Malaysia on track to lower voting age to 18, launch automatic voter registration system

In 2019, EC projected an increase of 7.8 million new voters by 2023 if the AVR comes into place. PHOTO: ST FILE

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysia is set to lower the voting age to 18 and roll out its automatic voter registration (AVR) system by July this year, said Election Commission (EC) deputy chairman Azmi Sharom.

On July 16,2019, Parliament unanimously passed the constitutional amendment for AVR to lower the voting age to 18, and to make 18 the minimum age for a Malaysian citizen to run for public office.

Dr Azmi said the EC is on track to launch the AVR system, though with higher number of voters, it faces challenges to gazette the new rolls.

In 2019, the EC projected 7.8 million new voters, a 50 per cent increase from the current number of voters by 2023 if the AVR system comes into place. That is because the AVR alone could bring in 4.5 million voters aged 21 and above who have yet to register as voters.

"I am told the EC is on track in ensuring the system for AVR, and lowering the voting age to 18 will be ready by July 2021.

"The secretariat has been working hard to achieve this, despite challenges posed by Covid-19 and movement control orders. The systems are currently being put in place. With regard to the changes in legislation, I do not have that information at the moment.

"The projection of 7.8 million new voters when AVR is in place is probably accurate or close to accurate. This huge number of new voters will mean the EC will face the tremendous challenge of getting the new voter rolls.

"Registration is one thing, but the gazetting of new voter rolls is a necessary requirement with certain procedures needed - such as objection period - before a person can vote," said Dr Azmi.

He, however, pointed out that the legislation to enforce AVR and lowering the voting age to 18 is out of the EC's hands.

The Amendment Act to lower voting age was signed by King Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah on Sept 4,2019, and gazetted on Sept 10,2019. However, AVR and the lowering of voting age to 18 have yet to be completely put into the federal legislation.

As of today, Perlis, Perak, Kelantan, Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak have amended their state Constitutions to allow those at least 18 years old to stand in elections, while six other states have yet to do so.

Constitution expert Shad Saleem Faruqi said that for 18-year-olds to vote in the next general election and the AVR, consequential changes must be made to the Election Offences Act 1954, Elections (Conduct of Elections) Regulations 1981 and Elections (Registration of Electors) Regulations 2002.

He also said all state Constitutions must be amended to enable the lowering of the age of eligibility to contest a seat in state assemblies.

He said the Attorney-General's Chambers should confirm whether there has been a notification by the King under Section 1(2) of the Constitution (Amendment) Act 2019 since the gazetting.

Professor Emeritus Shad Saleem pointed out that while subsidiary legislation such as the Elections (Conduct of Elections) Regulations 1981 and Elections (Registration of Electors) Regulations 2002 can be altered by the executive without the need to go to Parliament, the problem remains with updating the Election Offences Act 1954 and amending state Constitutions.

"Due to the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 2021, Parliament is not in session, hence it cannot enact the necessary amendments to the Election Offences Act 1954. Likewise, state assemblies are not in session and cannot enact the necessary amendments to their Constitutions," said Datuk Dr Shad Saleem.

If the next general election is held before all the amendments are made and the preparations are done, he said the EC would be in a real dilemma.

"Must the EC continue to follow the outdated state Constitutions on the qualifying age for assemblymen or comply with the unamended Acts?

"Or must the EC show fidelity to the supreme Constitution and superimpose the commands of the 2019 amendment on all relevant election laws even if they are not yet amended formally?

"Given the supremacy of the federal Constitution, any provision in the federal Constitution must prevail over all other laws (provided the constitutional provision is in operation)," said Dr Shad Saleem.

He warned that such administrative delays in making the amendments to the federal and state Constitutions may result in millions of 18-year-olds losing their rights to vote in the next general election.

He said this may then open up the government to lawsuits from disenfranchised voters.

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