2023 midterm state elections – three ways to raise turnout

Poll poser: People queing to cast their vote in Gombak, Selangor, in GE15. Will there be a high turnout of voters in the state elections next year? – MUHAMAD SHAHRIL ROSLI/The Star

Low turnout will be a challenge in the pending state polls as many voters find it troublesome to travel home to cast their ballot.

STATE elections must be called latest by August and September next year for the six states under Perikatan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan. It would be Malaysia’s first national “midterm” election for six decades and Malaysia’s democracy would be strengthened if this becomes a permanent feature.

The midterm elections face one colossal challenge: low turnout, as many voters find it troublesome to travel home to vote. This can be overcome in three ways: first, fix the election date in advance by having the state assemblies serving full term; second, introduce absentee voting for voters who are out of their states; third, simplify postal voting for overseas Malaysians.

The beauty of midterm state elections

A notable achievement in Malaysia’s democratisation since 2018 is desynchronising the federal and state elections.

From 2004 to 2020, Sarawak was the only state with state elections on separate dates. It has since been joined by Sabah (2000), Malacca (2021), Johor (March 2022) and by the conscious decision of Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah under Perikatan and of Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Penang under Pakatan around October to stay out.

To not have national and subnational elections together is normal in parliamentary democracies because the legislatures cannot and should not be boxed into fixed term. Even when they have fixed-term parliament law, such law would allow early dissolution in certain circumstances.

Malaya’s first two cycles of state elections were staggered, spanned across 2-3 months, after the federal election in 1955 and before it in 1959. Involving 46% of the national electorate, the 2023 state elections would be the first ‘national’ midterm since 1959.

The norm of having simultaneous federal-state elections since 1964 was a very smart calculation of Alliance and then Barisan Nasional to concentrate power in the federal executive’s hand.

When two elections are held at the same time, most voters are likely to vote for the same bloc. If two elections are staggered, then voters may elect Party A as government in the general election and then punish the same party in the subsequent election in the middle of its term.

As political honeymoons do not last, most American presidents suffer setbacks in the midterm elections, when the entire House of Representatives, one third of the Senate, governorship and legislature in most states are open for contest.

Midterm elections force government to respond to public sentiments before the next general election, much like midterm examinations force students to do revision before their final examination. It promotes inter-party check and balance by preventing a winner-takes-all outcome.

In contrast, simultaneous elections are a gamble, as the national government bloc may win big or lose big at all elections.

Alliance/Barisan liked the electoral gamble because they did not have national rival until 1990. After 1990, they still believed luck would be on their side with the colossal incumbent advantages.

Simultaneous elections are very convenient for party leaders who can move candidates across federal and state contests, in their scheme to consolidate their power and eliminate rivals within party.

Over time, even the Opposition leaders have learned to love simultaneous elections. In the past, they feared having a separate state election would allow Barisan to mobilise nationally against their state.

In October, DAP Penang strongly demanded the Pakatan states to join Barisan in dissolving their assemblies, arguing that separate elections may lower the turnout.

The green wave proved the wisdom of not gambling by putting all eggs in one basket. Penang Pakatan is now studying the lost grounds in the general election to put up a stronger defence.

Low turnout, political apathy, and vote suppression

DAP Penang’s fear of low turnout in the state election is however real. It should be shared by not just Pakatan in Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, but also Perikatan in Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah. A low turnout may deny PAS many returnee votes in these states especially Kelantan.

Abstention from poll can be caused by two main factors, political apathy when voters do not see the point of going out to vote, and vote suppression when obstacles prevent or discourage voters to go out to vote.

Vote suppression in its original American usage is intentional, such as the deliberate obstacles to deter Black Africans from voting in the Deep South.

I use it here more liberally to cover any obstacles, even unintentional, that lower voters’ turnout and disproportionally turn away some segments of electorate. Even if the causes of vote suppression are yet to be fully identified, its occurrence must be called out when we know it.

