Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Singapore passes law to ensure voter safety if General Election is called amid COVID-19 pandemic

Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Act: Special arrangements include allowing some electors subject to movement controls to vote
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

With no clear sight of how COVID-19 will pan out and a constitutional deadline approaching for the next general election to be held, Parliament yesterday passed a law to allow special arrangements to be made should Singaporeans have to go to the polls before the pandemic ends.

The Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Act is to ensure the safety of voters, candidates and election officials.

It allows some electors who are subject to movement control orders to vote, while excusing some others for not voting.



Also, it allows aspiring candidates to authorise a representative to file nomination papers for them if they are unable or unfit to do so.

Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, speaking on behalf of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said, when presenting the Bill for debate, that planning ahead is the responsible thing to do.

As the next election must be held by April 14 next year, it is prudent to make contingency plans "to keep our citizens safe while upholding our democracy", he added.

"In a few short months, the way we live, work and interact with others has changed drastically. Will we revert to the pre-COVID-19 norms? Nobody knows.

"But we cannot plan on the basis that it will," he said. "Instead, we need to plan ahead and put in the necessary measures, so that we can hold elections safely even under the new and evolving COVID-19 norms."



Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), the only opposition MP to speak in the debate, acknowledged the risk of having an election amid a virus outbreak, but gave her party's support.

She reiterated her party's call for the Government to be judicious in deciding on the timing of the polls, and asked how the measures will be implemented.

The Bill deals with how aspiring candidates who are under quarantine orders or stay-home notices, or are in ill-health or hospitalised, can complete the nomination process.

They can appoint a representative via a power of attorney to help them file nomination papers and object to other candidates' papers.



Ms Lim asked if such a representative could be another member in the same GRC team or an assentor, since the criterion is that the person has to be a Singapore citizen who is entitled to vote.

Mr Chan affirmed that the Bill does not prevent it.

Under the changes, some people - those on quarantine orders, stay-home notices at home, or who are given medical certificates for acute respiratory infections - will be excused from voting. They would have broken the law on infectious diseases if they leave the place where they are being isolated.

So, although voting is compulsory, they will not be penalised and can have their names restored to the electoral rolls post-election.

Meanwhile, those on stay-home notices at designated facilities like hotels will be given special permission to vote outside their electoral divisions. Special polling stations will be set up for them to vote, akin to what overseas voters get.

To preserve voting secrecy, all ballots from the special polling stations will be mixed together, then sorted for counting at a centralised counting centre.

Candidates and political parties can observe the proceedings at these special polling stations.



Nominated MP Anthea Ong asked if the changes would curtail people's right to vote, reiterating calls by other opposition parties for the elections to be held after the pandemic is over.

To this, Mr Chan said it would be unconstitutional to delay an election beyond the required timeframe.

Also, he said, "the special arrangements in the Bill will, in fact, allow more voters to vote". This is because the temporary measures will let those on stay-home notices at designated facilities vote, which is not allowed under the Infectious Diseases Act, he added.

The Elections Department (ELD) also said more people will get to vote than under previous rules.

The arrangements in the Bill are temporary and will apply only to a parliamentary election held on or before April 14 next year, and not to any election held after the date.

Why should they not be permanent, asked Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), adding that COVID-19 will not be the last health pandemic to hit Singapore.

Mr Chan said provisions deemed relevant to future elections will be included in the Parliamentary Elections Act when it is next amended.

Two things not dealt with by the Bill are campaigning measures and the timing of the elections.

Mr Chan said the ELD is planning precautionary measures that it will announce with enough lead time for all to prepare. This would take into account the prevailing health advisories, said the ELD.

On when the elections would be called, Mr Chan repeated a point made when the Bill was introduced on April 7: "The Prime Minister will decide when to call the election, considering the challenges confronting our country and the evolving COVID-19 situation."















Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill will let more voters cast ballot, says Chan Chun Sing
By Fabian Koh, The Straits Times, 5 May 2020

Six MPs spoke during the debate on the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill passed yesterday. Here are some of their questions and the replies by Minister Chan Chun Sing.


WILL THE BILL DEPRIVE CERTAIN VOTERS OF THEIR RIGHT TO VOTE?

That is a misconception, said Mr Chan. Responding to Nominated MP Anthea Ong, he said the special arrangements in the Bill will in fact allow more voters to vote. For instance, those serving stay-home notices (SHN) at designated facilities will be able to vote in a way that will minimise their contact with other voters.

Mr Chan said this "should allay concerns among the wider voting population who might otherwise be dissuaded from voting, because of in-person voting by those under SHN".

In response to Ms Ong's assertion that the roughly 15,000 people on quarantine orders here give a sense of the numbers who will be prevented from voting, Mr Chan said there were fewer than 1,000 Singaporeans of voting age on quarantine orders as of Sunday.





SHOULD ELECTRONIC VOTING BE ALLOWED?

Singapore has not implemented online voting as it is difficult to prevent impersonation and ensure voting secrecy. Responding to Mr Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) and NMP Walter Theseira, Mr Chan said: "Even with SingPass, we do not know for sure if the vote is cast by the person himself, or by another person who is assisting him."

