Singapore GE2020: Polling Day pains might have compounded voter frustration

Snaking queues that greeted some voters at polling stations last Friday were likely to have swung some votes away from the People’s Action Party (PAP), observers said.

Despite assigned time slots for voters to cast their ballots, crowds bunched up at some polling stations, especially in the morning, and some took to social media to voice their frustration regarding queues that went on for as long as three hours.

Recommended time bands were among the contingency plans the Elections Department (ELD) had put in place for this election to ensure safe voting amid the Covid-19 outbreak, alongside the requirement for voters to sanitise their hands and wear gloves. However, many chose to vote earlier in the day, which led to bottlenecks at some polling stations.

Analysts also suggested that an election amid the pandemic, coupled with long lines, signalled the election would not go well for the PAP. Political observer Derek da Cunha said in a Facebook post on the atmosphere at his polling station that “many gave off vibes that they would rather not be there, but that they got there to quickly vote and get out”.

Voters interviewed suggested that a long wait sealed the deal for some. One such voter was Madam S.K. Wong, who said she voided her ballot by marking both boxes after having queued for two hours in the sun. “I was quite angry with how long I had to line up just to vote, so I registered my unhappiness,” said the Sengkang GRC resident in her 60s.

But experts also warned against overestimating the effect of long queues – caused by not just the safe voting measures, but also teething problems with new systems – on voters’ choice.

The ELD also apologised for the longer than usual queues at some stations during the day.

Election officers said some polling stations were trialling a new split-queue system, where two separate stations were set up at one location. Difficulties directing voters evenly between the stations were compounded by temperature screening requirements, causing voter flow to slow to a crawl at some locations, they said.

While long lines might have caused some voters to change their minds, this was likely a small number, said Nanyang Technological University Adjunct Professor Hong Hai. “It may have caused some irritation that swung a few votes, but I don’t think it was significant,” said Prof Hong.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan agreed and said most Singapore voters “are not that fickle and petty”. He pointed to the 95.63 per cent voter turnout – the highest in more than two decades – as a strong sign that people wanted their voices heard.

“One can’t exclude the fact that people may have changed their minds, but if that’s the case, those votes were probably not secure for the PAP to begin with,” he said.

Instead, the ELD did not foresee that time banding would lead to bigger rather than smaller crowds, he said. Many would have decided to vote early to get their civic duty done and have the rest of the day free, as “this is the pragmatic Singaporean at work”.

“While the intention to have the older voters go in the morning was good, it created that jam, because… in the past, they would have come throughout the day,” said Associate Professor Tan, who noted that some senior voters struggled with the need to wear disposable gloves.

Election officers also reported that some of the electronic registration machines being used for the first time in this election were down for some time. The machines were meant to eliminate the need for election officials to find and strike out a voter’s name from a hard copy register.

“In the end, many of these measures put in place were driven by good intentions, but ultimately, what failed was the implementation, and perhaps not being able to anticipate the behavioural response to some of these measures,” said Prof Tan.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the post-results press conference early yesterday morning that voting arrangements could have been done better. Voting was extended by two hours so that no one would miss out because of the close of voting time, he noted. “We will do a thorough review and make sure we improve in future,” he said. “I’d like to thank all voters for your patience and understanding.”

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