There can be few more tiresome bores in the world – apart from people who get obsessed about maps – than avid debaters of different electoral systems. But like the meek, the merciful and the poor in spirit, their day will come. Indeed, it will dawn within the next year or so, as Hong Kong examines the nitty-gritty of political reform ahead of ‘universal suffrage’ in 2017.
The Civic Party’s Ronnie Tong addressed this issue recently by calling for a system that guarantees that even if there are three or four or more candidates, the Chief Executive ends up being elected with more than 50% of the vote, and thus – we like to think – a nice, healthy mandate. This is done through having two rounds of voting: if the top two candidates win, say, 40% and 30% of the vote, they run again in a second, deciding poll.
This is how the French elect their presidents, usually holding polls two weeks apart. If that sounds like too much hard work, you can do it in one go, by asking voters to number their favoured candidates in order of preference. Someone then finds out what hard work really means, as they crunch all the numbers to find out which candidate would have enough 2s as well as 1s – or even 3s – to be the majority’s choice were the field reduced to two.
This is called an Alternative Vote. The British rejected it for general elections in a 2011 referendum on the understandable grounds that it is more complicated than the familiar first-past-the-post system and, even worse, suspiciously foreign-sounding. Give it a snappier, more Anglo-Saxon name like ‘Instant Run-off’, however, and the whole thing magically becomes so user-friendly that even Americans get it.
Civic Party hopefuls, along with fellow moderate pro-democrats in the HK Democratic Party, have an interest in a system like this as a representative of their bloc would have a decent chance of getting through to the second round of voting. It also sort-of implies (though doesn’t require) that the first-round ballot would have three or four, or maybe five, candidates on it. So, working back, it suggests a nomination system that limits the number of candidates on the ballot. Working back even further, we see a nomination system that bars weirdoes and eccentrics like the radicals of the League of Social Democrats from being nominated. Not surprisingly, mainstream pro-Beijing figures can also see the benefits, which is why they seem reasonably happy with Ronnie Tong’s idea. And the LSD, of course, hate it.
A different proposal comes today from Lingnan University’s Ho Lok-sang. Some people may dismiss Professor Ho as a hand-wringing namby-pamby, but he is in fact a man of bold and decisive ideas. He suggests a voting system that gives us all two votes each; we can cast them both for our favourite candidate, or we can split them between two. But it gets more interesting, not to say fun: we can wield the votes negatively as well as positively. That is, you can cast one or both of your votes against a candidate (or two) you really hate; or you can cast one for a nice guy, and one against a baddy – and so on. One intriguing possibility from such a process is that some candidates might emerge with a number of votes that is below zero. Talk about losing face.
Ho seems to think that this would increase the chances of a moderate winning. Probably, he is thinking in terms of calming Beijing officials’ fears that Hong Kong might elect a highly popular unpatriotic CIA-backed splittist. As an additional de-facto veto, millions of poor and elderly electors could be mobilized by the promise of a free lunch-box to vote against the rogue candidate, letting a spotty and talentless but basically benign no-hoper win after the votes are netted out. (Why not just order the obedient old folk to vote for the no-hoper and be done with it? Hard to say. Most of us would prefer to increase our favourite candidate’s chances of winning rather than waste a vote by casting it negatively. But in Communist-land, where elections are rigged exercises, maybe this ability to un-vote for a candidate seems appealing.)
Ho also recommends a way to satisfy Beijing’s need for a loyalty test: a local law requiring candidates and actual Chief Executives to respect ‘One Country, Two Systems’, presumably by way of an oath. The local courts could kick someone out if he or she breaks this law – and don’t even ask how you’re supposed to prove that. Again, this is all about making Beijing feel comfortable.
Well, it makes a change from screeching about Alpais Lam and pro-government triads.
And so we turn to the even more interesting subject of maps: this article offers 40 of them, dividing the world according to such things as legal system and alphabet. For special fun, try disentangling number 17.