Undi 18: With millions of new voters, Election Commission set to roll out automatic registration by June 2021

The Election Commission is on track to roll out the automatic voter registration by mid-2021. — Picture by Farhan Najib
The Election Commission is on track to roll out the automatic voter registration by mid-2021. — Picture by Farhan Najib

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 18 — Young Malaysians seem to be very much in demand nowadays.

Besides numerous companies trying to appeal to them, you also have political parties out to woo them.

This is largely due to the constitutional amendment made last year to lower the country’s voting age from 21 to 18 years’ old via a bill dubbed Undi 18.

With more youth-centric movements in the country, they are seen as eager to play a bigger role in the country’s democracy and nation-building process.

This is even more evident after former youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman yesterday submitted the application to register a new youth-based political party called the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda) at the Registrar of Societies (RoS).

However, apart from its historic nature of Undi 18, the sudden surge in the number of voters has brought new sets of challenges to the Election Commission (EC).

How to get it done

Its deputy chairman Azmi Sharom said there are about 15 million registered voters in the country and approximately four million potential voters above the age of 21 who are not registered to vote.

With several conflicting reports about the total population of those aged between 18 and 21, who will eventually be eligible to vote starting mid next year — Azmi said the EC currently doesn’t have the exact figure.

But he estimated that there could be approximately a million voters in that age group at the moment.

Although the Undi 18 bill was unanimously passed in the parliament last year, Azmi said it only comes to effect after the automatic voter registration is sorted out.

“This is a decision made by the parliament when they amended the constitution.

“The automatic registration was a surprise [for EC]. It wasn’t part of the recommendations for the constitutional amendment at that time, but after the negotiations [in parliament] they (lawmakers) decided to make three amendments,” he added.

Azmi said the three amendments were to lower the voting age, allow uniformity between the voting and candidacy age as well as the automatic voter registration.

“It was decided that automatic registration and 18-year-old voting has to happen at the same time.

“If it was just about 18-year-olds voting, that’s not a problem because they could register just like everybody else and it could happen the very next day.”

Azmi said there was a team working on the system and they were confident that it could be up and running by the end of June 2021.

“Once this is in place, everyone who is eligible to vote will be automatically registered.

“By then, there will be a sudden huge surge in the number of voters — pushing it from the current 15 million to approximately 20 million,” he said.

Election Commission deputy chairman Azmi Sharom talks about the challenges of having a sudden surge in the number of voters after the automatic voter registration is sorted out. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Election Commission deputy chairman Azmi Sharom talks about the challenges of having a sudden surge in the number of voters after the automatic voter registration is sorted out. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

Azmi added that the reason why the process is taking a long time was because the system had to be secure along with “many technical tasks”.

“There must be collaborations between several agencies such as the National Registration Department, Health Ministry and Prisons Department to identify those who are in mental hospitals or prisons.”

According to the constitution, people who are in prison and mental hospital or have lost their citizenship are not eligible to vote in Malaysia.

Objection period

Although the automatic voter registration system is slated for completion by mid next year, Azmi hinted that people shouldn’t expect to be on the electoral roll immediately.

“This is because the EC has an objection period every quarter to ensure that all the names that are registered to vote are still eligible.”

Azmi said the process may take a few months as soon as the automatic registration is done, and it will follow accordingly on quarterly basis.

Although the process may sound complex, Azmi said it was a requirement of the law that an objection period is allowed to ensure the legitimacy of all the eligible voters.

However, in case of snap polls, he said if the system is not ready by then they will have to carry on with the manual registration.

In such a scenario, those aged between 18 and 21 will only be able to vote in the 16th general election once the system is ready.

The challenges

While the new system could take away the hassle of manual registration, Azmi said the sudden surge of approximately five million new voters in the electoral roll may bring many logistical challenges to EC.

According to him, EC prepares for an election based on the number of registered voters.

He added that they have a standard operating procedure based on the number of voters and they segregate it accordingly through polling streams to ensure everybody gets to vote within the given time.

“With an approximately 25 per cent increase in the number of voters — whether they turn up or not — we have to set up more polling centres and streams. 

“It will also require more equipment, ballot boxes and ink, which eventually increase the cost,” he added.

Apart from the logistics, Azmi said once the new voters are in the electoral roll, the EC will require more polling officials to be trained by the EC academy to be prepared for a larger scale election.

The Election Commission has been pushing for a reform agenda to ensure more transparency in the electoral system. — Picture by Farhan Najib
The Election Commission has been pushing for a reform agenda to ensure more transparency in the electoral system. — Picture by Farhan Najib

Reform agenda for the electoral system

Moving forward, Azmi said EC has been pushing for a reform agenda to make the election process more transparent.

“Over the past 18 months, we have been studying different aspects of the election process by looking at areas such as delineation, electoral roll, electoral offences, electoral systems and the actual governance of the EC.”

He also admitted that any electoral system has certain loopholes, but said the EC committee was looking at various ways to tighten electoral offences to ensure a fair election.

“We now have a system of red flags where if something suspicious appears on the electoral rolls we will investigate.

“For example, we tend to investigate those who are over 90 years old just to make sure they are still alive because nobody registers death.

“Or if a particular address has a large number of voters that raises a red flag, we check it out to make sure that there’s no hanky-panky happening,” he said.

Ultimately, Azmi said what their goal was to have an election commission that’s “invisible”.

In regards to a digital voting system or e-voting, Azmi said he believed the conventional method seemed quite effective as Malaysia was a relatively small country.

“The system at the moment is quite simple, secure and efficient.

“It’s quite unnecessary to introduce a new element to a system that’s working well.”

Azmi, however, said a team at EC was currently studying the possibilities of electronic elements in the polling system but it may not be for now.

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