By Danesh Prakash Chacko
In the 2018 and 2022 general elections, postal votes were thrust into the limelight due to an expansion in the postal voting base and issues surrounding their integrity.
The post-2018 general election era heralded new reforms to promote postal vote inclusivity and transparency.
The rapidly changing political environment was also reflected in the postal votes voting pattern in last November’s general election, when no single coalition commanded outright dominance.
This article expounds on the evolution of postal voting in this new era.
In any election in Malaysia, there are three types of votes: postal votes, early votes, and ordinary or normal votes.
Among these three types, postal balloting starts first. The issuing of postal ballot forms takes place immediately after nomination day, and voters then send their postal ballots to the offices of the respective returning officers (the returning office implements the election for each constituency) by 5pm on the normal polling day.
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This process raises a few issues:
- Who are eligible to be postal voters?
- When are the new classes of postal voters able to register?
- What is the duration of the campaign period (which determines the timeframe for the issuing and collection of postal votes)?
The general classes of postal voters are:
- absent voters
- voters who are eligible to vote early (eg the military and the police) but are unable to vote on the early voting day
- the officers whom the Election Commission assigns to be on duty on the early voting day or the normal polling day
- election commissioners and classes of individuals gazetted by the Election Commission from time to time
Leading up to the 2018 general election, the Election Commission gazetted the staff of nine government agencies as eligible classes of postal voters.
The expansion of the postal voting classes back then raised eyebrows in some civil society circles and among political parties about the integrity of the postal voting process.
After the 2018 election, the Election Commission carried out major reforms, starting from the 2021 Malacca state election.
Unlike in previous elections with restrictive rules for overseas Malaysians, all Malacca voters living abroad were made into an eligible class of postal voters for the Malacca election.
The minimum voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, and automatic voter registration was implemented. This added about five to six million new voters to the electoral roll.
This huge addition of voters dramatically increased the need for polling staff (an eligible class for postal voting) due to the higher number of ballots at voting streams and other voting needs.
In the days before the dissolution of the 14th Parliament of Malaysia last year, a gazette was issued to classify overseas Malaysians as eligible for postal voting.
Workers from the national power supply company, Tenaga Nasional Bhd, were also classified as eligible for postal voting in the 2022 general election.
In the 2018 general election, domestic postal voters accounted for 94% of the postal vote bank. With the inclusion of overseas Malaysians as postal voters for the 2022 general election, the domestic postal voter share dropped to 86%.
Specifically, for overseas Malaysians, each major election after 2018 indicated a varying time for postal voter registration. According to a Suhakam 2023 notice paper on postal votes, the application time for postal voters for overseas Malaysians was 75 days for the 2018 general election.
Despite the expansion of the postal voting base, the duration for overseas postal voters to register was very short in the last two years.
Since the 2018 general election, the number of days allocated for overseas Malaysians to register as postal voters ranged from 10 to 24 days (for the upcoming state elections).
Since the postal voting process is confined to a limited period between nomination day and the normal polling day, and affected by the distribution of voters (domestic and overseas), the campaign period for each election cycle determines whether postal votes can be returned in time.
For the 2018 general election, these were only 11 days for the election period. For the four state elections and general election since 2018, the campaign period ranged from 13 to 14 days. This duration is too short for overseas Malaysians to return their postal ballots in time.
Unlike early votes and ordinary votes, postal ballots in Malaysia usually register a high rate of unreturned ballots. For the 2018 general election at the parliamentary level, the average unreturned rate was 20.6%.
This number surprisingly fell to 11.7% for last November’s general election. Despite the short campaign period and the explosion in the postal voting base, on average, the unreturned rate declined by 8.9 percentage points (from the 2018 general election to the 2022 polls).
Historically, postal votes used to favour the ruling incumbents. According to a Merdeka Center study in 2013, postal and early votes gave victory to Barisan Nasional in 22 constituencies in the general election that year. The same study concluded BN could have lost up to 30 seats if it had failed to win the postal and early votes.
One must acknowledge that such experiences do influence the attitudes of postal voting agents of the various political parties when they monitor the postal voting process.
When we examine the postal voting patterns in the 2018 general election strictly between BN, Pakatan Harapan-plus-Warisan, and Gagasan Sejahtera (the Pas-led coalition), BN received the most votes (the first choice) in 194 out of 222 constituencies. (Similar to early or ordinary voters, postal voters can choose one candidate.) All other coalitions or smaller parties barely registered as the first preference of postal voters in the 2018 election.
But the 2022 general election witnessed a dramatic turnaround for BN, as it lost command of postal votes. Instead, Perikatan Nasional was the postal voters’ first preference in 88 constituencies. While PH’s share of first choice among postal voters grew in the 2022 election, it also lost ground and dominated as the third choice among postal voters.
So postal votes (similar to early votes) are no longer in the firm hands of one coalition or political party.
In parting, the reforms after the 2018 general election are both welcome and disheartening.
These reforms include the expansion of postal voting base for overseas Malaysians, the earlier gazetting of overseas Malaysians for them to become postal voters, the use of technology to speed up the postal voter registration process (including the recent extension to cover the Election Commission’s polling staff) and general improvements to the polling process.
Some of these great reforms were not carried out holistically, though. It is for society and the political actors to ensure that postal votes are inclusive and secure for both domestic and overseas Malaysian voters.
Danesh Prakash Chacko is a research analyst at the Jeffrey Sachs Center in Sunway University