March 2022 Vol 2 No 16

Your Editor, Jamari Mohtar, is thinking the issue of low voter turnout can be easily solved by making voting compulsory, but some would argue this is not consistent with the freedom associated with democracy; what about replacing election with referendum then, again there will be voices against this, hence low voter turnout is nothing more than showing up the internal contradiction of democracy.

  • The low voter turnout of 54.92% in the recent Johor election has set tongue wagging among the politicians that the Election Commission (EC) is experiencing a trust deficit.
  • But no one really bothers to define what is meant by a low voter turnout.
  • Similarly, what constitutes a high voter turnout? Does it mean a 100% full turnout at the poll?
  • And politicians who talked about a trust deficit of the EC coincidentally came from the opposition parties which gives the impression that they are more of sore losers rather than wanting to see the issue from an objective perspective.
  • A voter turnout of 54.29% means more than half of those who were eligible to vote turned out to vote, and hence you cannot describe it as a measly turnout as compared for instance with a measly voter turnout of 10% or less.
  • So the first order of business is to first find out what is the cut-off percentage of voter turnout that can be considered as low.
  • The table below shows the voter turnout for all general elections (GE) at the Federal level including the first one in 1955 held before independence.
  • The highest turnout was at 84.84% recorded during GE13 in 2013 when Datuk Seri Najib Razak was the prime minister, while the lowest turnout was at 68.3% during GE9 (1995) when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad was the PM.
  • Note that the average turnout (which is derived by adding the voter turnout percentages for all the 15 GEs and then dividing it by 15) is 75.72%.
  • If we ignore the first GE in 1955 because it took place before the country achieved independence in 1957, then the average voter turnout is 75.21%
  • If we take the average of the highest (84.84%) and the lowest (68.3%) voter turnouts, the average turnout will be 76.57%.
  • From all these figures, we can conveniently say that anything that is below 60% is a low voter turnout; anything in the range of 60% to 80% is a reasonable voter turnout while above 80% is a convincing voter turnout.
  • Now, what does a low voter turnout mean? In general, low turnout is attributed to disillusionment, indifference, or a sense of futility – the perception that one’s vote won’t make any difference.
  • Assuming that low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment or indifference, some analysts conclude a poll with a low turnout may not be an accurate reflection of the will of the people.
  • On the other hand, if low turnout is a reflection of contentment of voters about likely winners or parties, then low turnout is as legitimate as high turnout, as long as the right to vote exists.
  • But it is questionable to associate a low voter turnout to mean that the winner of the election did not in fact really win, as it does not in reality reflect the will of the people.
  • This is hogwash that reflects sore losers i.e. contestants who are in a denial mode that they have already lost the election, and still wanting to give excuses that they didn’t really lose.
  • In a democracy, the will of the people includes their right of not to register for voting; and their right of not to vote even after registering to vote.
  • This is an internal contradiction of democracy with regards to the concept of freedom. It gives equal right to vote and not to vote in the name of freedom.
  • As long as the right to vote exists and there is no voter suppression such as when voters are not allowed or unable to vote, or when disenfranchisement occurs, the consensus on who is the winner as stipulated in the Constitution reflects the will of the people, period!
  • In Malaysia, this consensus is called “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) principle meaning the candidate with the plurality of votes is the winner of the parliamentary/assembly seat.
  • Even though the loser will have some voters voting for him or her, under the FPTP principle, it is a “winner takes all” system, as the winner is the one with the most number of votes.
  • That’s why in the 1987 Umno election when Mahathir beat Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah 761 to 718 votes for the post of the president of Umno – a mere 43-vote margin – the former was reported to have said a win is a win.
  • That’s the essence of FPTP principle – winner takes all, even if it’s a win by one vote.
  • Of course, there will be cases when you add up the votes of all the winners and compare them against the votes of all the losers, the losers could end up with more votes than all the winners.
  • This is the concept of popular votes but the FPTP principle is primarily based on the number of seats won and not on the number of popular votes garnered.
  • Is low voter turnout a disadvantage to the opposition? Not necessarily. The opposition would always say low voter turnout is a disadvantage to them because it means many of their supporters did not turn up to vote.
  • This perception is based on the observation that when voter turnout is low, the opposition will not only lose, but also sometime lose badly in the election.
  • But there have never been any studies to show that the majority of voters who didn’t turn up for voting are opposition supporters.
  • If we look at the figures on voter turnout above, the highest voter turnout in 2013 did not give an advantage to the opposition at all because that election returned the government back to office.
