Roll call

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2001, 12:00am

Any means of making it easier for people to exercise their democratic rights is to be welcomed. So it is good news the Government has finally come round to accepting automatic voter registration.

The idea that everyone will be put on the electoral roll as a matter of routine when he or she applies for an identity card has been mooted for a long time. The planned issuance of new smart identity cards to the whole population from 2003 has provided a good opportunity to do so.

Apart from ease of administration and cost savings, a big advantage of automatic registration will be that those who fail to register, but want to vote when polling time comes, will be able to satisfy their impulse.

Some may see automatic voter registration as presumptuous. But provided that a convenient and hassle-free de-registration mechanism is put in place, this should not be a cause of concern. After all, no one is compelled to vote.

Over the years, attempts to interpret turnout rates at Hong Kong's elections have been hampered by the fact that people have to actively choose to become voters. There have been serious doubts about the electoral roll's accuracy, even though, once registered, one is enrolled forever. Although voters are supposed to cast their ballot in the constituency in which they live, few bother to notify the Electoral Commission when they change address.

As both the numbers of potential and registered voters vary over time, it is also difficult to compare turnout rates at different elections. Presumably, a high registration rate can drag down the turnout rate, and the reverse is also true. Automatic voter registration will at least eliminate registration rates as a variable in the equation.

But automatic voter registration should not detract attention from the central issue of Hong Kong's evolving political system - the limited role played by elections in selecting political leaders. Less than half of the members of the legislature are returned by direct election, and the chief executive is chosen by an electoral college whose members are not accountable to the public.