“At the last election, we had only thirty-something polling agents and counting agents,” said Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan at a briefing on Polling Day. He was smiling. The party office was full to overflowing.
I hadn’t planned to be a counting agent. Besides having an Australian visitor in town, for weeks my friends were hatching plans to hold election-watch parties. Eventually, nothing much came of those plans and so when at around 4 p.m., a text message came to me from Vincent Wijeysingha appealing for help to round up more counting agents, I was able to volunteer.
“How many do you need?” I texted him back.
“We need about 100. So send as many as u can,” came the reply. I later learned they were about 40 short as at mid-afternoon.
With a flurry of text messages, I rustled up a significant number from among my friends, and via the gay and lesbian network. It was amazing how many people said Yes without hesitation, jumping into taxis to make their way to a part of Singapore few have ever been to (the party headquarters is really out of the way). At least one friend cancelled dinner plans to come in. This lot may not be representative of Singaporeans generally, but at least among this section of Singaporeans the climate of fear is becoming a thing of the past.
The SDP was not the only party with a surfeit of volunteers, albeit a surfeit that poured in only when they realised ridiculously late in the day that they were short. I know for a fact from Sylvia Lim, chair of the Workers’ Party, that they too had more than enough polling and counting agents well before Nomination Day.
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I shall take this opportunity to describe what happens at a counting centre, based on my first-hand experience.
After the briefing and the oath-taking (secrecy under the law) at the party HQ, three of us arrived at our assigned counting centre just before 8 p.m, to find three more volunteers for SDP already there. That made a total of six, the maximum quota for this counting centre. Shortly after passing through a security check to enter the hall, volunteers #7 and #8 came but were not allowed in because the quota had been filled. Wow, from being short of volunteers four hours earlier, the party had more than they could use!
The People’s Action Party’s six counting agents arrived after us, all dressed in party white, almost marching in like an infantry platoon — not like us, some in workclothes, one in shorts, complete with satchel bags and cups of sugar-cane juice. Ah, but beneath the ragtag appearance, we were armed with pens, notebooks and calculators. I wonder if the the PAP guys were surprised to see a full contingent for the SDP unlike previous years.
At around 8:30 p.m. the ballot boxes arrived from the six polling stations this counting centre would serve. The boxes (about three or four) from each polling station were brought to one of six assigned tables. Thus, each table would count the votes of one polling station, with an average of 3,000 – 4,000 ballots.
The tables were about 2 metres square — larger than a king-sized bed — around which was seated a table chief and four counting staff. Upon instruction by the officer presiding over the entire centre, the ballot boxes were shown to us, so we could verify that the seals which had been affixed at the polling stations at the close of the voting day were not broken.
The boxes were then opened and the contents poured out onto the centre of the table. Counting agents were free to move around to look over the shoulders of the counting staff. However, we could not speak to the staff, nor touch any ballot paper. If we wished to dispute the sorting of any ballot, we had to take it up with the table chief.
Generally, the counting process was very efficient, with all tables following a standardised procedure. There were several rounds of counting, with each block of sorted ballots rechecked and re-counted by another member of the staff.
Most of the time, the voter’s choice was obvious. Where the ballot paper had unusual markings, the counter would pass it to the table chief who would show it to a counting agent from each party and announce his decision as to how to treat that ballot. As counting agents, we could offer our views but his decision would be final.
Here are some of the things I remember coming across:
The vast majority of voters marked their ballot paper with a cross as in example 1. A few marked their ballot paper with a tick, but so long as the rest of the ballot paper was clean, the tick would be accepted as sufficiently indicative of the voter’s intention. Other than such clean markings, counting staff would pass the ballot paper to the table chief for adjudication.
Table chiefs routinely rejected ballots where any part of the cross or tick crossed the boundary line, such as example 3. Where the voter made more than one marking, as in example 4, it was always rejected by the table chiefs at the counting centre where I attended.
However, I later exchanged notes with my friend who was assigned to a different counting centre, and she told me that at that place, there was at least one incident when a ballot paper marked like example 4 was awarded as a vote for the “triangle and star” party. The table chief’s reasoning was that by law, the voter should mark his intention with a cross and since the cross was placed against the “triangle and star” party, the vote was given to it.
Occasionally I saw ballot papers with all sorts of strange markings, but so long as there was only one marking that did not cross the boundary (e.g. examples 5 and 6 above) the table chief would treat it as a valid vote.
More strange markings I came across, routinely accepted by table chiefs as valid votes.
I saw one ballot that looked like example 9, with two ticks. It was accepted as valid. There was one ballot that looked like example 10. It too was treated as a valid vote for the ” triangle and star” party despite my protest, the reasoning being that the voter only marked one half of the ballot paper and left the other half clean.
While watching another table, I came across another ballot rather similar to example 10, shown here as example 11. It too was accepted as a vote in favour of the “triangle and star party”.
However, the counting staff and table chiefs were scrupulously fair. For every “go to hell” ballot there were at least fifty more with the faintest of scratches, as in example 12. Again, they would use the same rule — so long as the single marking stayed within one box, they accepted it as a valid vote. The layman might think however that the marking was accidental, the result of a pen falling onto the paper or slipping out of the voter’s hand. Then again, there might well be some people who, liking neither candidate, deliberately let a dropping pen from a height of 40 cm make the choice for them. Who is to say that is not a valid decision matrix?
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Democracy is a seductive concept in the abstract. Look too closely and you might see the whole thingamajig flying by the seat of its pants.