The Election Commission and absent voters

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The time has come for the EC to fulfil the task of helping Malaysians to exercise their right as voters rather than excluding some because of an archaic interpretation, writes Christopher Chong.

Photo credit: hazuism.blogspot.com

Article 119 of the Federal Constitution gives the right to vote in elections to every Malaysian citizen who is 21 or above. The Article defines a voter as being either a resident of a constituency or an absent voter.

A resident of a constituency simply means someone who lives in a constituency in which he or she has registered with the Election Commission (EC) to vote in.

An absent voter would be an individual who has registered as such with the EC to vote in a certain constituency, i.e. given the right to vote via post as he or she will not be physically able to vote in the constituency concerned on polling day.

But the Federal Constitution does not define who an absent voter is. This absence of definition was extended to the Elections Act 1958 but it did empower the EC to regulate all matters regarding voter registration and related matters. This includes prescribing facilities to be provided for voting by post and the persons entitled to vote by post. In short, the EC decides who can be given the right to vote by post as an absent voter.

According to the EC, an absent voter is someone who is:

  • a member of any regular armed force of Malaysia or a Commonwealth or foreign country,
  • a Malaysian public servant stationed overseas,
  • a full-time student in higher education,
  • (subject to certain conditions) a spouse of any of the above.

This definition excludes a vast majority of overseas Malaysians from the right to vote by post.

Recently, a group of overseas Malaysian challenged the EC’s definition of who can be given the right of postal vote in court but sadly the court upheld the EC’s definition. I find this surprising because Malaysian missions abroad are obligated to help overseas Malaysians by issuing official documents such as registering marriages and issuing emergency certificate for those who have lost their passports simply because they are citizens of Malaysia.

Why then is it so difficult for the EC to simply classify all overseas Malaysians as absent voters? More so as a postal voting system is already in place. All that is required now is to extend the postal voting franchise to those who are currently excluded.

Is it not the duty of the EC to facilitate the right to vote for every Malaysian citizen as provided for under the Federal Constitution? By imposing certain conditions as to who is eligible as postal voters, have the EC not erred in interpreting the institution’s raison d’etre?

The EC’s interpretation of absent voters is outdated. It was developed at a time when Malaysians residing abroad was a rare occurrence with the exception of the categories it developed. But the current reality of globalisation has seen many Malaysians residing overseas. Nonetheless, they remain citizens of the country.

They must therefore be given the same consideration as those overseas Malaysians who fall under its category of absent voters. The EC should reinterpret who is an absent voter, taking into account the reality of globalisation and its task of facilitating the right to vote of all eligible Malaysians as provided for under the Federal Constitution. The time has come for the EC to fulfil the task of helping Malaysians to exercise their right as voters rather than excluding some because of an archaic interpretation.

Dr Christopher Chong is an Aliran member

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