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Voting by post could be in place for overseas Singaporeans by next year's presidential election

SINGAPORE - Plans are in the works to allow more eligible voters to cast their ballots without having to go to polling stations by the presidential election next year.

Residents of nursing homes may be able to vote from their bed, and Singaporeans living overseas may be able to vote by mail, in changes proposed by the Elections Department (ELD) to make it easier for people to vote.

The department announced on Wednesday (May 26) that it is launching consultations with political parties, nursing homes and Singaporeans living overseas, with a view to start a pilot in some nursing homes and roll out postal voting in time for the presidential election due by September next year.

Results of the consultation exercise will be announced in July.

The proposed changes, first broached in March this year in Parliament, are part of a regular review of election processes, and come after changes to some processesduring the last general election on July 10, 2020.

General Election 2020 was held during the Covid-19 outbreak, with elderly Singaporeans assigned designated windows for voting, and some people allowed to vote from the hotel rooms where they were quarantined.

An ELD spokesman said at a technical briefing for the media on Wednesday that the election highlighted two key issues in the electoral landscape - that the ageing electorate will need more help and that overseas Singaporeans are keen to exercise their vote.

In GE2020, 21 per cent of all registered voters were aged 65 and above, up from 14 per cent in GE2011. This percentage is expected to grow as the population ages.

The ELD spokesman said the plan to allow elderly residents from nursing homes to vote at the homes, is similar to what was done during GE2020 for voters who were quarantined at designated hotels. There are about 80 nursing homes with 13,000 residents in Singapore.

To facilitate this, the ELD is consdering setting up an on-site polling station in a general area in nursing homes, where voters who are mobile can vote in a process similar to what happens at the regular polling stations.

In addition, it will deploy mobile teams which can bring the ballot box and ballot papers from bed to bed, so those who are not mobile can also vote.

The ELD will decide on the criteria for nursing homes to include in the pilot after consulting political parties and nursing home operators.

The ELD spokesman said at least one polling agent per candidate will be allowed to observe the polling proceedings, in the interest of transparency. This is similar to what happened during the pandemic at quarantine facilities where such voting was allowed.

As the profile of residents across nursing homes varies widely in terms of their physical and mental health, the assistance that they need may be very different, the ELD said.

Given this, nursing home staff may also have to help voters cast their ballots, and the ELD will spell out what staff at nursing homes can and cannot do to avoid the potential problem of elderly voters being influenced by nursing home staff, who may or may not be local, said the ELD.

For instance, staff will not be allowed to help voters mark the ballot papers.

During the pandemic, travel bans had also prevented some Singaporeans living overseas from voting.

Since overseas voting was introduced in 2006, the overseas polling stations have been the only places where those living overseas can vote. But in 2020, travel restrictions meant that some voters could not make it to the 10 cities - Beijing, Canberra, Dubai, Hong Kong, London, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, Tokyo and Washington - where the overseas polling stations were set up.

At GE2020, there were 6,750 registered overseas voters, and of these, a total of 4,794 cast their ballots.

In all, there are about 200,000 Singaporeans living overseas. But the number who meet the criteria to vote is expected to be smaller, as they need to be of voting age, have a local contact address, and have lived in Singapore for an aggregate of at least 30 days during the three-year period before the deadline to register as a voter.

The ELD said it has studied the experience of many countries that have introduced postal voting, such as the United States, and has gleaned valuable insights on the benefits and challenges involved.

For instance, it is hard to ensure security and secrecy with mail-in votes, since ballot papers can be lost or tampered with during delivery.

It is also difficult to ascertain if the person who marked the ballot paper is indeed the voter, and not someone else who may live at the same address.

Differences in postal systems could also mean that some voters may not receive their ballot papers in time to vote and send them back to the ELD to be counted before the deadline.

To mitigate against these issues, the ELD is exploring delivering postal ballot papers and return envelopes to overseas voters via electronic means, and having the voters download these with their Singpass account, the department said.

The voters can then print the ballot papers and return envelopes themselves. They will also have to have submitted a speciment of their signature while registering as postal voters.

After marking their self-printed ballot papers, they will have to sign on the return envelopes and mail them back to the ELD.

To ensure voting secrecy, there will not be any personal identifiers on the envelopes, such as names and addresses, and the signature will allow ELD to authenticate the envelope.

Overseas ballot papers will be removed from the envelope and will be mixed with other postal ballot papers before the votes are counted.

Envelopes postmarked after the eve of polling day in Singapore will be rejected, to ensure that all postal ballot papers are marked before the close of polls in Singapore.

Postal votes will also have to reach the ELD no later than 10 days after polling day to be counted. This strikes a balance between the different standards of postal services in other countries and the need to ensure that counting of votes is not delayed, said the ELD spokesman.

Tampered ballot papers will also be rejected.

If someone sends in two envelopes, the ELD said it will only accept the first ballot with a valid signature on the envelope. Any other envelopes will be rejected, as they would have registered that the voter has voted.

The ELD has invited all registered political parties in Singapore for the consultation exercise that will take place from Wednesday to Saturday, and will speak to nursing home operators from June 2 to 3.

It will also reach out to overseas Singaporeans through an online survey that will take place next month. It will be open till June 8.

Singaporeans interested in giving feedback on the proposed arrangements can also email the ELD at