  • What happens here is a correlation between low voter turnout and the opposition losing is taken as a causal factor.
  • In statistics and philosophy, correlation and causality are two different things.
  • This means that a low voter turnout can be consistent with both the opposition winning or losing, just like it can also be consistent with the government winning or losing.
  • Ditto with a high voter turnout.
  • This is simply because high or low voter turnout is not the cause of winning or losing.
  • Popular votes are meaningless in determining the winner if the consensus on who is the winner is based on first-past-the-post (FPTP) principle.
  • To see why this is so, let us assume a hypothetical example of there is only three constituencies to be contested and it is a straight fight between BN and PH. Also assume BN won two of the seats based on the FPTP principle.
  • So the score is 2-1 in favour of BN. In term of percentage win based on seats, BN won (2/3 multiply by 100) 66.67% of the total seats.
  • But let’s say in the first seat that BN won, it garnered 5,000 votes versus 4,000 for PH. In the second seat that BN won, it garnered 10,000 votes versus 8,000 for PH. But in the last seat won by PH, BN managed to garner 15,000 votes while PH was able to secure 30,000 votes.
  • The popular votes won by BN were then (5,000 + 10,000 + 15,000) 30,000. For PH, the popular votes were (4,000 + 8,000 + 30,000) 42,000.
  • So, PH won the popular votes i.e. 42,000 for PH versus 30,000 for BN. In percentage term, BN secured (30,000/72,000 multiply by 100) 41.67% of the popular votes while PH secured (42,000/72,000 multiply by 100) 58.33% of the popular votes.
  • Despite PH winning the popular votes, it is BN which won the election because of its winning of two seats over one by PH – the FPTP principle.
  • However, for both the winning and losing parties, the popular votes obtained could be important lessons on how they had performed during the election, and provide the key to a better performance in the next election.
  • A winning party that ignores the popular votes does so at its own peril due to the arrogance that it is enough just to focus on the number of seats won under the FPTP principle.
  • This is because the popular votes give an important clue on the voting pattern in each constituency, and even a rough idea of some demographic profiles of the voters in term of voting for example young versus old, and rural versus urban, which will be a crucial factor in determining the winning strategy for the next election.
  • In 2008 for instance, the ruling BN for the first time failed to achieve a two-thirds supermajority, and perhaps dismissed it simply because it had won the election.
  • Five years later in 2013, BN not only failed for a second time to get a two-thirds supermajority but also lost the popular votes to PH for the first time.
  • However because of the FPTP principle, BN still won the election based on the number of seats won.
  • Again BN dismissed this second failure of obtaining a two-third supermajority, and perhaps was arrogant when it was pointed out that it lost the popular votes because to BN a win is a win.
  • In 2018, BN had to pay dearly for this arrogance when it not only failed to get a two-thirds supermajority for the third time, and lost the popular votes a second time, but also lost the election to PH for the first time, which won more seats than BN.
  • So, what really causes the problem of low voter turnout? It’s simply because of the contradiction of democracy in allowing the freedom of both to vote and not to vote. 
  • If people has the right not to vote and he or she exercises this right, there is nothing you can do to force him to vote.  
  • If voting is made compulsory, then this contradiction disappears. The laws need to be amended to make way for compulsory voting.  
  • Making voting compulsory doesn’t mean those who are guilty of not voting will face a hefty fine or long imprisonment term.  
  • The way it is practised in Singapore which is one of the few countries in the world that implements compulsory voting, as explained by some of my Singaporean friends, if you do not vote in an election, nothing really happen to you immediately.  
  • But come the next election time, as the country’s Election Commission (EC) is updating its electoral register your name will appear as someone who did not vote in the previous election.  
  • A show cause letter is then sent to you on why you should remain in the electoral register. If you ignore this letter by the deadline given, nothing will happen to you except that your name will be taken out from the electoral register, which means you cannot vote in the coming election.  
  • It’s like you are voluntarily disenfranchising yourself by remaining quiet. But if you respond to the letter by stating the reason for your absence in the last election, and the Singapore EC accepts your reason, your name remains in the electoral register as a voter for the upcoming election.  
  • Some of the acceptable reasons are working overseas (including being on a business trip) at the time of the poll; studying overseas at the time of the poll; living with their spouse who is working or studying overseas; overseas vacation; and illness, or delivering a baby.  
  • If the reason for your absence at the poll is rejected by the EC, then you will be taken out of the register and you need to pay a nominal sum to reinstate your name in the electoral register.  
