Last week, Singapore held its polls in the midst of COVID-19. While the suitability of that timing has been extensively discussed, one thing is undeniable: polling is the largest event that will ever take place in any country. Millions of people pass through a limited number of small locations within the same day, and at a time like this, considerable thought must needs go into offsetting the risk of community transmission.
The city-state's measures illustrate several fundamental tenets for making an event or large-scale interaction as safe as possible for as many people as possible while still retaining the flexibility to deal with unexpected outcomes.
1. Don't be afraid to pull out the stops for preserving health and safety.
Singapore's Elections Department increased the number of polling stations around the island by 20 percent, so that the number of voters passing through each station would be reduced. The existing safety measures were enhanced: staff at polling stations were equipped with face shields and gloves, voters were provided with disposable surgical gloves, staff and volunteers at the polling stations went along the queues to dispense hand sanitizer before voters ever touched their ballot slips. Additional volunteers were brought on board to assist with enforcing safe distancing and safety measures. And cleaners were deployed to frequently sanitize common touch points, in particular the polling booths.
On top of this, a special voting hour between 7pm and 8pm, at the very end of polling, was set aside to accommodate voters who were serving out quarantines or stay-home notices, or who had registered with a fever during temperature checks. By segregating these voters, they would still be able to vote, but the risk of transmitting infections would be reduced.
However, the Elections Department did not implement mail or online voting, although these formats would have been the most effective purely in terms of public health and safety.
2. Understand and cater to the needs of different groups.
Besides the potentially infectious, specific time slots were set aside for different groups of voters depending on their risk status. The elderly, who are at higher risk of contracting the disease, were encouraged to vote in the morning, when the polling stations were most likely to be as clean as possible. Younger voters were encouraged to make their own trip to the polling station in the afternoon, when their interaction with the elderly would be minimized.
These time slots were not mandatory, but strongly recommended, and printed on the poll cards mailed to all voters well in advance of Polling Day.
It's notable that arrangements were not made for one group: those who did not wish to take the risk during this period. Under Singapore law, voting is mandatory, and non-voters are struck off the register of electors regardless of their reason for not voting. Nevertheless, this may not have been an issue in the end as voter turnout was 95.6 percent, up from 93.6 percent during the last election.
3. Be prepared for unexpected outcomes, and react appropriately.
The enhanced health and safety measures backfired in some unexpected ways. On the morning of Polling Day, extremely long queues formed at many of the polling stations. Firstly, the use of disposable gloves caused a significant delay, as many elderly voters had trouble donning these and had to be assisted. Secondly, many of the elderly were accompanied by younger family members, effectively doubling the polling stations' intake.
Election officials responded by discontinuing the use of the gloves, and volunteers at the polling stations reminded younger voters not to mingle with the elderly. The Elections Department also issued advisories for voters to use a dedicated app to check the queue situation at their assigned polling station before proceeding. By afternoon, most of the queues had cleared up.
In the evening, there were concerns that some voters were still delayed by queues at certain polling stations. The Elections Department responded by extending polling hours from 8pm to 10pm, a move which did benefit a small percentage of voters.
It is still early to be certain of how effective Singapore's health and safety measures were in preventing community spread of COVID-19 during the polls. However, as physical workplaces attempt to reopen and the possibility of physical events slowly returns, it would be good to keep these three fundamentals in mind:
Be generous with health and safety measures, be inclusive towards the needs of different groups, and be flexible about changing plans in response to the situation.