Voting in a time of coronavirus: Discretion, the better part of valor

Academic Views, Coronavirus / Saturday, March 21st, 2020

Chong Ja IanHarvard-Yenching Institute Visiting Scholar 2019-2020, discusses the risks—from both public health and other perspectives—of holding a General Election when COVID-19 remains at large.

Without a doubt, Singapore is in an extraordinary situation. It faces an ongoing pandemic, as does much of the world. Beyond disease control, there will be the challenges of responding to a massive global economic slowdown.

Amid the pressing need to address these concerns, no one I know thought that giving the People’s Action Party a fresh mandate was a priority until Lee Hsien Loong, the current Prime Minister, raised the issue. In fact, there seems to be broad confidence in the current administration’s handling of the situation. Even some of Lee’s cabinet members indicated more pressing issues exist, although there seems to be some change in views. The PAP’s current mandate is only up for a vote by April 2021.

Conditions created by the coronavirus pandemic complicate the electoral process. Officials appear to hint at a need to move away from rallies that involve mass gatherings, given the possibility of spreading infections at such events. In their place, may be online or streamed events that allow social distancing. Campaigning may have to depend on social and mainstream media as a result. The former tends to favor better resourced political parties and the latter, the ruling party. Individuals on quarantine orders or stay home notices may have to receive exemptions from Singapore’s mandatory voting requirements.

Political rallies are usually a staple part of Singapore’s elections, but they would be contrary to public health measures at a time of global pandemic. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Partisan predilections aside, voting raises public health considerations, particularly relating to social distancing when facing a contagious disease. Vulnerable populations such as people with pre-existing conditions or older individuals may particularly at risk. Voters will have physical contact with various surfaces where the coronavirus can survive for extended periods. Tables, voting booths, stationery, documents, registration stations, even ballot papers and ballot boxes, may become vectors for the coronavirus. Regularly cleaning and disinfecting these surfaces—while ensuring high levels of public confidence in voting secrecy and voter privacy—may introduce unanticipated complexities.

Polling and counting centers are enclosed spaces, largely run by individuals who will return to people-facing jobs as public servants or teachers. Compulsory voting means that close to 2.6 million people will come into contact at polling centers, excepting those with medical reasons, are overseas, or have other valid exemptions. Ballots from several polling centers consolidate at counting centers around the island, where vote tallying occurs in the presence of candidates, electoral agents, and other election officers. These people and those with whom they come into subsequent contact may face higher risk of infection. Pragmatism and responsibility under such circumstances calls for prudence.

I am unsure what sort of mandate might be delivered by an election held as a sudden outbreak is occurring (or, even worse, during an outbreak exacerbated or precipitated by voting). Then there are the social consequences of the animosities and insecurities arising from the negative campaigning common in Singapore elections. An act designed to express collective will may become an act that undermines unity and public health. Without alternatives to in-person voting, Singapore needs at least clear disease mitigation steps and contingency measures in place, and clearly communicated to the public, well in advance of any polls. Other jurisdictions with imminent elections are already seeking such measures.

A year is a relatively long time. Singapore does not have all-or-nothing pressure for immediate elections. Singapore can use of the flexibility its system affords in election timing to ensure adequate precautions are in place, rather than to create unnecessary pressure for itself, especially at an unprecedented moment of stress. A window of six-to-eight months, even ten, allows for the emergence of more knowledge about the coronavirus and how to manage it. This will aid election preparations as well as reduce public health and safety risks. If nothing else, the infection, hospitalization, and death rates from this global coronavirus contagion serve as a sobering warning for an abundance of caution.

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