The mystery of postal votes

by Deborah Loh ([email protected])
POSTAL votes in electoral contests have traditionally been accompanied by allegations of fraud and intimidation of uniformed personnel. Will they again become a contentious issue in the Bagan Pinang by-election on 11 Oct? Postal votes make up 33.7% or 4,604 of the state seat’s 13,664 votes.

In Bagan Pinang, which PAS and Barisan Nasional will be contesting, PAS has already begun to exploit postal voting controversies as an explanation should it lose. In a sense, it is under less pressure to win Bagan Pinang which is an Umno stronghold, although the opposition reduced the BN’s majority between the 2004 and 2008 general elections from 4,411 to 2,333.
Fact is, postal votes have been won by the opposition here. PAS candidate in the 2008 general election Ramli Ismail obtained 1,189 or 25% of postal votes. Interestingly, the opposition’s share of postal votes in the Teluk Kemang parliamentary seat, where Bagan Pinang is, also grew between the Nov 1999 general election and the June 2000 parliamentary by-election. In the general polls, the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate obtained 730 postal votes against BN’s 1,874. In the by-election, PKR won 1,743 to marginally outstrip BN’s share of postal votes at 1,625.
It’s hard to conclusively verify allegations of postal voting fraud without proof or eye-witness testimony. That said, the Election Commission (EC) could win back public trust by looking at whether the huge number of postal voters among military and police personnel are justified in the first place.
An anomaly
Categorising uniformed personnel as postal voters is an anomaly, notes political observer and former academic Dr Mavis Puthucheary. In the strict sense of the term, postal voters are those residing overseas or who are unable to be present at polling stations on election day. Their votes are delivered through the mail service instead.
The Elections (Postal Voting) Regulations 2003 defines postal voters as registered voters who are absent on polling day, EC officials on duty, and police and public service officials on duty or at work abroad. Malaysians overseas are eligible to vote in general elections so long as they are registered with Malaysian high commissions there.
Since the law specifies postal voters as those on duty, Puthucheary questions why whole army camps should vote by post. “Confine postal votes only to those who are on duty on polling day. Other military and police voters should be categorised as normal voters,” she tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.
Also controversial is the fact that the spouses and family members of uniformed personnel living in the camps are also categorised as postal voters if they are eligible to vote. They should be considered as normal votes, Puthucheary adds.
She also suggests that polling facilities can be provided in camps on polling day for off-duty personnel to vote at the same time as other normal voters.
Political scientist and election observer Wong Chin Huat believes that opportunities for vote manipulation can be reduced only if postal voting is allowed for uniformed personnel by way of application. This, he says, should be based on whether they are on duty on polling day.
EC chairperson Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof tells The Nut Graph the commission is reviewing aspects of the postal voting system but declines to elaborate on what they are.

Intimidation and lack of secrecy

Postal voting takes place a few days before the actual polling date and is conducted within the army barracks or police headquarters. It’s commonly alleged that uniformed personnel cast their ballots under scrutiny by their commanding officers.
“It can be argued that secrecy of votes is compromised as it is conducted in a closed area,” says Wong.
The EC has, however, beginning with the 2008 polls attempted to make postal voting more transparent by allowing the agents or representatives of election candidates to be present when postal ballots are cast. They can also witness the issuance of postal ballots and the counting process, says Abdul Aziz.
“If at any time the candidates’ agents are unhappy with the way things are going, they can raise their complaints to the EC,” he says in a phone interview.
As to the presence of police and military superiors during voting, Abdul Aziz says it does not matter if that is so because voting booths to ensure privacy are provided in the camps. He denies claims that subordinates can be intimidated since they mark their ballot papers in secret.
While Wong lauds the EC for allowing candidates’ agents to witness the postal voting process, he says transparency is not complete because the reality of time constraints will not allow observers to monitor postal voting till the end.
“Candidates are unlikely to spend on resources to monitor postal voting unless postal votes make up a huge chunk of the total votes in their seat,” says Wong, who observed the counting of votes for Petaling Jaya Utara Member of Parliament Tony Pua in the 2008 polls.
Paper trails
Double-issuance of ballot papers to postal voters has been another complaint. Given that election law stipulates that only one ballot can be issued per voter, what happens to the other ballot? The uncertainty has given rise to accusations of proxy voting.
In the Setiawangsa seat in 2008, it was highlighted that at least six postal voters were issued with two ballot papers each. In Sibu, postal balloting had to be postponed because the names of some postal voters appeared twice on the electoral roll.
The media trail on both these incidents has died, a change in the EC’s leadership has taken place, and no satisfactory answer has been given.
Another issue is the “Form 2” or “Identity Declaration Form” which is issued to postal voters together with ballot papers. The form requires the voter to fill in name, identity card number and ballot paper number. Election observers allege that this will allow uniformed personnel who vote for the opposition to be identified.
Abdul Aziz, however, says that Form 2 is not returned to the EC together with the marked ballot. “The form is to ensure that the right person according to the electoral roll is given a ballot paper. It is for us to cross-check the identity declared in the form with the electoral roll. The form is separated from the ballot paper when it is issued.”
While the procedure sounds reasonable, it is then a question of whether candidates have enough resources on hand to despatch agents to monitor each and every postal balloting centre to ensure protocol is followed. If that is not possible, Wong notes, the EC should strive further to ensure the fullest participation of observers for even greater transparency.


Puthucheary, who has studied and written about Malaysia’s electoral system also notes that the names of retired police and military personnel have sometimes been left on the electoral roll of postal voters.
Election watchdog Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections (Mafrel) also believes that postal votes contribute to the problem of unreturned ballot papers. Keeping a ballot paper is an offence under election law. But in 2008, in the Lumut parliamentary constituency and Pangkor state constituency where there is a naval base, nearly 5,000 ballot papers from both seats combined were unreturned.
Whether it is a case of inefficient management or something more deliberate, Wong says the point is that there are insufficient guarantees that postal voting can be conducted free from manipulation.
As such, Wong and Puthucheary feel the solution lies in redefining uniformed personnel as ordinary voters. This would limit the number of postal voters so that their political significance is reduced.
But that may be some time off, if it ever happens. For a start, PAS was able to get Abdul Aziz to listen to some of its proposals at a recent meeting with the EC on 28 Sept.
PAS Bagan Pinang by-election director and party vice-president Salahuddin Ayub says the party put forth suggestions to stop the use of Form 2, to hold postal voting as close to normal polling time and for the ballots to be counted immediately. PAS also suggested that postal ballots be kept at another location other than military or police barracks and for candidates’ agents to be allowed to guard the ballots.
Salahuddin tells The Nut Graph: “The EC chairperson listened to our suggestions but said that they would require amending the law. He said these ideas won’t be feasible for the Bagan Pinang by-election but when we asked for a timeframe, he said he would consider the proposals for the next general election.” favicon