'Election process not entirely in our hands'

23 September, 2007

With the talk in town of an imminent general election, PATRICK SENNYAH talks to Election Commission chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman about how prepared they are.
* * * * * * * * * *
All set for polls

  • Efforts being made to register four million eligible voters; 11.3 million already on the rolls
  • EC guarantees that all on the electoral roll are legitimate
  • Election budget between RM200 and RM250 million
  • RM9 million worth of transparent ballot boxes and RM1 million worth of indelible ink to be used

* * * * * * * * * *

Q: How is the voter registration exercise progressing?
Registration has not been encouraging despite the various campaigns undertaken by the Election Commission.
We thought we could register at least 50 per cent of the five million eligible voters who have yet to register, but we have so far managed only one million.
At the last general election, we had 10.3 million voters and there was a 74 per cent turnout on election day.
People are always harping on a clean electoral roll, but let me clarify something – there isn’t a single country in this world that has a 100 per cent clean electoral roll.
The problem is that some voters may have died and the information has yet to reach the EC. In cases like this, the EC has to rely on other agencies, like the National Registration Department and police, for information.
In addition, some people, especially those in Sabah and Sarawak, don’t report deaths. They simply say the prayers and bury the dead.
The EC is unable to remove a dead voter’s name from the electoral roll until it receives official confirmation. Sometimes, the NRD may take three years to do so.
We are efficient as far as running our show is concerned, but sometimes we depend on other authorities and we don’t get the information we require.
Another problem is the allegation of phantom voters.
Article 119 of the Federal Constitution guarantees that any Malaysian citizen of legal age can be registered as a voter, even if that person lives in a tree.
That person, who has registered in a particular constituency, may have moved but must return to his constituency to vote.
In fact, most of our registered voters have moved, but have yet to change their polling addresses.
So, on polling day when they return to vote, residents will notice some unfamiliar faces.
Certain political parties will begin analysing the situation, thus giving rise to allegations of phantom voters.
The issue of phantom voters has been so politicised that it has affected the credibility of the electoral process.
Q: So how do we overcome this problem?
One way is to amend the constitution and put up new electoral laws on voter registration to guarantee a perfect, up-to-date electoral roll.
We have indicated this to the government. We need to take a serious look at this. This is a major sore point in the electoral process.
All that we can do is guarantee that all those on the present roll are legally registered.
I am sure that all those registered now are citizens and legally registered voters.
Q: There have been calls for citizens to be automatically registered as voters when they turn 21.
If we were to introduce automatic registration, we would have to rely on the NRD database.
And most people do not bother to change their address on their identity cards when they move.
So, if we follow this address, we will be sending notices according to their addresses in the NRD database. But these may not even reach them.
Also, when a person is registered automatically, what happens if he or she does not want to vote? Are we going to imprison him or her?
Q: Are you satisfied with the present powers given to the EC?
We are strong where we are in control. However, the EC isn’t really in control of the entire election process.
It has to share power with other agencies and organisations when conducting an election. There are quite a number of missing components which need to be filled.
For example, power to regulate the media during general elections. According to international guidelines, the media should be regulated during a general election.
The media can take sides, but there must be a limit. This is a very serious thing. The opposition is pushing for a fairer playground as far as the media is concerned.
I strongly feel that proper laws must be in place to ensure that the EC can determine the extent of media participation in an election.
In a democratic election, a voter must have informed choices. This means that before polling day, a voter must know what the candidate’s platform, programme and plans are.
For the voter to know that, all political parties should be given the opportunity for media exposure.
Q: What laws feature in an election and who enforces them?
A: During an election, you can expect the Police Act; Sedition Act; Printing Presses and Publications Act; Official Secrets Act; Communications and Multimedia Act; Local Government Act; Criminal Procedure Code and Penal Code to come into play.
The question here is who is in charge when these acts come into play?
If people are expecting the EC to be the ones responsible for a level playing field, they are wrong.
All that I can say is that the EC has done its best, regardless of what people have said and may say. Like, for example, on the use of indelible ink in the next general election.
As far as the nomination, polling and counting are concerned, the EC has always been in charge and it has progressed very well.
In fact, we get the results out by 7pm and by 10.30pm, a new government is formed. These are all done very transparently.
Q: What do you think is required of the EC for a level playing field?
A: The EC has no enforcement powers. You can lodge reports with us, but after that we pass it to the police and it is out of our hands. So, how can we ensure a level playing field when we don’t have the power.
Q: Do you think campaigning periods should be extended or reduced?
A: Well, it can’t be too long as this would probably create problems for the security forces. Also, campaigning can be an expensive affair, especially for the opposition parties.
We have to consider what’s best. I feel it should not be longer than two weeks.
We must not stretch our security forces who will have to be on duty around the clock during the campaigning period. There are so many sensitive issues in this country to handle.
Q: Each time after a general election or even a by-election, people are quick to point fingers at the EC whenever there is a problem.
A: Well, you can’t blame them because they are ignorant about the limit of our powers. They are unaware that we have to share power with so many agencies and bodies.
I know the EC is an easy target, but some things are not under our jurisdiction.
My advice to those who are unhappy is to find the right channels for their grouses.
As far as the EC is concerned, all who take part in the electoral process have a right to fair treatment and the laws must treat them accordingly.
Over the years, the country has undergone a great transformation. I feel it is time for us to transform the electoral process too.
Q: There have been calls by the opposition to stop postal votes.
A: This is a privilege given to the army worldwide, except for Indonesia, where the members of the armed forces do not vote at all.
There is no way we can stop postal votes. We cannot amend any rules, unless you amend the parent law which is not under the purview of the EC.
However, we are “talking” with the government to allow party agents to be present during the postal voting process.
We hope the government can accommodate this to ensure 100 per cent transparency in the fair conduct of elections.
Q: There have been grouses when it comes to the delineation of constituencies.
A: At the end of the day, it is up to parliament to amend whatever it wants.
Q: So, we can expect to see the use of indelible ink and transparent ballot boxes?
A: We are definitely using the indelible ink. We know some people are unhappy, but we cannot satisfy everyone. The transparent ballot boxes are also ready for use.
Our senior officers have gone around the country to conduct training and have completed their rounds.
Overall, the EC is ready for the next general election.

Q: What is your election budget?

A: The budget is between RM200 and RM250 million. It is an increase, considering we have new things being introduced.
For example, we spent RM9 million on the transparent ballot boxes and RM1 million on the indelible ink that is being used by the EC in India. They are making it specially for us.