Voters facing various barriers

Bone to pick: Many voting rights activists also want postal voting to be made available to Malaysians within the country, such as those living far away from their home constituency. — Filepic

KUALA LUMPUR: Despite 6.2 million new voters being eligible to vote in the 15th General Election (GE15), institutional barriers remain and will prevent many from voting, say election analysts.

Some voters in and out of the country are finding it difficult to vote due to the time factor, travel costs and an archaic postal voting system for overseas voters.

Election experts and activists say these barriers serve as deterrents for people to come out and vote on Nov 19.

Previously, overseas Malaysians residing in areas in neighbouring countries that share a border with Malaysia such as Singapore and who have not spent 30 days in their homeland in the past five years were not allowed to vote by post.

Voting rights have since improved but voting methods have not.

As it is, it is unlikely that more than 10% of the 1.86 million Malaysians living overseas will be able to vote in this election.

Global Bersih secretary-general Nirmala Devi Windgaetter told Bernama although registering for postal voting has become easier with online registration, the actual voting process remains problematic, especially when the campaign period - which is when they are supposed to cast their vote- for GE15 is only 14 days.

Postal voting for overseas voters means waiting for the EC to print out ballots after nomination day, which was Nov 5, and for their ballots to arrive by mail to their address. Depending on where they live, the mail can take over a week to arrive.

Once it arrives, they have to fill out the form and choose their candidates.

Then they have to ask a witness, who must be a Malaysian aged 18 years and above, to fill out a form saying the postal voter is who they say they are.

After that, voters have to find a way to deliver their postal vote to the Returning Officer (RO) at their home constituency by 5:30pm on polling day, which is Nov 19 for GE15. Overseas voters are not notified whether their vote has arrived on time.

“For overseas Malaysians, we are kind of in a position where we are stuck because we have to depend on this method, this out-of-country voting method,” said Nirmala, who lives in Germany.

As such, she and other experts said the EC should use current technology for postal voting, such as allowing voters to download and print out their ballot and the return envelope with the name of the RO from their EC account.

Voters should also be able to track their ballot.

Other suggestions to improve overseas voting include increasing the voting period to ensure the postal votes will arrive on time and using embassies and consulates as polling places for overseas Malaysians.

Election analyst Dr Manimaran Govindasamy said embassy staff could tabulate the votes and transmit the results to the respective constituencies.

“Our ambassador, our high commissioner can be the RO,” he suggested.

University of Tasmania Professor of Asian Studies James Chin went a step further, suggesting that embassies and consulates set up electronic voting terminals through which Malaysians can vote.

However, he did not think the government would implement such facilities even though this method is largely secure with safeguards to ensure accurate vote counts. Results can also be audited.

“Malaysians are peculiar. They don’t trust e-voting,” he said.

With these hurdles being faced by overseas voters, Malaysians at home do not necessarily have it easier either.

Being within the country’s borders means they will have to travel to their constituency to vote and if they cannot get home, they have few other options to vote.

As such, activists say the electoral system needed to improve postal voting and implement some changes to make it easier for people to cast their ballots.

Many voting rights activists also want postal voting to be made available to Malaysians within the country, such as those living far away from their home constituency.

Currently, only essential personnel such as members of the media, police, armed forces and electrical technicians can vote by post domestically.

Manimaran, who was a member of the 2018 Electoral Reform Committee set up to study ways to revamp the electoral system, told Bernama the committee had suggested expanding these voters’ voting ability.

“(Such as) improving postal votes. Enhance the facility for people to vote by whatever means. For example, we expand the postal vote... to people working as (flight crew), private hospitals, they all need to be given the postal vote facility,” he said.

He added the EC should therefore continue updating and upgrading their systems to ensure voters would be able to vote and have their votes counted as a general election is held only “once every five years”.

Manimaran agreed that advance voting would help solve their problems with voting. However, he maintained that easing the voting process for all was better than giving only a select few groups access to postal or early voting.

Internationally, many countries are expanding the use of mail-in ballots or postal votes due to Covid-19.

Some states in the United States use postal voting as their primary way to vote.

An estimated half a million Malaysians from Sabah and Sarawak work in Peninsular Malaysia.

Under current laws, they are required to fly home to Sabah and Sarawak, which can be very expensive, to cast their vote in their home constituency.

The constitutional amendment that took effect in December last year had lowered the voting age and automatically registered eligible Malaysians as voters.

Some 6.2 million new voters have been added to the electoral roll, increasing the size of the electorate to over 21 million for the GE15.

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