The 30,000 students charged with signing up electors for the May polls have had an impossible task. For the past five weeks, these youngsters, in their distinctive turquoise jackets, have patrolled streets and shopping centres throughout Hong Kong, only to be given the brush-off by the vast majority of those streaming past who have been unwilling to stop for the minute or so it takes to register a new elector. Those who participated in the massive door-to-door attempt at registration encountered an equally apathetic response. Even families who were playing mahjong turned them away because they considered the game more important. Registering electors, and persuading them to vote, is always a hard task. The difficulty rises in a community with such a hectic lifestyle as the SAR. Even in 1995, only 36 per cent turned out for elections which were considered important enough to warrant wrecking relations with China. That was on an occasion when there was reason to believe voting might make a difference, given Chris Patten's efforts to expand the franchise and the importance attached to the Legislative Council. This year, by contrast, no one is under any illusion that the poll in May will make much difference to how Hong Kong is run. When the electoral rules have been framed to ensure that support for the democratic camp is not reflected in the number of seats which it wins, nobody can be too surprised by the public disinterest. Manipulated However much the Government highlights the several hundred thousand new names added to the electoral roll, it can hardly disguise the fact that around one million have refused to register. Some would probably have never done so, whatever the voting system. But others have undoubtedly turned away in reaction to the way in which the electoral process is being manipulated for political purposes. While the low registration rate will cast a partial shadow over elections for the geographical seats, the situation is far worse in the functional constituencies. This is especially true for the nine new seats chosen by the Preparatory Committee to replace those in which 2.6 million were eligible to vote in 1995. It comes as no surprise to see that the registration rate in several of these ultra-small seats is among the worst of any constituencies. The attempt to favour the business sector by allocating a disproportionately large number to them has backfired badly. At a time of such economic turmoil, registering as a corporate voter is the last thing on the minds of most businessmen, which helps to explain the low registration rate in seats such as those for importers and exporters and the textile and wholesale industries. Some of the new seats - such as the one which brings together sport, arts, culture and publications - were so clearly contrived that potential voters felt no sense of identity with them and did not bother to register. In the textile and garments seat, the provisional legislature's decision to defy the Government and expand the size of this constituency undoubtedly contributed to a low registration rate. Laughing-stock Whatever the reasons in individual seats, the overall effect threatens to undermine the credibility of the entire electoral process. These functional constituencies were always going to be small-circle elections. But the failure of the voter registration campaign threatens to make that circle so small that Hong Kong will become the laughing-stock of the democratic world, with overseas observers likely to point to these seats as proof of the flawed nature of May's polls. At this late stage, there is little that can be done to remedy this. Obviously, every possible effort must be made to encourage all those who have registered to turn out to vote. An urgent review of the election expense limits could also restore some credibility to the process. These were widely criticised as too high, even when they were based on a far larger number of registered voters. Now, unless some changes are made, they will allow thousands of dollars to be spent on each elector in some of the smaller functional constituencies, so raising a very real risk of corruption. These elections are not the end of the path towards democracy. Further legislative polls are due to be held in 2000. Preparations for these will begin as soon as the elections in May are over. Since the Government will no longer be bound by the Preparatory Committee's blueprint in planning the later poll, there is no reason why the discredited functional constituencies need be retained. If this year's elections are going to be flawed, the very least the Government can do to restore some hope for the future of the democratic process in Hong Kong is to promise that the same mistakes will not be repeated next time round.