Should Malaysia adopt automatic voter registration and compulsory voting?
By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
In many countries around the world where people have the right to choose to vote or not, there are also some countries that practice compulsory voting where by a certain age, eligible citizens are automatically registered in the system to vote.
Currently, there are 31 countries that practice compulsory voting – Australia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Honduras, Italy, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Philippine, Singapore, Thailand and Uruguay.
Countries such as Venezuela and Netherlands, on the other hand, once practiced compulsory voting but since had it abolished.
Compulsory voting… should we put it into practice?
In the 11th state election, over 1, 138, 650 registered voters were eligible to cast their votes in 82 constituencies, but overall voter turnout was 70.1 per cent according to Election Commission (EC) chairman Datuk Seri Mohd Hashim Abdullah during a press conference at the State EC headquarters at 11pm on May 7.
This number fell short of the EC’s original target of a 75 per cent voter turnout. The EC chairman had even hoped to expect an even higher turnout rate between 80 to 85 per cent at this year’s polls.
With concerns over low voter turnout even among registered voters, this led to the question – should we adopt a compulsory voting system in our country?
“Yes, I agree that voting should be compulsory. Apathy is a major issue in Malaysia. And yet, when things don’t go well or when things go wrong, people complain loudly about how bad the system or our politicians are,” said Unimas Faculty of Social Science Associate Prof Dr Andrew Aeria.
“Hence, instead of grumbling and complaining, people should be pushed to be proactive to vote since no matter what happens, their lives are affected by politics,” he said, suggesting a penalty system for non-compliance.
“If people don’t vote once, they should not be fined. But if they miss voting twice consecutively, then they should be fined. And the fine should be sufficiently significant to ensure that people do vote.”
Aeria also recommended that electronic voting be allowed, as people should be allowed to vote for their chosen constituency no matter where they are in the world.
Others, like Member of Youth Parliament (MYP) Syed Nizamuddin Sayed Khassim argued that not voting was also an expression of democracy.
“If a voter is dissatisfied with either candidates, or if he or she disagrees with the issues hyped up by either of them: not voting is a reasonable thing to do. While one can argue that a person may leave the ballot paper empty, one can also argue that compulsion is part of a slippery slope to totalitarianism,” Syed Nizamuddin said, arguing against compulsory voting.
“Firstly, making voting compulsory is already a breach of freedom of expression, because not going to the polls to vote is already a democratic expression. In our present system, flawed as it may be, at least the parties and candidates have to do more to convince people of the merits of their policies in order to get voters to the polls,” he explained.
He also argued that in some segments of the community, heading to the polls meant forgoing a day’s meal for the family.
“Not to forget, in some parts of our country, going to the polls means spending a day traversing due to the lack of road networks. Now, is it fair to punish these people?”
Automatic voter registration
In Malaysia, where compulsory voting is not practiced, you have to register to be a voter by the age of 21.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said was quoted in The Malay Mail Online on April 5 this year as saying that as many as 553,233 Sarawakians had reached the voting age but had not registered to vote as of last year’s fourth quarter.
She was further quoted saying that the EC did not have information on the total number of Sarawak voters living in Peninsular Malaysia and vice versa.
In Sarawak, EC documented about 11.58 per cent (131,881) of voters in 2016 were in their 20s with 20.82 per cent ( 237,063) in their 30s.
With over half a million eligible voters of age not registered to vote, would automatic voter registration lessen this alarming number?
Although he agreed with the principle behind automatic voter registration, Syed Nizamuddin opined that there were issues of public interest that needed to be addressed first.
“Accusations of breached data privacy, gerrymandering and various other misuse of private data need to be addressed beforehand. Why? Because these issues corrode people’s trust towards institutions that uphold our democracy.
“When this happens, the legitimacy of the ruling government is put into question – which is unhealthy for the country. These institutions need to be strengthened and be rid of the doubts clouding them to return the public’s trust towards our democracy.”
For team leader of Rise of Sarawak Efforts (Rose) Ann Teo, automatic voter registration could encourage and enfranchise citizens of eligible age to participate more easily in the electoral process and facilitate a higher voter turnout.
“But this may just be a presumption if there is still relatively low levels of awareness amongst the rakyat of the need to cast their vote at elections and to generally be interested in the way our nation is governed.
“Currently the laws state that one must apply to be registered as a voter and there is also a process whereby his ‘application’ can be objected to by persons,” she said.
“Rose is of the view that if there is any political will to implement automatic voter registration, the EC must do more and systematically conduct voter education and awareness programmes, perhaps starting in schools as part of their campaign,” she said, adding that the organisation believed that no such programmes or initiatives were in place.
“Hence the more immediate action needed on the part of the EC is to bring back political party appointments of assistant registration officers (ARO) to address the jaw-dropping number of unregistered voters in Malaysia and to work together with NGOs and political parties to register voters and not just limit this work to government agencies like Jabatan Kemajuan Masyarakat (Kemas) and Jabatan Hal Ehwal Khas (Jasa),” said Teo.
Meanwhile, Aeria felt that as today’s younger generation was equipped with advanced computing and internet connectivity, voter registration should be automatic.
“The moment someone is born, that child is registered. At age 12, the child gets an ID card. At age 21, that ID card is changed.
“Why can’t the National Registration Department’s computer system be hooked up with the Election Commission’s? Not hooking it up only suggests that this government is not serious about granting citizens their rights to participate in democracy,” he said.
He also opined that the voting age should be reduced to 18, arguing that if 18-year-olds could enter into legal contracts, then they should be able to vote too.
Currently, other countries which established a national voting age at 18 include Australia, Thailand, and Honduras.
Voter turnout is vital and the impact of young voters on our elections shouldn’t be underestimated. Should we implement automatic voter registration and practice compulsory voting?