Bersih: Voter turnout in six state polls could be below 60pc, announce voting day early as solution

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 23 — Electoral reform group Bersih warned today there could be a low voter turnout of just 50 to 60 per cent in the upcoming state elections this year, if the six affected states make late announcements on voting day.

In analysing the problem of voters in Malaysia only being told of the voting date near the elections, Bersih said this could be solved by announcing the polling day months in advance to enable Malaysians to make arrangements to travel and return to their hometowns to vote.

“For the six upcoming state elections in 2023 — Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan — we estimate low turnout rates around 50 to 60 per cent if nothing is changed in election planning.

“This is partly due to the ‘lesser importance’ many voters attached to state elections, but the structural problem is the late announcement of election dates which inconvenience voters, especially those who work out-of-state or/and have work duties on polling day,” Bersih explained in its newly-released nine-page policy brief.

Bersih highlighted the dangers of low voter turnout and its negative impact on democracy, such as where election results in marginal seats may be decided by a small number of swing voters or by the most hardcore supporters and which may cause upsets which do not reflect the broader sentiments of voters.

Bersih also cautioned that low voter turnout could result in the legitimacy of new state governments being challenged, if such state governments had received votes only from a small fraction of voters in the state.

To solve this problem of potentially low voter turnouts in general, Bersih said there are two policy options that can be immediately implemented to reduce the cost and inconvenience experienced by voters.

These two low-lying fruits or policy options that can be easily implemented are early announcement of election dates by ruling out early dissolutions of law-making bodies, and expanding absentee voting facilities by allowing those who are not free on polling day or out of their state to cast their votes as absent voters.

Specifically for Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, Bersih suggested these six state governments decide on one common election date and announce this date months ahead to voters.

“This can be easily done if i) five of the states go full term, thus allowing their State Assemblies to automatically dissolve within a nine-day period between 26 June 2023 (Selangor) and 4 July 2023 (Kedah), and ii) Penang seeks the Governor’s assent in advance for an early dissolution during this period.

“The Election Commission (EC) can then pre-announce the nomination and polling dates. Early announcement of election dates — a common practice in many countries — can reduce cost by easing operational planning and enable ‘distant advanced voting’ for out-of-state voters to raise turnout and retain public participation in the electoral process,” it said.

“For the sake of the voters and Malaysian democracy, the six state governments and the EC should establish a new electoral convention whereby election dates would be fixed and pre-announced months ahead. This would also allow the EC personnel, police officers, civil servants, party workers, media practitioners, business owners, and voters in general to better plan their work and personal/family life,” Bersih concluded.

The full policy brief can be accessed here on Bersih’s website.

(First published by Malay Mail on 23 February 2023: