ECT unprepared for high early voter turnout

Early voting for the 2019 general election took place on Sunday (17 March), with the highest early voter turnout rate ever. However, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) seemed unprepared. Early voters faced a long list of obstacles, including no lists of candidates, long waiting times and being given ballot papers for the wrong constituency.  

Early voting at the Huai Khwang District Office (Source: We Watch)

According to the ECT, more than 2.62 million voters registered to vote early and outside their registered constituencies, with the highest number being Bangkok, with 928, 789 registered voters, and Chonburi, with 221,541. Thairath Online reported that 1.97 million voters turned up to vote, which is 75% of all registered early voters – a significant increase from 57% in 2011.

However, despite voters having to register in advance, the ECT did not seem prepared to accommodate the high turnout. When the polls opened at the Huai Khwang District Office at 8.00 on Sunday, the lists of MP candidates were not posted in front of the polling place as expected. We Watch reported that polling officials claimed that the ECT had not sent them the list, and while some voters said that they had checked the candidate lists before they came to vote, a number said that they didn’t know the number for their candidate and that they only remembered the name of the party. iLaw reported that an incomplete list of candidates was posted at around 10.30, but was later removed because the list was only for Bangkok candidates, instead of candidates in all provinces, which is needed by voters who are voting outside their constituencies.

iLaw also reported that at Bang Kapi, Bang Khun Thian, and Huai Khwang, candidates from the now dissolved Thai Raksa Chart Party (TRC) were still listed among the list of candidates. The officials explained that the ECT had given them these lists and told them to use them. However, this could confuse voters and may affect the poll results, as any vote for the TRC will be invalidated.

Voters also had to endure long waits at the poll, mostly outdoor in the hot sun. At Huai Khwang, where 40, 816 had registered to vote, voters had to wait for more than 30 minutes. At Khlong San, voters had to wait for about two hours, while the polling station at the Chiang Mai International Exhibition and Convention Centre had difficulties managing voters, since the Centre has only one entrance.

Voters queuing at the Chiang Mai International Exhibition and Convention Centre

The hashtag #เลือกตั้งล่วงหน้า (#EarlyVoting) trended on Twitter all of Sunday as netizens informed each other of the problems they faced going to vote. Many users said that they have been given the ballot paper for the wrong constituency. One user said that she complained to the polling official that she had been given the wrong ballot paper, but the official refused to change it and told her to just vote. She said that she then complained to an ECT official. It was found that she had indeed been given the wrong ballot paper, and so her vote was invalidated. iLaw reported that at least 109 voters said that they had been given the wrong ballot paper. Of this number, 45 complained to the polling officials; 21 had their ballot paper changed and 20 did not.

iLaw speculated that the ECT had not properly prepared polling staff to deal with the balloting system in which each constituency has a different ballot paper rather than being caused by any ill intention. It is also likely that staff were too busy dealing with such a high turnout that they did not have time to check whether they were handing out the correct ballot papers.

ECT Secretary-General Charungwit Phumma said that the ECT has been notified that voters are being given the wrong ballot papers, both through direct complaints and through posts on social media. However, he said that the ECT could not immediately investigate the issue, as it would obstruct the polling staff’s work. The EC will be looking into the issue later. Meanwhile, ECT Chair Ittiporn Boonpracong told Workpoint News that any marked ballot paper for the wrong constituency will be invalidated.

Charungwait Phumma, ECT Secretary-General

Activist Nuttaa Mahattana also shared on her Facebook page a comment from a voter who said that ballot papers had run out in at least two polling stations in Buriram.

“This is very serious,” said Nuttaa. Usually, a polling station will prepare the same number of ballot papers as there are registered voters. It should not be possible for the ballot papers to run out before all voters have turned up. Having too many or too few ballot papers at a polling station can also open the door for election fraud.

At least three cases of possible election fraud were also reported. In Uthai Thani, one voters’ national ID card was reportedly used by someone else to vote in their place. In Kalasin, a candidate was allegedly found to have forged his documents, had his nomination rejected by the Director of the Provincial Election Commission Office but put up campaign banners anyway. In Samut Songkhram, it was reported that one voter took 17 ballot papers, marked all of them and put one in the ballot box. The voter claimed that a polling official had given them to her. Samut Songkhram police investigated the case and found that is the offence was unintentional, as the voter returned the extra ballot papers to polling staff.

The problems voters faced on early voting day may be due to simple mismanagement and lack of preparation, but people are already questioning the ECT’s credibility. The ECT has so far accepted every complaint against pro-democracy parties, but cleared the pro-NCPO Palang Pracharat of every suspicion. It also spent 12 million baht traveling to study the election process in other countries, including the UK, the US, Germany, Switzerland, and Singapore. On Sunday, as complaint after complaint surfaced online, the public was becoming more suspicious that the ECT is attempting to suppress voting.  

Apart from complaints of difficulties faced in early voting, there are also concerns surrounding the way the ballot papers will be stored. Nath Laoseesawakool, Deputy Secretary-General of the ECT, said that early voting ballots will be taken to Lak Si Post Office, where they will be sorted and sent under police escort to the 350 constituencies around the country. Once there, they will be stored at police stations. Nath said that the public may at all times observe how the ballots are stored, and there are CCTV cameras in the rooms where the ballots are kept. Despite this, many netizens said on Twitter that they are worried about ballot tampering before the count on 24 March.

Following last week’s report of the obstacles faced by overseas voters, from long waits at the poll to ballots not arriving in the mail, and having the already posted ballots returned to sender, the public’s confidence that this election will be free and fair is already waning. It remains to be seen whether the ECT will be able to do better on election day.