Technology to play bigger role at next election

A voter at Teck Ghee Primary School on the morning of Polling Day, on Sept 11, 2015.
A voter at Teck Ghee Primary School on the morning of Polling Day, on Sept 11, 2015.PHOTO: ST FILE

In future elections, elderly voters who converse mainly in dialects may be able to clarify their doubts at polling stations using a machine that can help to translate frequently asked questions, Elections Department (ELD) head Koh Siong Ling has said.

While no date has been fixed for the roll-out of such machines, the ELD has seen a demonstration of this system - although cost-effectiveness will be a consideration in deciding whether to introduce it, he said.

Mr Koh was speaking in an interview with The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao to mark the 70th anniversary of ELD, in which he outlined various ways technology can aid the voting process in future. But electronic voting is unlikely to happen soon, he said.

Explaining why dialect-speaking machines may be needed, Mr Koh recounted his experience in Tanjong Pagar as a deputy group assistant returning officer in 2011. He saw a case of communication breakdown between a young election official and an elderly voter who could understand only Cantonese.

He said: "Tanjong Pagar has a lot of elderly voters, and it was not contested for the longest time... While we have had elections in Singapore, Tanjong Pagar's electorate had not participated. The elderly voters did not know what to do, and could speak only dialect."

Following feedback from the ground, officers in charge of polling stations were asked to identify those who can speak dialects in their teams during the presidential election this year, which was uncontested.

A change that voters will see sooner is electronic registration, which is slated for all constituencies at the next general election, due in 2021, said Mr Koh.

The new e-registration system - which voters got to try out at roadshows in August - can halve the number of officials needed to record attendance, compared with the pen-and-paper system. It also translates into shorter waiting times for voters. To register attendance, voters may simply scan the barcode on their identity cards.


But one initiative has been put on hold for the time being, due to security concerns. Former ELD head Lee Seng Lup, who also spoke to ST and Lianhe Zaobao, said there were plans to try out electronic voting at one or two single-member constituencies in the 2001 election.

But it was not implemented, as the election was called before preparations for the trial could be completed.

Mr Lee said the challenges in introducing electronic voting include the cost of updating the system, as technology evolves between elections, and ensuring the system is audited. Voter trust is another concern.

While ballot boxes and papers can be opened and investigated if there are problems, he said that "in an electronic system, everything is electronic, digitally saved, so voter education would be a challenge".

Looking ahead, Mr Koh said: "We will move as fast as we think the technology is secure. I think at this point in time, the technology (for e-voting) is still not secure."

Seow Bei Yi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2017, with the headline 'Technology to play bigger role at next election'. Print Edition | Subscribe