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Difficult to prevent voter impersonation and ensure voting secrecy with online voting: Chan Chun Sing

SINGAPORE — Singapore has not allowed online voting for a General Election (GE) because it is difficult to prevent voter impersonation and ensure voting secrecy, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said in Parliament on Monday (May 4).

Difficult to prevent voter impersonation and ensure voting secrecy with online voting: Chan Chun Sing

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing (pictured) said that the Elections Department will work with the Ministry of Health before issuing an advisory on campaigning guidelines.

SINGAPORE — Singapore has not allowed online voting for a General Election (GE) because it is difficult to prevent voter impersonation and ensure voting secrecy, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said in Parliament on Monday (May 4).

Even if a person were to vote by logging in with SingPass, the national passcode system for government e-services — as suggested by Member of Parliament (MP) Ong Teng Koon — Mr Chan said that there is no way of guaranteeing that the vote is cast by the person logging in, or by another person assisting him.

“For a voter to be sure that his online vote is accurately recorded for audit purposes, present-day IT verification systems will require the system to retain information on the voter’s choice, which will compromise voting secrecy, “ Mr Chan said.

He was speaking on behalf of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the debate on the Parliamentary Elections (Covid-19 Special Arrangements) Bill before it was passed.

The Act provides for special arrangements for elections to be held safely during the Covid-19 pandemic, when safe distancing measures still have to be observed.

For example, officers from the Elections Department (ELD), which is under the Prime Minister’s Office, would set up special polling stations for voters on stay-home notices in designated facilities to cast their votes.

During the debate, Mr Ong, who is an MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee Group Representation Constituency (GRC), and Nominated MP Walter Theseira both suggested that online voting systems be set up to ensure that Singaporeans can vote while maintaining safe distances at the same time.

Mr Chan said that voting is different from a bank transaction in that identity verification cannot be accompanied with an audit trail to ensure voting secrecy, and that many countries are grappling with this issue as they consider implementing online voting systems.

“We want to verify the identity of the voter and yet, at the same time, we have to assure the voter of the secrecy of his vote, which means he must be assured that it can't be traced back absolutely to him,” Mr Chan said.

RULES ON CAMPAIGNING

During the debate, one major concern that MPs had was the how campaigning will be conducted and the rules governing that, because the new provisions in the Act do not cover that at all.

Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim brought up Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean’s earlier comments made in the House about how adjustments would have to be made during campaigning, such as having rally speeches streamed live, for example.

Ms Lim, who is MP for Aljunied GRC, said: “It is important for these changes on campaign rules to be made known publicly and to political parties as soon as possible, so that candidates and parties have sufficient time to make necessary preparations and source for service suppliers.

“When will ELD make known the exact changes?”

Associate Professor Theseira also asked why restrictions on campaigning are not included in the primary legislation, like how the Act goes into detail on voting procedures.

Mr Chan said ELD’s practice has always been to issue an advisory on campaigning guidelines together with the other authorities such as the police and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). This is because the Act only covers some aspects of campaigning, such as the regulation of election advertising, while rallies and walkabouts are covered under the Public Orders Act.

He said that ELD will work with the Ministry of Health (MOH) on the health and safety aspects of campaigning before issuing the advisory.

“This will be done with sufficient time for political parties and aspiring candidates to prepare,” Mr Chan added.

TIMING OF ELECTION

In his opening remarks in Parliament, Mr Chan said that the new laws are unrelated to the timing of the GE, but Ms Lim said that there continues to be unhealthy speculation on when the next election will be held.

Under Singapore’s Constitution, the present term of government ends in April next year and a GE must be held before then in time for a new term of government to take office.

Noting that South Korea held its elections when the Covid-19 outbreak there showed clear signs of abating, Ms Lim brought up what she considered the “elephant in the room” and asked: “Can the Government clarify what progress needs to be made on the virus front before a GE will be held?”

Mr Chan said that South Korea’s election has shown that it is possible to hold an election during the pandemic, but with adequate precautions in place.

The new provisions in the Act would allow ELD to make those necessary contingency plans ahead of time for the next GE.

“(This BIll) is not related to the timing of the General Election. It will be for the prime minister to consider what is in the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans, and make the decision on when to call the next General Election,” Mr Chan said.

SAFETY MEASURES

Various MPs also asked for more details on the practical steps that ELD would take to safeguard public health during voting.

Ms Lim asked: “For instance, will voters’ temperatures be taken? Will they be issued with masks, hand sanitisers and gloves? And would polling booths be disinfected regularly, as was done in the South Korean election?”

In response, Mr Chan said that ELD will abide by the prevailing advisories issued by MOH and MHA on health and security.

ELD is also studying how other countries hold their elections during the pandemic, such as South Korea.

Over there, temperature screening, requiring voters to wear masks and plastic gloves, as well as the use of videos and infographics to assure the public that precautionary measures are taken have led to a record voter turnout, Mr Chan noted.

The South Korean authorities also said that there were no local transmission cases of Covid-19 due to the election.

Mr Chan said that ELD will consider Mr Ong’s suggestion to increase the number of polling stations and even out the flow of voters.

Other practical measures ELD is studying: Having staggered voting hours, temperature taking at polling stations and disinfecting polling booths more frequently.

The department will announce its recommendations before the election so that every political party will have the necessary time to prepare, Mr Chan assured the House.

EXCLUSION OF CERTAIN VOTERS

During the debate, Nominated MP Anthea Ong argued that a significant part of the population could be discouraged from voting if GE were to be held at a time when there is high risk of community spread. 

She noted that 15,000 Singaporeans could be excluded from voting in the next GE, given that the new provisions exempt those under quarantine orders from voting without any penalties.

This potential low voter turnout might not give the Government the strong mandate that it said it would require to tackle the ongoing crisis, she added.

“I can’t help but sincerely question just how strong and fresh of a mandate the new government can marshall in a Covid-19 General Election where there are such significant parts of the electorate excluded from voting by law, by illness, by fear and by choice — which would most certainly result in substantially lower voter turnout.”

However, Mr Chan said that there are only fewer than 1,000 Singaporeans serving quarantine orders, which is “not as many as Ms Ong asserts”.

“The Bill does not take away anyone’s right to vote. The special arrangements, in fact, will allow more voters to vote,” Mr Chan added.

Related topics

Covid-19 coronavirus online voting General Election Chan Chun Sing law

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