  • For as long as you don’t pay this nominal “fine”, you cannot vote. It is as if you’re voluntarily disenfranchising yourself for life.  
  • But at anytime after voluntarily disenfranchising yourself, if you miss voting, all you need to do is to pay the nominal “fine” for your name to be reinstated in the electoral register for you to take part in voting at the poll.  
  • With this compulsory voting, Singapore has never faced a low voter turnout. At the same time, the democratic freedom of not to vote is allowed because no one is subjected to hefty fines or imprisonment for not voting. 
  • Of course, the Singapore EC will do its part via an education programme to encourage citizens to vote because a fundamental right of citizenship is the civic responsibility to be exercised by citizens to choose and elect their leaders in a democracy.  
  • The two greatest democracies of the world – the US and the UK – until today don’t make it compulsory for their citizens to vote.  
  • Considering that the US is willing to go to war to spread democracy, it is indeed hypocrisy of the highest order for it not to make voting compulsory among its citizens.  
  • Some scholars in the US prefer to call compulsory voting as universal voting because “compulsory voting” is seen as a proposition that is forcing citizens to choose a candidate or party, which might legitimately be construed by the courts as compulsory speech.  
  • In universal voting, voters would be free to cast a blank ballot. And to stress the freedom not to make a choice, these scholars propose including a “None of the Above” option, which in our part of the world is deemed as spoilt votes.  
  • Universal voting in the US is seen by some as a game changer to move on from vacillating between inclusion and exclusion, and between embracing democracy and retreating.  
  • As of January 2020, of the 36 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only three had forms of compulsory voting which is enforced in practice: Australia, Belgium, Luxembourg.  
  • Additionally, Greece, Mexico and Turkey have compulsory voting theoretically, but it is not enforced.  
  • As for e-voting, it will face the same problem of the internal contradiction of a democracy because there is only so much that you can do to encourage people to vote when their right not to vote is always there.  
  • The only advantage of e-voting is the hefty lower cost of organising an election and the relatively hassle-free voting for the voters.  
  • State polls in Malaysia since GE14 have cost the government RM420 million, with the recent Johor elections accounting for nearly RM100 million of the bill.  
  • The EC total expenditures for the state polls were RM130 million in Sabah, RM45 million in Melaka and RM149 million in Sarawak.  
  • Election expenses include the rental of equipment, vehicles, technology development, logistics solutions, allowances for EC staff, and items needed to adhere to Covid-19 SOPs. 
  • The recent Melaka and Johor elections cost RM13 million and RM35 million more respectively, than the last time the states elected a new state assembly in 2018.  
  • As some experts have said e-voting can cut the cost of organising an election by more than half, so e-voting should then be implemented for this purpose, together with making voting compulsory for the purpose of preventing a low voter turnout.
  • A petrol/diesel engine has 20,000 individual parts. An electrical motor has 20. Electric cars are sold with lifetime guarantees and are only repaired by dealers. It takes only 10 minutes to remove and replace an electric motor.
  • Faulty electric motors are not repaired in the dealership but are sent to a regional repair shop that repairs them with robots.
  • Your electric motor malfunction light goes on, so you drive up to what looks like a car wash, and your car is towed through while you have a cup of coffee and out, comes your car with a new electric motor!
  • In 2018 the first self-driving cars are already here. In the next 2 years, the entire industry will start to be disrupted. You won’t want to own a car anymore as you will call a car with your phone, it will show up at your location and drive you to your destination.
  • You will not need to park it and will only pay for the driven distance and you can be productive while driving. The very young children of today will never get a driver’s license and will never own a car.
  • This will change our cities because we will need 90-95% fewer cars. We can transform former parking spaces into green parks.
  • About 1.2 million people die each year in car accidents worldwide including deaths due to distracted or drunken driving.
  • We now have one accident every 60,000 miles; with autonomous driving that will drop to one accident in six million miles. That will save a million plus lives worldwide each year.
  • Insurance companies will have massive trouble because, with a lot more less accidents, the premium cost will become cheaper. Their car insurance business model will disappear.
  • Most traditional car companies will doubtless become bankrupt. They will try the evolutionary approach and just build a better car, while tech companies (Tesla, Apple, Google) will do the revolutionary approach and build a computer on wheels.
  • Look at what Volvo is doing right now; no more internal combustion engines in their vehicles starting with 2019 models, using all electric or hybrid only, with the intent of phasing out hybrid models.
