Election Cost: Making Sense of the Figures Print
Thursday, 25 February 2021 12:40


Danesh Prakash Chacko & Fork Yow Leong

Recently, we came to know the full cost of Sabah State Elections - RM 130 Million - which was

released in a written parliamentary reply earlier this year. This written parliamentary reply

warrants an important discussion about the election expenditure. Elections are costly affairs and due to an attempted political coup in Sabah amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Malaysian

the government had to expend RM 130 million for one state election. In this article, we will examine the rationale behind election costs and how the country’s election expenditure can be improved.

Understanding Election Cost

Fortunately, in this written parliamentary reply, the brief itemised expenditure of Sabah State

Elections was displayed. Out of the RM 130 Million, around RM 69 Million was spent on rentals

and around RM 39 Million was spent on “professional services, other acquired services, and

hospitality”. In Tindak Malaysia’s existing research of past Election Commission’s (EC) election

reports from 1959 to 2004, the presence of itemised election expenditure only reported for 1964

Malaysian General Elections, 1967 Sabah State Elections, 1995 Malaysian General Elections

and 1999 Malaysian General Elections. With this limited information available over the past

decades, we were able to shed some light on election expenditure and evolving costs.

In the 1960s election reports, produced by the EC, used to have few pages to describe election

costs. This includes the honoraria amount for various tiers of polling staff. Since the 1970s,

information of honoraria or salary for poll workers were no longer shown in election reports.

Source: EC

In our study, minor cost items in a given election would be small repairs, food and drinks,

overtime allowances and travel and associated expenses (each of the items constitute less than

10% of the total cost). Major cost items would be rentals (could be more than 40% of the budget) and professional services and other associated services (could be more than 30% of the budget). To make sense of these costs, we also need to delve on reasons why election costs are increasing.

From our research of election reports of the past and our experience as Pemerhati (Election

Observers), following are the reasons why election costs go up:

  1. 1. Increasing Electorate, which results

    1. a. More polling districts (which defines where you vote)

    2. b. More polling stations

    3. c. More polling streams (‘salurans’ in Malay)

    4. d. More polling staff

  2. 2. Increase in the number of Parliamentary and DUN (State Legislative Assembly) Seats

  3. 3. Increase in printing cost

    1. a. Rising cost for ballot papers and other documents

  4. 4. Increase in Petrol Price

    1. a. Since 1999, EC made polling one day affair for Sabah and Sarawak

    2. b. This resulted in increase of rentals of helicopters, four wheel drives and boats

  5. 5. Increase in allowance for polling staff

  6. 6. Printing new editions of election laws

  7. 7. Increase in purchasing cost for election materials (i.e. introduction of transparent ballot boxes, adaption to COVID-19 requirements)

  8. 8. Overall management of elections under COVID-19 pandemic

Estimated Election Cost per Voter for every by election and Sabah State Election since GE14.

The black dashed line represents the time division between Pre Covid Era and Covid Era

elections. Source: EC’s Media statements, Tindak Malaysia (2020)

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the average election cost per voter was less than RM 100 for

every by-election with the exception of Cameron Highlands. For the Cameron Highlands By

Election of 2019, helicopters were rented to bring ballots from remote parts of Jelai to the final

counting centre. Before COVID-19 pandemic, the number of polling streams were increased

under the direction of the reformist EC. After GE14, the number of voters per polling stream was

reduced from 750 to 600. This reduction of number of voters per polling stream resulted in an

increase of additional streams (where an additional polling stream would require employing four

to five staff per stream). For every DUN (State constituency) and parliamentary by election after

GE14, 20 new polling streams were added to a constituency. Moreover, the reformist EC, under

then the leadership of Azhar Harun made great strides in improving voter experience. This

translated into infrastructural improvements for polling stations and rental of golf buggies so that

every voter (including individuals with disability and elderly) was able to access polling streams

with ease. During Kimanis by-election 2020, EC invested an allocation from the election budget

to upgrade pavements in some of the schools (that served as polling stations). Furthermore, EC

invested additional monies in posting voting cards to every voter for recent by elections so that

the voters know where to vote. We hope this disincentivizes voters from entertaining political party hot booths (pondok panas in Malay) who are doing illegal campaigning on the day.

