My day at the polls

Two senior citizens make their way down the stairs after casting their ballots on the first floor.

MY wife and I would not have missed the 14th general election for anything. It was a chance for us to collectively decide with other eligible citizens the leadership of the country for the next five years. We had it all planned out. The polling centre was a school located about 200 metres from our house. We intended to be there as soon as it opened. We reckoned it would be cooler.

However, I woke up late as I had to do some last minute work the night before. By the time I got dressed, it was already 10.45am. We decided to drive the short distance because we did not want to struggle going up and down the narrow and inaccessible walkways, especially when they would be full of people and haphazardly parked vehicles.

The two policemen manning the gate moved the traffic cone blocking the entrance to allow us in without question. The sun was already shining hard when we drove into the compound. The school was teeming with people. Most were in queues that snaked all the way around the building, on the stairs, and along the upper floors.

I was looking around for an officer to ask how I could cast my ballot. There was no one. My polling stream was on the first floor. I went to sit beside a group of senior citizens on one side of the foyer. A couple of them were in wheelchairs.

One uncle behind me was grumbling about the long wait and was asking his companion how much longer it was going to take. She explained patiently to him why there was a delay. I tilted my head ever so slightly trying to eavesdrop on the conversation.

Apparently, he was assigned to a polling stream in one of the classrooms on the upper floors. As he was in a wheelchair, he would be allowed to mark his ballot papers in Polling Stream 1, which was in a classroom on the ground floor.

To make that switch, he had to sign a form called Borang 11. The polling centre had run out of the forms and was waiting for the delivery of a new batch. Some of the voters had already waited for more than 30 minutes before I arrived. It is ridiculous that the polling centre could run out of such an important form by mid-morning.

As the minutes ticked by, all of us became increasingly impatient. Some of the non-disabled voters, who came later than us, had already cast their ballots and left. I was getting restless as well. In the rush, I had not had breakfast yet and the hunger pangs were beginning to get to me.

The Election Commission officer assigned to assist us came to shed light about the delay. He was very apologetic despite being lambasted by some of us, who had already waited for more than one hour. He explained to us that the vehicle carrying the forms was stuck in a traffic jam.

When the forms still did not arrive after another 30 minutes, the officer asked if the senior citizens who could walk with some assistance would like to vote in their respective streams on the upper floors. Some did. He accompanied them as they climbed up the stairs one at a time.

Some of them had already waited for more than two hours. This should not have happened. After waiting for so long, some may have needed to use the toilet. Some may not even have had the stamina to sit up for so long.

When the forms finally came, the officer took my identity card to my assigned polling stream for me to be issued with the ballot papers. He then came back to assist me to Polling Stream 1 for me to sign the form and mark my ballot papers. All in all, it took less than three minutes for me to complete the process.

I put the marked ballot papers into an envelope and handed it back to the officer to be returned to my original polling stream. I did not doubt his honesty, but I would have preferred to have been able to slip my ballot papers into the boxes myself.

I felt uneasy because I had no idea what would happen to the envelope and did not know if it was properly handled or delivered as required. If it was misplaced, I would have wasted a whole morning for nothing.

The voting process for senior citizens and disabled people could be improved. It could have been less tedious. We were supposed to have been accorded priority but had to wait longer than other voters. There were no clear signs to indicate where to wait and what should be done.

I had read in the newspapers earlier that the Election Commission had made preparations to ease the voting process for people like me. While it was all nice on paper, the implementation left much to be desired. The officers were generally very helpful and friendly, but they were hampered by the lack of preparation, poor accessibility, and insufficient supplies.

The following are some of the areas the Election Commission can look into to improve the voting process. There should be a counter set up specifically to assist senior citizens and disabled voters at all polling centres. This is better than leaving us wondering who to ask, what to do, and where to wait.

The electoral roll should be revised to assign senior citizens and disabled people to Polling Stream 1. Disabled people can request to be assigned to that polling stream by filling in a form, which would then be keyed into the system and reflected in the electoral roll.

This would reduce the hassle of having the election officers running up and down floors to get the ballot papers, and the need to sign forms and return the ballot papers to the original polling streams. It would also reduce the amount of manpower required and expedite the voting process for everyone.

Officers assisting senior citizens and disabled people should be trained in proper etiquette and safe ways of assisting. While the officer was pushing my wheelchair along the narrow corridor, he accidentally allowed my wheels to fall into a gap of the drain grates. It is needless to say what would have happened if I had not gripped on to my wheelchair tightly when that happened.

There should be more chairs or benches for senior citizens, who are feeble or cannot stand for long periods of time while waiting. One aunty who was queueing beside my wife told her that she had already waited two hours. Imagine an older person having to stand for that long under the hot sun.

The Election Commission has four years to work on improving the process. It is not difficult. Educating the election officers and voters is important. The steps must to be spelt out clearly and disseminated so everyone knows how it should be done. Hopefully when we go to the polls in the next general election, all will go well like it should.

Despite the inconveniences, I am glad I did my part as a citizen and went to the polls. But our responsibility does not end there. We now have to actively engage the elected representatives and express to them our aspirations and ideals for a better Malaysia. They are there to represent us. Do not ever forget that.

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