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Automatic voter registration may be the answer to solve low voter registration and poor turnout at our polls.
Automatic voter registration may be the answer to solve low voter registration and poor turnout at our polls.

AS eclectic as a Turkish 1970’s funk and Anatolian rock, the implementation of automatic voter registration can be as systematically complicated.

On the list of daunting tasks include the need for an expansive or efficient database to consistently store and maintain voter updates, such as the registration of residential address especially in sectors involving constant movement and social mobility.

In the same vein, changing addresses on MyKad will prove to be a hassle. Such are the main problems as acknowledged by even the Election Commission (EC) on its FAQ (frequently asked questions) page when it comes to automatic registration.

In Malaysia, voters vote in constituencies where their residential address is located and registered on their identification cards. But regardless of questions on feasibility and impediments, arguably, automatic voter registration is the foremost solution to problems stemming from low voter registration, low voter turnout and electoral ignorance; all three are currently prominent conundrums.

The number of people who voted in the 14th general election was 82.32 per cent or 12,299,514 of the total registered voters of 14,940,624. It is learnt that at least three million have yet to make it to the list.

The low registration has led to a gross disparity in the number of voters, particularly between neighbouring constituencies, while the political legitimacy of a winning candidate from a smaller electorate might be left wanting.

Some experts have agreed that voter imbalance has contributed to the controversial necessity of widespread redrawing of electoral boundaries, which had led to allegations of gerrymandering. And while low voter turnout can be chiefly precipitated by political fatigue, a substantial number would have helped to mitigate the decline and take part in what is essentially the main cog in nation-building.

It goes without saying that people play an immense role in ensuring the objective of automatic voter registration works. But to compel them to do so will require another aspect of the proposed new system, which is compulsory voting.

Yes. Compulsory voting. Some analysts and observers believe such an approach is pertinent, given the general disposition of Malaysians towards non-compliant matters.

To take a leaf from Captain Hector Barbossa’s book — the concept of an automatic voter registration system without a compulsory voting law is akin to propping up mere guidelines than actual rules. Legislative details can be such a crick in the posterior.

And putting aside the need for a new Election Act, if we are to emulate the approach taken by Belgium, there is also the complexity concerning the type and severity of penalty for those who fail to cast the ballot papers on polling day.

Penalty, you may ask? The importance of voting is reflected in Belgium, where an unexcused voter who failed to vote at least four times in the period of 15 years will be delisted for a decade and might face difficulties landing a job in the public sector. The punitive measure has proven successful in inculcating voters’ responsibilities. For research purposes, Belgium’s electoral system provides a good read.

Back home, those shouldering the task in mooting reforms for the country’s electoral system, have already by now recognised the merits of such a system, despite the present hurdles that must be overcome.

The majority of political parties last year had agreed with the implementation of automatic voter registration, and it would be a tad ludicrous otherwise; no political party will frown at the prospect of increased potential stakeholders for a chance to win a bigger slice of the pie. Overall, it should be an impetus for an in-depth study and planning to take place.

Last month, the Electoral Reform Committee chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, who was the EC chairman about a decade ago, told this newspaper of the possibility of automatic voter registration followed by compulsory voting.

He concurred that the main issues would not only stem from the registration of residential addresses, but also on matters that were implied to be legally sensitive. Or perhaps, controversial.

“It (the latter) is something I cannot elaborate on because they correlate with legal affairs.”

He clearly knew the issues at hand and chose to be tight-lipped about them. It is something that Rashid needs to look into and must resolve in order to develop and reform Malaysia’s electoral system.

The writer is an NST specialist writer

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