The Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy notes with concern that in the recent Johor state elections, voters who were positive for Covid-19 were allegedly prohibited from being able to cast their vote due to their status.
Even amidst a global pandemic, the right to vote is sacrosanct and is fundamental to a modern democracy such as Malaysia.
I am surprised that the Election Commission allegedly permitted for circumstances which resulted in voters being deprived of their vote, including denial of entry to polling centres, and in one case, a voter’s ballot paper was allegedly disqualified by an elections officer on the basis that a person who is positive cannot vote.
The Johor state health department confirmed in a March 11 media statement that voters who are Covid-19 positive were prohibited from leaving their place of treatment or quarantine for the purposes of voting. Was it legal and constitutional to issue such a directive as this would interfere with a person’s right to vote?
This is strange, as we are no longer in the year 2020. We knew less of SARS-CoV-2 then, and we did not yet have a vaccine. However, as of yesterday, 99.7 per cent of the adult population in Johor had already received at least two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, while 73.7 per cent have already received booster jabs.
Transitioning to an endemic state involves being confident with the progress made in the vaccination programme.
The Federal Constitution describes very clearly the circumstances in which a person may be deprived of the right to vote. Article 119(3)(a) states that a person can be disqualified from being a voter if he or she is a detainee of unsound mind or serving a prison sentence. It does not disqualify a person with an infectious disease such as dengue, syphilis, viral hepatitis, Covid-19 or any other disease, from being able to vote.
Arguably, the constitutional provision and legislation such as the Election Offences Act 1954 imposes a burden of duty on the state to ensure that voters are able to exercise their right to vote.
The Election Offences Act makes it an offence for election officers to refuse or prevent a person from voting at the polling station if the person is entitled to vote.
It is therefore disappointing that the Election Commission, whose task is to safeguard the electoral process, allegedly accommodated procedures which arguably could interfere with a voter’s ability to vote.
Other countries have been successful in ensuring that Covid-19 positive voters would be able to vote. In South Korea during their recent presidential elections last week, the response was not to deny voters who are Covid-19 positive, but to facilitate the voting process to accommodate their voice.
They had 800,000 people under home quarantine and around 800 hospitalised. What the government did was provide isolated booths for those infected or in quarantine. They were allocated an hour at the end of the second day of early voting, and an hour and a half on Election Day.
The voting centres in Johor were already set up to safely accommodate persons under investigation (PUI) and surveillance (PUS) with personnel in personal protection (PPE) gear and separate voting booths. Why were positive voters not permitted to simply utilise those existing facilities?
It is not likely that this denial of voters rights would have affected the final outcome and results of the state elections, but it sets a negative precedent and the possibility of abuse. Being Covid-positive should not deprive citizens of their right to participate in the democratic process.
Azrul Mohd Khalib is the chief executive of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy.
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