Building a new pavement to ease access for voters at a polling station in Kimanis. Previously,

this section was a gravel path and would not be conducive for elderly and disabled voters of

Kimanis to access the polling stream. The infrastructural upgrade was carried out under the

election budget for the Kimanis by-election of 2020. This upgrade has a long term gain for the

school. Reproduced with permission from Azhar Harun, then Chairman of EC

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the country, the EC had to amend polling procedures to

accommodate elections under these extraordinary circumstances. One of tangible changes was

reduction of voters per polling stream and this resulted in increased polling streams. Secondly,

additional procedures to mitigate COVID-19 such as presence of hand sanitizer and usage of

gloves by polling staff were added to the polling process. This also included amendments to the

election training for polling workers. This can explain the sudden spike in election costs for the

DUN level by elections starting with Chini By Election of 2020.

With all these facts in mind, we have better appreciation why elections are an expensive

business in Malaysia (and also for the rest of the world). Having said that, it is imperative that

we explore ways to improve election costs both in terms of reporting and cost saving


Moving Forward

We have a few proposals for EC and our lawmakers for improvements for election expenditure. An important aspect in the conduct of elections is to ensure accountability and transparency of the EC in relation to election costs and expenditure. If one were to look at the EC website

(www.spr.gov.my), one cannot find any annual report of the EC which explains how the annual

the budget of the EC is being utilized or itemised election expenditure. Currently, the EC website at best just provides a very brief explanation via its press releases about the overall budget of conducting a general election or a by-election. Any existing online version of annual reports by EC (surprisingly, not hosted by the EC’s website) show very little detail of election costs for a by election or general election.

It must be mandatory for the EC to produce yearly statement accounts with all the itemized

expenditure of conducting elections in an accessible manner (i.e. via EC’s website). At present, it is already mandatory for yearly statements of accounts to be prepared by the Treasury for the Federal Government and for all yearly statements of accounts to be prepared by the state financial authorities for the respective State Governments as provided under the Audit Act 1957 and the Financial Procedure Act 1957. This will ensure not only a more accountable and transparent EC but it will also enable the EC to justify any increases in the overall election expenditure. Some examples will include the increase in salaries and allowances for polling staff and EC officials. Adoption of 1960s style of EC reports on election expenditure can be a start. If a proper itemised expenditure is displayed in public view, the public will have greater appreciation of certain high expenditures required for elections. Moreover, they will appreciate the long term gain of the infrastructural improvement made by EC on the polling facilities.

Election costs and expenditure incurred by the EC must be audited. At present, the Auditor

General are given an important functions and powers under Article 106 of the Federal

Constitution and the Audit Act 1957 to audit the accounts of the Federal Government, the 13

State Governments, other public authorities and specified bodies. Public authorities has been defined under Article 160 of the Federal Constitution to include the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the Ruler of a State, the Federal Government, the State Government, a local authority, a statutory authority established by federal or state law and any court or tribunal other than the Federal Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Courts. The definition of public authorities does not include the EC. However, according to Section 5(1)(d) of the Audit Act 1957, the Auditor General can examine, enquire into and audit the accounts of any other body under Article 106(2) of the Federal Constitution.

Thirdly, we propose the proper codification of the law where usage of schools and public

facilities (premises only) to be free of charge for EC to use them as polling facilities. At present,

Section 14(1) of the Elections Act 1958 only provides that the EC may only use schools and

public buildings free of charge as polling centres. This means that the EC may still have to pay

for the usage of schools and public buildings as polling centres during elections. It is proposed

that schools and public buildings must be provided free of charge as polling centres as a way to

reduce the EC’s overall costs of conducting elections.


Finally, it is important for the public to appreciate the effort EC has carried out to improve voter

experience and safety under the reformist EC since GE14. We hope our research and real life

experience as Pemerhati shed some light behind the high election costs in Malaysia. Some of

these high election costs have laid the foundation of long term infrastructural gains for the given

community. However, we also need to stress that greater transparency in election expenditure reporting must be carried out. As elections are an extremely important element to our

democratic system, it is important for the public to know how the taxpayer monies are spent on

the conduct of by elections. A transparent and accessible reporting of election expenditure is one of the keys for better elections tomorrow.

DANESH PRAKASH CHACKO is Tindak Malaysia’s Director and research analyst at Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development (Sunway University).

FORK YOW LEONG is an activist with Tindak Malaysia and specialises in law.

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