By Hew Hoong Liang and Danesh Prakash Chacko
In January 2013 a group of Orang Asli voters from different parts of Perak and Perak PKR leadership individuals protested at the office of the Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa) over a voter education event that was held for the Orang Asli community in Tapah.
Perak Pakatan Rakyat alleged the Orang Asli voters who attended the event were forced to mark a dummy ballot in favour of Barisan Nasional in front of a Jakoa officer and a BN state assembly member. The then state assembly member of Air Kuning (which is part of Tapah), who organised the event, admitted the aim was to reduce rejected ballots among the Orang Asli community.
In 2020 the Bersih’s Inclusive Electoral Reforms in Malaysia report highlighted poor voter education among the Orang Asli communities with anecdotal evidence that voters from the community may not know how to cross the ballot correctly.
With all this in mind, we should try to understand the prevalence of rejected votes among the Orang Asli community.
Definition of rejected vote
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Occasionally, the term rejected vote, commonly known as undi ditolak, is wrongly referred to as a spoilt vote, or undi rosak in Malay.
A spoilt vote occurs when a ballot paper (before being marked by the voter) is torn or the ballot paper is unusable.
A rejected vote is different – it takes place in one of three scenarios:
- when the voter preference is undeterminable
- when the voter marks for more than one candidate
- when the ballot has a marking that can be traced back to the voter’s identity
Information on rejected votes is also available in the public domain.
2018 election statistical analysis
During the 2018 general election, rejected ballots made up around 1.32% of total votes issued to the voters.
When the constituencies are divided by ethnic majorities, Sabah bumiputra-majority seats made up the highest average rejected vote rate (RVR) of 2.40%, while ethnic Chinese-majority seats constituted the lowest average RVR (close to 1%).
For the urban class, these seats had an average RVR of 1.07% while rural areas had an average RVR of 1.81%. However, these statistics mask the high prevalence of RVR in one particular community.
While the Orang Asli electorate size was barely 1% of the peninsula electorate in the 2018 general election, the implications of RVR among their communities are far-reaching.
Our study has shown that the RVR for Orang Asli-majority polling districts is three times that of non-Orang Asli areas in the peninsula. Not only that, the difference in the RVR between Orang Asli and non-Orang Asli areas widened from 2.06 times in the 2008 general election to 3.15 times in the 2013 polls.
When we studied five constituencies – Mersing, Chini, Cameron Highlands, Gerik and Kuala Langat – for their detailed RVRs, the RVR of Orang Asli communities is around two to three times higher than non-Orang Asli areas.
However, the RVR difference between Orang Asli and non-Orang Asli areas has been narrowing with some exception of a mild increase.
When we studied the RVR pattern of Orang Asli areas by age of the voter, the RVRs are generally higher for older voters. When we repeated the same study for elections since the 2008 general election, we noticed the RVR for the younger voters (like below 30) has been declining much more rapidly compared to their senior counterparts.
For the 2013 and 2018 general elections, due to multi-cornered contests and high rejected votes in the competitive Cameron Highlands seat, the MIC won the seat with a razor-thin majority. Over 50% of the rejected votes in Cameron Highlands for these two general elections came from Orang Asli-majority polling districts.
As the gap in the RVRs was widening between Orang Asli and non-Orang Asli, we conducted some stakeholder interviews to find out the underlying reasons.
Lack of voter education
A former polling and counting agent, Yusri Ahon from Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia, shared his experience about the possible reasons why Orang Asli communities showed such a higher average RVR.
“Prior to [2018 general election], I conducted a workshop titled “Mari Mengundi” [Let’s Vote] to improve voter awareness and voter education,” Yusri said. “I just wanted to see if their votes were usable or not. When I asked if they knew how to vote, specifically the older voters, they noted that they know how to vote.”
However, Yusri realised that this group of voters did not know how to properly vote when he referred to voting statistics that were available in public domains.
As they were an older generation of voters, it could be difficult to reprimand them for their mistakes in voting due to a strong sense of tradition and respect within the Orang Asli communities – even when they practised improper voting methods.
The village head Kampung Paya Lintah echoed similar sentiments. “That’s because they don’t know who to vote,” the head said. “For those who have voted in a few elections, there are not too many issues over there. The problem lies with those who are illiterate — some even find it difficult to mark their own ballot papers.”
With strong statistical evidence backed by stakeholder interviews, the RVR among the Orang Asli community should not be ignored.
This research should spur NGOs to call on the Election Commission to strengthen voter education for this community. If left unaddressed, the prevalence of rejected votes could be a decisive factor in the forming of a government.
Danesh Prakash Chacko and Hew Hoong Liang are activists of Tindak Malaysia, an electoral reform NGO
This story was produced with financial support from the EU in the form of a grant from Internews Malaysia to the authors. The contents are the sole responsibility of Internews and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EU