter ends up not voting.