  • Many engineers from Volkswagen and Audi are completely terrified of Tesla and they should be. Look at all the companies offering all electric vehicles. That was unheard of, only a few years ago.
    The low voter turnout of 54.92% in the recent Johor election has set tongue wagging among the politicians that the Election Commission (EC) is experiencing a trust deficit.
    But no one really bothers to define what is meant by a low voter turnout.
    Similarly, what constitutes a high voter turnout? Does it mean a 100% full turnout at the poll?
    And politicians who talked about a trust deficit of the EC coincidentally came from the opposition parties which gives the impression that they are more of sore losers rather than wanting to see the issue from an objective perspective.
    A voter turnout of 54.29% means more than half of those who were eligible to vote turned out to vote, and hence you cannot describe it as a measly turnout as compared for instance with a measly voter turnout of 10% or less.
    So the first order of business is to first find out what is the cut-off percentage of voter turnout that can be considered as low.
    The table below shows the voter turnout for all general elections (GE) at the Federal level including the first one in 1955 held before independence.
    The highest turnout was at 84.84% recorded during GE13 in 2013 when Datuk Seri Najib Razak was the prime minister, while the lowest turnout was at 68.3% during GE9 (1995) when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad was the PM.
    Note that the average turnout (which is derived by adding the voter turnout percentages for all the 15 GEs and then dividing it by 15) is 75.72%.
    If we ignore the first GE in 1955 because it took place before the country achieved independence in 1957, then the average voter turnout is 75.21%
    If we take the average of the highest (84.84%) and the lowest (68.3%) voter turnouts, the average turnout will be 76.57%.
    From all these figures, we can conveniently say that anything that is below 60% is a low voter turnout; anything in the range of 60% to 80% is a reasonable voter turnout while above 80% is a convincing voter turnout.
    Now, what does a low voter turnout mean? In general, low turnout is attributed to disillusionment, indifference, or a sense of futility – the perception that one’s vote won’t make any difference.
    Assuming that low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment or indifference, some analysts conclude a poll with a low turnout may not be an accurate reflection of the will of the people.
    On the other hand, if low turnout is a reflection of contentment of voters about likely winners or parties, then low turnout is as legitimate as high turnout, as long as the right to vote exists.
    But it is questionable to associate a low voter turnout to mean that the winner of the election did not in fact really win, as it does not in reality reflect the will of the people.
    This is hogwash that reflects sore losers i.e. contestants who are in a denial mode that they have already lost the election, and still wanting to give excuses that they didn’t really lose.
    In a democracy, the will of the people includes their right of not to register for voting; and their right of not to vote even after registering to vote.
    This is an internal contradiction of democracy with regards to the concept of freedom. It gives equal right to vote and not to vote in the name of freedom.
    As long as the right to vote exists and there is no voter suppression such as when voters are not allowed or unable to vote, or when disenfranchisement occurs, the consensus on who is the winner as stipulated in the Constitution reflects the will of the people, period!
    In Malaysia, this consensus is called “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) principle meaning the candidate with the plurality of votes is the winner of the parliamentary/assembly seat.
    Even though the loser will have some voters voting for him or her, under the FPTP principle, it is a “winner takes all” system, as the winner is the one with the most number of votes.
    That’s why in the 1987 Umno election when Mahathir beat Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah 761 to 718 votes for the post of the president of Umno – a mere 43-vote margin – the former was reported to have said a win is a win.
    That’s the essence of FPTP principle – winner takes all, even if it’s a win by one vote.
    Of course, there will be cases when you add up the votes of all the winners and compare them against the votes of all the losers, the losers could end up with more votes than all the winners.
    This is the concept of popular votes but the FPTP principle is primarily based on the number of seats won and not on the number of poplar votes garnered.
    Is low voter turnout a disadvantage to the opposition? Not necessarily. The opposition would always say low voter turnout is a disadvantage to them because it means many of their supporters did not turn up to vote.
    This perception is based on the observation that when voter turnout is low, the opposition will not only lose, but also sometime lose badly in the election.
    But there have never been any studies to show that the majority of voters who didn’t turn up for voting are opposition supporters.
    If we look at the figures on voter turnout above, the highest voter turnout in 2013 did not give an advantage to the opposition at all because that election returned the government back to office.
    What happens here is a correlation between low voter turnout and the opposition losing is taken as a causal factor.
    In statistics and philosophy, correlation and causality are two different things.
