Thursday, April 21, 2011

Debunking The "Your Vote Is Not Secret" Myth

In the General Elections to be held next month, your vote is secret. It means that no one will know who you vote for. For many years now, an urban legend has been going around that has created so much fear among eligible voters. The urban legend goes like this: if you vote for the Opposition parties, your life will be adversely affected, your voting pattern will be recorded and bad things will happen to you. If you're a civil servant or someone who works for the government,  you will be found out, and you'll lose your job. Yes, it's pretty scary.

This myth is so well known that my informal polling last week still shows a majority of right-thinking, intelligent, university-educated people actually believing it, even today in the YouTube-Facebook 21st century. They believe it in a way that seems to ask, 'You mean there's something else to believe?'

Now this is very unique among democratic countries in the world. While I understand that this sort of fear may be justifiable in rogue states where there is no rule of law, Singapore is far from being similar. However, the fear that people has of not voting for the incumbent People's Action Party is certainly real, even though the incumbent party has nothing to do with it.

Now, most Singaporeans understand how this fear of being 'caught' voting for the Opposition parties is based on. All voters are associated with serial numbers, and the numbers are associated with the voting slips. This is to prevent election fraud. Not perfect, but quite reasonable. After the votes are counted, the slips are sealed for 6 months at the Supreme Court. They are destroyed thereafter.

A person who believes in the urban legend will ask: so how is my vote secret? Can someone retrieve the serial number against my name, and match it to my vote? The Elections Department is candid about this. Technically, yes! But wait, there's more! This can only be done after a legal decision, say a protest is lodged due to some voting irregularities etc. In the history of voting in Singapore, no such 're-look into the ballot box' has taken place.

To me, that's an easy thing to believe. But for the skeptic/cynic, maybe they need more 'proof' that your vote is REALLY secret. Here we go...

Even IF we concede that someone can slip into the High Court vaults and retrieve your serial numbers among the other 2 million votes (which is itself such a ridiculous idea and really requires extraordinary proof), it's very easy to debunk the notion that there is a systematic system of finding out the voting patterns of INDIVIDUAL voters.

Reason Number One. The political cost of such an operation is just too high. This bears repeating: the downside to such an operation is JUST WAY TOO HIGH. How high? If it's really true that efforts have been made to undermine the secrecy of individual voting patterns using methods that are illegal, the integrity of the PAP will be totally shattered, leading to an almost complete distrust in government. No sensible person, from the PAP or otherwise, will want this to happen because the possibility of a leak is very real and it's not easy at all to keep this a secret, and because...

Reason Number Two. There is just not a lot of motive to dig up who voted for whom. Imagine you are an insurance agent who meets clients in the day. However at night, you're transformed into this top secret intelligent officer working in an unmarked office for a clandestine outfit remotely linked to the government whose main task is to... break in into the Supreme Court vaults, match serial numbers, and find out who Mr Peter Lim staying at postal code 123311 voted for in the 2011 General Elections. Since you're also a reasonable intelligence officer, you'll ask yourself, "What sort of job is this?! They want me to find out who XYZ voted for?! How trivial is this?!"

It is indeed very trivial (i.e., not very important). Maybe it's a little unusual in Singapore to vote for the Opposition, but in the rest of the world, this is very normal. Another angle to this is that it's actually not unheard of nowadays for people to vote for the Opposition. In the last General Elections 5 years ago, the Opposition got around 33% of the popular vote, which comes up to about 360,000 votes. Can we reasonably expect the Supreme Court vaults to be harassed so that some outfit can find out exactly who these 360,000 people are? Of course not! There is no intrinsic value to find out at the individual level who a person voted for. If we're talking about having a tip off regarding a potential terrorist, sure, let's have this stakeout and see who this person is. BUT FINDING OUT HOW THIS GUY VOTED IN THE GENERAL ELECTIONS? Not reasonable at all. Which brings me to...

Reason Number Three. A common understanding of this urban legend is that if you vote for the Opposition, you'll lose your job because it's the way they punish you. A convenient explanation, but totally way off. Let us assume that this is true, that the government wants to punish people who vote the wrong party. (HUH?!) OK, those of us who have punished people, whether it's your kids, or your students know there is a workflow in doing this. You want to punish someone because usually you want them to change their behaviour THE NEXT TIME. So you inform them of their crimes, beat them up, and say hopefully they don't do the same thing again. Simple, right?

Not so simple if you believe in the urban legend! Say I lose my job because I voted for the wrong party. I'll be like, "Huh?! Why did I lose my job?!" I couldn't possibly expect a letter from the authorities informing me that they've broken into the Supreme Court vaults, found my voting serial number, matched it to my voting slip, and discovered I voted for the wrong party. No, they can't send me this letter! You can see where I'm going with this right? I'd have NO IDEA why I lost my job! And in the next General Election, I'd STILL vote for the wrong party!!

Tell me honestly, if you were the planner of this 'expose the voters!' operation, is there any sense for you to carry on? Surely not, any reasonable person can see that. If you want to punish people, you NEED TO TELL THEM WHAT THEY DID WRONG! Couple that with Reason Number One, forget it, it just ain't gonna work!

Every political party in Singapore, including the PAP, and Opposition Parties, have time and again reminded people that their votes are secret. I remember Mr Lee Kuan Yew also urging people to believe this at one point. Democracy cannot work well in Singapore if voters purposely disenfranchise themselves! Sure, there may be ways to use other methods to prevent election fraud without the use of serial numbers. Even so, given the current setup, it is very unreasonable to believe the myth that your vote is not secret.

Your vote IS indeed secret. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise. Now go out and vote wisely next month. May the Force be with you.


Anonymous said...

U don't have to convince ME! but the sad fact is such logic is normally lost on the majority, which are not rational, not given to logical or critical thinking because their amgydala is doing their thinking for them. That's why u have so many more religious believers than freethinkers or atheists - it's easier to believe in ghosts and the PAP/ISD bogeyman who is spying on your vote.


Anonymous said...

it is the fear that has been instilled by the lawsuits that have been widely publicized. the children fear ghosts and the religious fear gods, because they believe in the fear. people have good reason for fearing.