Consultation must tick the right boxes
A consultation is finally under way on how to plug loopholes in our decades-old voter registration system. This follows the revelation of a series of abuses in November's district council polls. The review is crucial to the integrity of elections in Hong Kong. Whether or not our system will continue to be viewed as fair and honest depends largely on how the government responds to the consultation. An open mind is needed so that all views are considered. This is a complex process and it is important to get it right.
The case for tightening the system is a strong one. At least 22 people in different constituencies have been arrested on suspicion of voter-registration-related offences so far. It shows that the registration system, which does not require any proof of residence at present, is too loose and prone to abuse. Voters who fail to update their address after moving home and continue to vote face no sanctions. One address was found to have a dozen surnames registered to it. Some voters registered an address which is now a cinema. The irregularities have led to queries as to whether some of the electoral results should be declared invalid. At least four legal challenges have been filed in the courts.
While it is good to see the government taking steps to tackle such problems, concerns have been raised whether or not some of the proposed measures go too far. Political parties have warned that their street campaigns to encourage people to register as voters would be futile, as it would be unrealistic to expect people to carry proof of their address around with them. Some went further, arguing that punishing voters for not updating their address is too severe a step to take. The government shares the concern and now suggests only those who have actually voted in the constituency in which they used to live should be punished. That makes sense.
There is a need to distinguish negligence from fraud. The consultation seeks to prevent abuses such as vote-rigging rather than penalising people for just being absent-minded or too busy to update their address. The outcome of an election is unlikely to be affected as long as they do not vote. But the continued presence of out-of-date addresses will make it more difficult to detect genuine abuses. The question of how far we want to go will be a matter for the public to consider. There is a delicate balance to be struck.
With the Legislative Council polls due in September, time is running out to put the electoral system back on track. The first step towards ensuring a fair and honest election is to have an accurate register of voters. Electors must appreciate the importance of having a clean and up-to-date voter register and take the initiative to update any changes to their personal details. The authorities, too, must step up vigilance and efforts to check registrations.