Automation needed for voter registration

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 12:00am

The Canto-pop stars and other community figures the government has employed in its latest drive to persuade people to register as voters would appear to have had some success. Figures released on Tuesday showed that 310,000 electors submitted forms during the six-week publicity campaign ahead of November's district council elections.

But there is another possible reason for the surge in potential voters - almost twice as many as recorded for the last district elections in 1999. That is the renewed interest in Hong Kong politics prompted by the march by 500,000 people on July 1.

While there are no figures for how many signed up in the two weeks between then and the registration deadline, it is reasonable to believe the people power factor has had an impact. Even the chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission, Mr Justice Woo Kwok-hing, joked that members had suggested registration booths should have been set up along the route of the demonstration.

Whatever the reasons, the increase is to be welcomed. It will enhance the credibility of successful candidates and the institutions to which they are elected, reminding them of the need to listen to their constituents. And with the debate on possible political reforms set to develop, a keener interest in voting will serve to underline that Hong Kong people will understand a more democratic system.

However, despite the millions of dollars spent by the government on voter registration campaigns since the handover, only about 65 per cent of potential electors have signed up. More than a million have either chosen not to vote or have simply not bothered to register. One way of improving this situation would be to move to a system of automatic registration, in which an electoral roll is compiled from information available to the government. This would save people having to fill in forms. Instead, they would just be notified that they have been registered for a particular constituency. No one would be forced to vote, it would just be easier for them to do so.

The government has considered such a step. But it rejected the idea in March, citing technical problems such as difficulties in excluding disqualified voters and effectively maintaining the register.

Bringing in an automatic system would also prompt debate about which parties would benefit most from the consequent leap in the number of people registered to vote. And the government may worry about the turnout rate at elections falling when expressed as a percentage of the electorate. But these are minor considerations compared to the need to make it as easy as possible for people to exercise their electoral rights. The advent of Smart ID cards should make automatic registration easier. The government should take another look, and see if the technical difficulties can be overcome.