SINGAPORE - Parliament passed a law on Monday (May 4) to allow special, temporary arrangements to be implemented should the next General Election take place amid the coronavirus pandemic, so that voters, candidates and election officials can go to the polls safely.
The upcoming GE must be held by April 14, 2021.
Citing this constitutional timeline, and the likelihood that the Covid-19 crisis will last many more months, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, speaking on behalf of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said it is prudent to make contingency plans.
"This is the responsible thing to do. To robustly plan well ahead. To keep our citizens safe while upholding our democracy," he added as he opened the debate on the Bill.
The Parliamentary Elections (Covid-19 Special Arrangements) Bill allows some electors who are subject to movement control orders to vote and excuses some others for not voting.
It also allows for aspiring candidates to authorise a representative to file nomination papers for them if they are unable or unfit to do so.
The provisions are temporary arrangements 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.
Despite signs of a slowdown in the pandemic in Singapore and other countries, health authorities around the world have warned that the virus is likely to continue circulating until next year and could spark recurring waves of infection.
Questions have been asked in Singapore and elsewhere, like the United States, about how elections can happen safely under such conditions.
Under the Bill, should an election be held amid the coronavirus crisis, those on quarantine orders (QO), serving their stay-home notices (SHN) at home, or issued medical certificates for acute respiratory infections will not be required to vote.
The reason is they will be deemed to have broken the law on infectious diseases if they leave the place where they are being isolated.
So, although voting is compulsory under the law, they will not be penalised for not voting and can have their names restored to the electoral rolls unconditionally after the election.
Meanwhile, those serving their SHN at designated facilities like hotels, will be given special permission to vote outside their electoral divisions.
Special polling stations will be set up either at the facilities or at suitable premises for them to cast their ballot, akin to what overseas voters do.
To ensure their vote is cast in the correct constituency, elections officials will call out the constituency and polling district code where the voter is registered.
Said Mr Chan: "This is possible because...(they) are already co-located physically in designated facilities, thus allowing such arrangements to be rapidly deployed."
Since April 10, people on SHN have been required to remain at these designated facilities for 14 days, and such notices will continue to be issued as part of Singapore's strategy to control community transmission, he added.
The Elections Department (ELD) said in a statement on Monday: "These arrangements allow more voters to be able to vote than it would otherwise be under previous rules."
Candidates and political parties can make arrangements to observe the proceedings at these special polling stations.
At the close of polls, the ballot box from each special polling station will be sealed and transported under police escort to a designated counting centre.
Similar to what happens at other polling stations, candidates or their polling agents who are at the special polling stations may place their seals on the ballot boxes.
To preserve voting secrecy, all the ballots from the special polling stations will be mixed together, then sorted for counting at a centralised counting centre, said the ELD.
The Bill also deals with how aspiring candidates who are under QO, SHN or are hospitalised and in ill-health, can complete the nomination process.
Such candidates can nominate a representative to help them file their nomination papers.
The representative must be a Singaporean who is entitled to vote, and must have a power of attorney authorising him or her to submit nomination papers and raise objections to the nomination papers of other candidates.
Other requirements for successful nomination, such as having a Political Donation Certificate and the required number of subscribers, must still be fulfilled.
Mr Chan said the provisions made up part of the contingency plans for the ELD to put in the required measures because of the coronavirus situation.
Other sections of the Act, from 56A to 56F, already contain powers to deal with disruptive events such as health hazards or riots, and allows for the postponement of Nomination Day and adjournment of polling, among other things.
The Bill also does not cover other precautionary measures the ELD is planning for, like those on campaigning.
The ELD said it would take into account the prevailing advisories from the Health Ministry and will release information "in due course" with enough lead time for all parties to make the necessary preparations.
It added: "The Bill reflects the ELD's strong commitment to safeguard the safety and health of voters, candidates and election officials at every stage of the electoral process."
Since the Bill was introduced in Parliament on April 7, speculation has been rife on whether an election is near.
The ELD and Mr Chan had both said the Bill is not related to when the election will be called.
Reiterating this point again on Monday, Mr Chan said: "The Prime Minister will decide when to call the election, considering the challenges confronting our country and the evolving Covid-19 situation."
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This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.