GOVERNOR Chris Patten is happy, he says, with the latest voter registration drive. Some 900,000 names have been put on to the electoral roll of the functional constituencies, or about 37 per cent of a potential electorate of 2.46 million. But don't be carried away by his claim that this was a success because '14 times as many people will have a chance in 1995 of voting in FCs as voted in 1991'. For a 37 per cent registration rate is hardly impressive and an analysis of the registration process shows interest in registering for the nine new FCs, created by Mr Patten, was quite low. Only a small number have taken the initiative to grab an additional vote which Mr Patten is giving them at the risk of antagonising China. If you think a desire to exercise the second vote has moved the estimated 900,000 people to fill out a registration form and send it to the Boundary and Elections Commission (BEC), then you are wrong. There were some who did that, but they constituted just over 10 per cent of the total. What really happened was the BEC had sent 710,000 letters to employers to obtain the names and identity card numbers of the estimated 2.46 million in the workforce who are eligible to vote in the FCs. About 220,000 responded by providing information on 1.6 million employees, of whom about 800,000 were found to be already on the electoral roll of the geographical constituencies. These voters were then each sent a notification telling them they would be automatically registered for the new FCs according to their employers' line of business, unless they returned the notification with a cross on the back to voice their objection. In the words of Robert Chung Ting-yiu, research officer of the University of Hong Kong's Social Sciences Research Centre, the registration was done by 'passive consent'. Commonsense suggests that if people had to actively register for the new FCs, then the registration rate would have been much lower. It is also reasonable to believe a significant number who do not want to vote in the new FCs did not bother to return the notification. It may be argued that someone already on the electoral roll of the geographical constituencies would probably want to vote in the FCs, justifying the bid to register them 'passively'. But this line of reasoning is faulty. A survey conducted by Chung in March found that as many as 66 per cent of the respondents supposedly belonging to the new FCs could not identify their constituency. Only 15 per cent said they were willing to register themselves, while 13 per cent mistakenly thought their employers would register for them. Above all, the survey found that the overall propensity to register was only 27 per cent for the new FCs, with 42 per cent saying they would not bother. Interest in registering had apparently dropped since June 30 last year, when Legco endorsed Mr Patten's constitutional reforms and 52 per cent of the respondents to a survey said they were prepared to register for the new FCs. This drop in interest was unexpected and no attempt was made in the March survey to find out its reasons. The registration situation in the 21 old FCs is worse. The numbers of registered voters in some constituencies was so much lower than in the previous election that BEC chairman Justice Woo Kwok-hing warned of the danger of vote manipulation. Mr Patten's aim of expanding the franchise of the old FCs by five times by substituting corporate voting with individual voting has apparently backfired because of other changes he introduced, including limiting an individual's right to vote in only one FC and imposing residency requirements. For example, in the finance constituency, each bank previously had one corporate vote and it was usual for an authorised representative to be appointed to vote on its behalf. Now, each bank can have up to six of its directors as 'relevant persons' who may vote, but only if they fulfil requirements as a voter for the geographical constituencies, such as seven years' residency in Hong Kong. But since the senior management of some foreign banks serve in Hong Kong for only a few years and are ineligible to vote, the change to individual voting has effectively disenfranchised them. By May 31, only 169 relevant people had been processed, compared with 235 corporate voters on the old electoral roll. Even in the social welfare constituency, where there were 182 corporate voters, the move towards individual voting had produced only 201 relevant persons by May 31. Nelson Chow, professor of social work at the University of Hong Kong, believed this was because many directors of agencies preferred to vote in their professional FCs instead of the social welfare constituency. In the two commercial and industrial constituencies, the numbers of relevant persons whose registration had been processed by May 31 was much lower than the corporate voters in the last election. Unless there has been a last minute rush of applications, some old FCs look set to have a much smaller electorate than before, instead of an expanded one as envisaged by Mr Patten. Critics have blamed the poor response on the BEC, saying many company directors were not aware of the voting rule change and the need to register afresh because the commission's publicity effort concentrated on the new FCs. Justice Woo rejected the criticism. He said the BEC had approached representative bodies, companies and organisations in the old FCs asking them to provide information about their directors and executive members. BEC staff made 7,000 telephone calls to corporate executives and legislators representing the FCs were asked to encourage their constituents to register. Even if the BEC was partly to blame for the poor response, it appears an underlying problem afflicting the old FCs is that the electorate comprises a limited pool of individuals who have overlapping interests in various constituencies. This overlapping is so difficult to ascertain that the BEC is unable to estimate the size of the potential electorate of each constituency. Previously, the 'large' numbers of corporate voters in the last election was artificial, because many companies were controlled by a small number of directors who had overlapping directorships. Under the new voting rules, these directors will have only one vote in one constituency. This is why the franchise has not expanded by five times as Mr Patten expected, even though each company can register up to six relevant people. IT is doubtful if the changes introduced by Mr Patten have made the FC elections more democratic. If anything, they confirm this unique system is an anathema to democracy. Rowena Kwok of the University of Hong Kong's political science department believes one reason which might account for the low registration rates for old and new FCs was that many people were confused about the complicated electoral system. 'Although efforts have been made to encourage people to register, there is a lack of education on where the individual stands in the new and old FCs,' she said. Have the people of Hong Kong failed Mr Patten, who braved the wrath of China to give them more democracy, or has he failed them by misreading their interest, or lack of it, in democracy? Why have so few people registered to vote? Is it because they do not think Legco has much power? Are they put off by the rule which groups them according to their employers' line of business? Has Beijing's vow to disband the three tiers of council by 1997 caused people to think it would be futile to take part in what is billed as the last and most important election in Hong Kong under British rule? Or are they simply apathetic about politics? Without further research, there are no firm answers to these questions. One study which tried to find out why people did not register was conducted in 1992 by the City University's Louie King-sheun and Chinese University's Wan Po-shan for the Committee on the Promotion of Civic Education. Non-registrants were asked if their failure to register was because they were not interested in elections, felt elections in Hong Kong were not effective, registration procedure was troublesome, did not know how to register or were not clear whether they were eligible to register. However, since over half the non-registrants replied that most of these reasons were not related to their decision not to register, researchers failed to come up with the answers. Just what do the silent majority who have not registered think about democracy? No one seems to know.