Amongst the victims of vote suppression is Borneo Malaysians. For the past four general elections since 2008, the average turnout was 79.12% for whole Malaysia, but only 68.87% in Sarawak and 72.58% in Sabah. Unfortunately, advocates of MA63 conveniently ignore this disenfranchisement by 6-10% points.

As the GE15 result has produced very close results, political apathy may be lower an issue for the upcoming state elections. Voters not happy with one bloc is likely to vote for the alternative rather than not voting.

Vote suppression however remains the main obstacle to high turnout, affecting voters who do not live in their constituency. The outdated solution – which the law provides for but cannot enforce – is to ask them to change their constituency.

Living in today’s mobile world, many people no longer work, stay and own property in the same place. From project staffs, temporary workers to students, many people have no reason to abandon their home constituencies for a new area where they have little attachment or interest.

Such insistence on voters being residential also ignores the multiple flaws in our political systems.

The argument that voters should be residents to reflect accurate need for local development is suited for local councils, but do we have local elections?

And when the value of our ballots differ greatly because of constituency delimitation, how can we stop voters from keeping their ballots where they are worth more?

In fact, if seats cannot be moved to urban centres, asking all urban voters to register by residence will only cause greater under-representation of urban voters.

Instead of paying voters to go home or announcing holiday for polling, all three national coalitions – Pakatan, Perikatan and Barisan – should end vote suppression for out-of-constituency voters in three smarter ways.

An EC officer arranging ballot bags at the Bayan Baru counting centre in Penang in GE15. The midterm state elections face the colossal challenge of attracting the same number of voters. – K.T.GOH/The StarAn EC officer arranging ballot bags at the Bayan Baru counting centre in Penang in GE15. The midterm state elections face the colossal challenge of attracting the same number of voters. – K.T.GOH/The Star

1 Fixing election date in advance

The first is fixing the election date by allowing the legislatures to go full term.

Without early dissolution, five of the six states would have their legislatures automatically dissolved within eight days, starting with Selangor on June 25 and ending with Kedah on July 3. While its legislature stands dissolved only on August 1, Penang can seek in advance the Governor’s assent for a dissolution between June 25 and July 3.

This means the Election Commission (EC) can determine an election date for all the six states, latest by August 24. If this electoral calendar can be announced by January, all – from voters, party workers, civil servants involved in organising election, police personnel to service industry – can plan their own life accordingly.

Only politicians who hope to ambush their opponents with snap elections would hate a fixed date. They however should know doing so now may simply invite voters’ punishment in the form of low turnout.

2 Absentee voting for out-of-state voters

The second is to allow all voters who would be out of their state on polling day – this can be known with election date announced in advance – to vote remotely and early in mass voting centres set up in every state capital and major cities.

If the Health Ministry can set up mass vaccination centres nationwide orderly, there is no reason why the EC cannot plan for mass absentee voting centres eight months in advance? It takes no rocket science, but only political will from the federal and state governments, and commitment from the EC.

By providing absentee voting facility, we can raise turnout and minimise disruption caused by the midterm elections, from travel jams to extra public holidays.

3 Simplifying postal voting

The third is simplifying the postal voting process. It currently requires EC personnel to print out the ballots after nomination day and manually place each ballot in two envelops before sending them out.

Unless the campaign period is extended to around 21 days, such process means that many overseas voters would receive the ballots late or struggle to arrange for the ballots to be sent home with volunteers’ help. Given such inconveniences, it is not surprising that only 48,109 out of 1 million overseas Malaysian voters applied to vote by postal ballots.

The process can be simplified by allowing voters who are securely registered with the mySPR portal to download and print out the ballots for their respective constituencies. This can expedite the time of sending them back.

Four enhancements to Democracy

All in all, with political will, the 2023 midterm state elections can enhance Malaysia’s democracy with four reforms: first, allowing voters to give the parties a midterm assessment; second, setting a precedence of five state legislatures serving their full term; third, introduction of absentee voting for all out-of-state voters; and fourth, simplifying postal voting for overseas voters.

Prof Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist and deputy head (Strategy) of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network Asia Headquarters, Sunway University. The views expressed here are solely the writer’s own.

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