Furthermore for audit purposes, identity verification systems would have to retain information on a voter's choice, thus compromising the secrecy of the ballot. Mr Chan added that there are system reliability issues and security risks, such as vulnerability to hacking and cyber attacks. It is also not possible to have polling agents present for online voting.


WILL OVERSEAS VOTING BE AFFECTED?

Overseas voting may be abandoned in locations where there are unacceptable risks to the safety and health of Singaporean voters and election officials there, and if the physical conduct of polling is not possible.

Responding to NMP Ong and Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC), Mr Chan said: "We want Singaporeans who have registered to vote overseas to be able to do so. But we must also recognise that the COVID-19 situation has affected many cities around the world to different extents, and we do not know how it will evolve."

He said the returning officer will assess and monitor the situation for each overseas polling station after the writ of election is issued, before making any decision.


WHAT ARE THE GUIDELINES FOR CAMPAIGNING?

The Elections Department (ELD) will share the guidelines in due course, taking into account the COVID-19 situation, said Mr Chan. ELD issues the advisory together with the relevant authorities, such as the police and the Ministry of Home Affairs, and will also work with the Ministry of Health on health and safety aspects.

"This will be done with sufficient time for political parties and aspiring candidates to prepare," said Mr Chan.

He explained that for activities conducted in the polling station, which is a structured environment, the authorities try to be as clear and let people know what's okay as early as possible. But things like campaigning, conducted in a less structured environment, are subject to evolving health and security considerations.


WHEN WILL THE ELECTION BE HELD?

The Bill is not related to the timing of the next general election, said Mr Chan. Responding to Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), Mr Ong and Ms Ong, he said the Bill allows ELD to make contingency plans whenever the election is held.

"It will be for the Prime Minister to consider what is in the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans, and make the decision on when to call the next general election," he said.



While it is uncertain when the COVID-19 situation will stabilise, South Korea has shown that holding an election during the pandemic is possible, Mr Chan added.

There have to be adequate measures in place to safeguard the well-being of voters, candidates and officials, and it would be "prudent and responsible" to start planning ahead of time, he said.






Constitution amended to allow Parliament to meet in multiple locations
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 6 May 2020

Parliament will be able to meet in multiple locations if necessary, after the House yesterday unanimously passed a constitutional amendment to legally allow this.

COVID-19 has affected how people around the world work, including parliaments and legislatures worldwide, said Leader of the House Grace Fu, in presenting the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill for debate.

Prior to this Bill, the law required Parliament to meet in one physical location, she noted. Certain provisions relating to parliamentary privileges, immunities and powers had also been drafted with reference to Parliament House and its precincts.



This is why MPs being spread out in the Chamber and public galleries since March "was about as far as we can go under the law today", said Ms Fu. "But it is entirely conceivable that exigencies may make it unsafe or even impossible for us to meet at one place," she added.

In such times, it is even more critical for Parliament to carry on its constitutional functions of legislating and holding the Government to account. Citing the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act and Resilience and Solidarity budgets as examples of the critical role played by Parliament in the last two months, she said: "In the constitutional framework, we are an essential service."

The new Article 64A in the Constitution creates a mechanism for Parliament to meet under continuity arrangements. When triggered, Parliament need not meet with all MPs in one place, but instead across two or more places appointed by the President, and in communication contemporaneously, or live.



Details of the continuity arrangements, such as the appointed places and the mode of communication between those places, will be decided by the House or the Speaker. Parliament Standing Orders, or rules, may also be modified, such as the rule on ringing division bells to signal to MPs to vote, said Ms Fu.

When activated, the continuity arrangements will mean MPs can take part in Parliament proceedings fully despite being in separate places, and their presence will count for attendance, quorum and voting purposes. The powers, immunities and privileges of the House will also apply.

"This physical separation will enhance the survivability of Parliament as an institution," said Ms Fu.

Replying to Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera and Nominated MP Anthea Ong, Ms Fu said that while remote participation - with MPs dialling in from, say, their homes - was considered, the Government decided not to take this path.

Said Ms Fu: "When we cast our votes, there are no strangers present, no outside interference... There is a certain seriousness of purpose, a certain sanctity of process...The same solemnity cannot be reproduced in remote proceedings when there is no effective control over the physical environment from which MPs dial in."



While it is technically possible for MPs to dial in from their homes, Ms Fu noted: "There are security considerations, logistical considerations that will not make that option the same as us sitting in this hall with the existing standing orders, with existing procedures that guide us in the process."

While continuity arrangements will last for six months at a time when activated, she said there is currently no need for them. But the lack of certainty over how events will unfold is why the constitutional mechanism was introduced "out of an abundance of caution" through a certificate of urgency signed by the President, which allowed the Bill to be debated and passed in a single sitting. She said: "If the need arises, for instance, if there is widespread local transmission of COVID-19, we can immediately implement the necessary arrangements."

As MPs were spread across the Chamber and galleries on other levels, the vote was carried out by colour-coded vote cards, instead of the electronic voting system in Parliament, with MPs voting 84-0 in favour of the Bill. Constitutional amendments can be passed only with a two-thirds majority.


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