    This means that a low voter turnout can be consistent with both the opposition winning or losing, just like it can also be consistent with the government winning or losing.
    Ditto with a high voter turnout.
    This is simply because high or low voter turnout is not the cause of winning or losing.
    So, what really causes the problem of low voter turnout? It’s simply because of the contradiction of democracy in allowing the freedom of both to vote and not to vote.
    If people has the right not to vote and he or she exercises this right, there is nothing you can do to force him to vote.
    If voting is made compulsory, then this contradiction disappears. The laws need to be amended to make way for compulsory voting.
    Making voting compulsory doesn’t mean those who are guilty of not voting will face a hefty fine or long imprisonment term.
    The way it is practised in Singapore which is one of the few countries in the world that implements compulsory voting, as explained by some of my Singaporean friends, if you do not vote in an election, nothing really happen to you immediately.
    But come the next election time, as the country’s Election Commission (EC) is updating its electoral register your name will appear as someone who did not vote in the previous election.
    A show cause letter is then sent to you on why you should remain in the electoral register. If you ignore this letter by the deadline given, nothing will happen to you except that your name will be taken out from the electoral register, which means you cannot vote in the coming election.
    It’s like you are voluntarily disenfranchising yourself by remaining quiet. But if you respond to the letter by stating the reason for your absence in the last election, and the Singapore EC accepts your reason, your name remains in the electoral register as a voter for the upcoming election.
    Some of the acceptable reasons are working overseas (including being on a business trip) at the time of the poll; studying overseas at the time of the poll; living with their spouse who is working or studying overseas; overseas vacation; and illness, or delivering a baby.
    If the reason for your absence at the poll is rejected by the EC, then you will be taken out of the register and you need to pay a nominal sum to reinstate your name in the electoral register.
    For as long as you don’t pay this nominal “fine”, you cannot vote. It is as if you’re voluntarily disenfranchising yourself for life.
    But at anytime after voluntarily disenfranchising yourself, if you miss voting, all you need to do is to pay the nominal “fine” for your name to be reinstated in the electoral register for you to take part in voting at the poll.
    With this compulsory voting, Singapore has never faced a low voter turnout. At the same time, the democratic freedom of not to vote is allowed because no one is subjected to hefty fines or imprisonment for not voting.
    Of course, the Singapore EC will do its part via an education programme to encourage citizens to vote because a fundamental right of citizenship is the civic responsibility to be exercised by citizens to choose and elect their leaders in a democracy.
    The two greatest democracies of the world – the US and the UK – until today don’t make it compulsory for their citizens to vote.
    Considering that the US is willing to go to war to spread democracy, it is indeed hypocrisy of the highest order for it not to make voting compulsory among its citizens.
    Some scholars in the US prefer to call compulsory voting as universal voting because “compulsory voting” is seen as a proposition that is forcing citizens to choose a candidate or party, which might legitimately be construed by the courts as compulsory speech.
    In universal voting, voters would be free to cast a blank ballot. And to stress the freedom not to make a choice, these scholars propose including a “None of the Above” option, which in our part of the world is deemed as spoilt votes.
    Universal voting in the US is seen by some as a game changer to move on from vacillating between inclusion and exclusion, and between embracing democracy and retreating.
    As of January 2020, of the 36 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only three had forms of compulsory voting which is enforced in practice: Australia, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
    Additionally, Greece, Mexico and Turkey have compulsory voting theoretically, but it is not enforced.
    As for e-voting, it will face the same problem of the internal contradiction of a democracy because there is only so much that you can do to encourage people to vote when their right not to vote is always there.
    The only advantage of e-voting is the hefty lower cost of organising an election and the relatively hassle-free voting for the voters.
    State polls in Malaysia since GE14 have cost the government RM420 million, with the recent Johor elections accounting for nearly RM100 million of the bill.
    The EC total expenditures for the state polls were RM130 million in Sabah, RM45 million in Melaka and RM149 million in Sarawak. Election expenses include the rental of equipment, vehicles, technology development, logistics solutions, allowances for EC staff, and items needed to adhere to Covid-19 SOPs.
    The recent Melaka and Johor elections cost RM13 million and RM35 million more respectively, than the last time the states elected a new state assembly in 2018.
    As some experts have said e-voting can cut the cost of organising an election by more than half, so e-voting should then be implemented for this purpose, together with making voting compulsory for the purpose of preventing a low voter turnout.
    Regards,
    Jamari Mohtar
    Editor, Let’s Talk!
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