Secondsphere: Electoral reforms for the 14th general election

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 5, 2017 - June 11, 2017.
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On May 16, together with other Pakatan Harapan (PH) leaders, I joined Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0) chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah at the launch of the Electoral Reforms for GE14 programme outside the Election Commission’s (EC) head office in Putrajaya. This was followed by the handing over of Bersih’s memorandum to an EC representative.

The Electoral Reforms for GE14 states that Malaysians face the prospect of another general election that is biased and unfair. So, it is now a matter of urgency that the EC and the government take steps to restore the faith of the public in our most basic democratic right. The memorandum highlights reforms that can all be implemented within 10 months — before Parliament has to be dissolved in June next year.

 

Corruption in elections

At present, there are no laws or structures governing the income and expenditure of political parties, nor are there clear laws that forbid the use of government machinery during campaigning. Bribery and money politics continue to be widespread during elections.

Proposed reforms:

• The (independent) EC should take over the role of registering and regulating political parties.

• Formulate political financing laws.

• Make it compulsory for elected representatives to declare their assets.

• Fully equip enforcement teams established under Section 27 of the Election Offences Act with the resources, training and power to enforce election laws.

• Formulate a code of conduct for caretaker governments.

 

Electoral roll

The Royal Commission of Inquiry on Immigrants in Sabah confirmed that there were non-citizens on the electoral roll and the Malaysian Electoral Roll Analysis Project (MERAP) has found thousands of inconsistencies in the electoral roll.

Proposed reforms:

• Repeal Section 9A of the Elections Act 1958 to allow challenges to the electoral roll in court.

• Make illegal alterations of the electoral roll or illegal attempts to add voters to it election offences.

• Establish an independent Electoral Roll Auditing Committee.

 

Absentee voting

There is limited information on how Malaysians can register and apply to be overseas voters. There are concerns relating to the eligibility of absentee voters, storage and transport of ballot boxes in advance voting, access for polling and counting agents, and the possibility of voters appearing both as advance voters and ordinary voters.

Proposed reforms:

• Absentee voter must be defined (military and police personnel, on-duty civilians, out-of-region civilians and overseas voters).

• Postal voting to be available only for overseas voters in countries without any designated overseas polling stations or voters who are 1,000km away from the nearest polling station.

• All advance voting will take place one day before the national polling day.

• Polling, counting and booth agents to have free access to all advance polling centres.

• Counting of votes to be done at the close of advance polling at the polling station.

• All domestic advance voting to be conducted in civilian polling stations, not in military and police camps.

• The gazetted electoral roll will indicate advance voters’ status. Military and police personnel will have their civilian IC numbers listed in the electoral roll alongside their service IC numbers.

 

Fair election boundaries

The Federal Constitution has clear provisions on the drawing of fair election boundaries — for example, constituency sizes in a state must be “approximately equal” and local ties must be maintained (to prevent gerrymandering). Currently, constituencies within the same state can vary from 37,000 voters to 150,000 voters.

Proposed reforms:

• The EC should redo its delineation proposals so that they are in line with the Federal Constitution. All constituencies in a state must be approximately equal in size.

• With an allowance given for rural constituencies, there should be a maximum deviation of +15% and -33% from the state average for constituency size.

• Amend Article 46 of the Federal Constitution so that the number of seats allocated in each state is reflective of the number of voters.

 

Independent EC

The appointment of election commissioners is made by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, but on the binding advice of the prime minister. This brings into question the independence of the appointees.

Proposed reforms:

• Form an EC Nomination Committee to select appropriate candidates. The candidates must be approved by Parliament and the Agong.

• No EC commissioner can be a member, employee or registered donor of a political party.

• The EC should report directly to Parliament and have control over its own budget. A Parliamentary select committee on electoral reform should be established.

 

Election observation

In GE13, election observation was considerably restricted. Accredited observers were not able to view the postal voting process in its entirety.

Proposed reforms

• There should be open and public applications for accredited and non-partisan observers, both international and domestic.

• Observers should have adequate time and resources to fully monitor the elections.

• Observer reports should be made available to the public.

 

Automatic voter registration

As at March 2017, there were over four million eligible citizens who had not registered to vote. Qualified citizens should be automatically registered to vote upon reaching the age of 21.

Minimum 21-day campaign period

A longer campaign period would allow voters more time to gather information and deliberate on the candidates.

Free and fair access to the media during the campaign period

A code of conduct for media during elections should be developed by the EC in consultation with media outlets, civil society and journalists.

 

Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah is chief secretary of Pakatan Harapan and director (strategic and social development) of Institut Darul Ehsan. He is active on twitter: @saifuddinabd