SINGAPORE - Voters will be allotted recommended time bands to visit polling stations and reduce crowding in the upcoming election. They will also be given disposable gloves and be allowed to bring their own pens to cast their ballots.
Some 1,100 polling stations will also be set up - an extra 220 - with election officials spread out at least 1m apart, so everyone can keep a safe distance from one another.
These strict precautions are among efforts that will be put in place so Singapore can safely hold an election amid the coronavirus outbreak.
With public health experts expecting Covid-19 to be around for the long haul, and a constitutional deadline to hold the polls by April 14 next year, the next general election is almost certain to happen before the worldwide pandemic abates.
But some have warned of the danger of pushing ahead, saying that elections create the ideal conditions for the contagious coronavirus to spread.
In unveiling the guidelines on Monday (June 8), the Elections Department (ELD) said its key considerations were to minimise the exposure of voters, candidates and election officials to people who are not well or who may have come into contact with Covid-19 cases, and to ensure the safety of all involved, in particular, older voters who are more vulnerable.
In the queue
To avoid having large numbers of people descending on polling stations at the same time, voters will be allotted recommended two-hour slots for them to cast their ballot, which will be indicated on their hard copy polling card and also e-Poll card on the SingPass mobile app.
Voters who are 65 years old and above will be given recommended time slots in the morning, so they can vote before others. The ELD is expecting at least 400 of these elderly voters at close to two-thirds of polling stations.
When asked if family members accompanying the elderly voters can also vote at the same time, the ELD said this was allowed, as the time slots are a recommendation.
However, those who go to the polling station at a non-recommended time slot may end up having a longer wait, it added, urging people to keep to their time slots as much as possible.
To avoid bunching at the start of each two-hour time slot, a website, VoteQ.gowhere.gov.sg, will also be launched for people to check the queue situation at their assigned polling station.
When waiting to enter the polling stations and to vote, voters will have to queue at least 1m apart. Election officials will also have to keep a safe distance of at least 1m apart.
For these safe distance measures to be effected, there will be 1,100 polling stations at the next general election, instead of 880. This means that each station will serve an average of 2,400 voters, down from 3,000. At the entrance of the polling station, voters will have their temperatures measured, to sieve out those with fever or respiratory symptoms.
The ELD said whether these voters will be allowed to vote will be decided on later, based on the prevailing Covid-19 situation during the election.
Once inside, voters will be asked to use e-Registration, which will entail scanning their identity cards for registration so they do not have to hand their cards to election officials.
Any candidates and polling agents who want to enter the polling station to observe proceedings will also have to have their temperature taken. If they have a fever or respiratory symptoms, they will not be allowed to enter.
Additionally, candidates and polling agents will have to check-in and check-out using the SafeEntry app, to facilitate contact tracing if necessary.
This will not be required of voters, however, since the e-Registration system will record the time they registered.
Inside polling station
As required by the law, all voters, candidates and election official will be required to don masks.
The only time they will be allowed to remove their mask is when election officials have to verify their identity by checking their face against the picture on their NRIC.
Election officials will also be given the the necessary protective gear to protect themselves and those who will come into contact with them.
They will get surgical masks, disposable gloves, face shields, hand sanitisers, as well as access to water and soap to wash their hands regularly.
On their part, voters will be provided with sanitiser and will be given disposable gloves which they will have to put on before receiving their ballot paper.
This is to minimise the risk of contaminating the ballot papers which those counting the ballots will have to touch after voting is closed, as well as the self-inking pens that will be provided for people to mark their ballot.
Voters who want to be extra careful, though, can also bring their own pens to mark the ballot, said the ELD.
The department estimates that voters will have to spend at most five minutes within the polling stations from registration to voting.
With contaminated surfaces identified as one of the main ways the virus has spread, and voters using the same voting booths and pens, dedicated cleaners will also be deployed at all polling stations to clean these items, described as "common touch points".
They will do so at least once every half an hour.
After the close of poll, cleaners will also thoroughly disinfect the polling stations before they are returned to their original use as schools, for instance.
Voters who are sick
Meanwhile, to allow voters on stay-home notices to vote, while still keeping them away from other voters, special polling stations will be set up.
This applies only to those voters who are serving out their notices in designated facilities such as hotels. The Parliamentary Elections (Covid-19 Special Arrangements) Act provides for special polling stations to be set up in these facilities if certain criteria are fulfilled.
While the law also allows for special arrangements to be made for other types of voters - those on stay-home notices at home, Quarantine Orders or who are issued medical certificates for acute respiratory symptoms - the ELD said the decision for these groups will be announced only after the Writ is issued.
This is because it will be consulting the Ministry of Health before coming to a decision based on the prevailing Covid-19 situation and the health risks involved.
Said the ELD: "We call on all voters, candidates and their agents to be socially responsible and play their part to ensure a safe election for everyone."
"In the lead-up to Polling Day, ELD will reach out to voters through various communication channels in the four official languages to inform them of the safety measures, and reassure them that it is safe to vote in an election held during the Covid-19 situation. "
The ELD also said that despite the additional measures, polling and vote counting is not expected to be delayed, as long as people try to keep to the time slots they are given.
It also said that the counting machines which will be used to count the votes this year will help to speed things up.
Asked if voter turnout could be affected by the pandemic, the ELD said there have been positive examples of elections being held successfully during the pandemic.
Citing South Korea in particular, which saw a large voter turnout, the ELD said: "So we like to think that with the safety measures that we have announced that we are going to put in place I think voters should be reassured... and that will not impact the turnout."
In South Korea, people had been allowed to vote by mailing in their ballot papers after postal voting measures were implemented before the election.
However, this will not be possible in Singapore, the ELD said, when asked.
It added that there was no way to verify if the person who marked the ballot is really the voter himself or herself.
The same held true for digital voting. Even if people logged in using their SingPass account, it could be others logging in on their behalf, the ELD said.
"This will compromise our principle of one man, one vote" said the ELD.