To vote or not to vote?

 In Chief Executive & Legislative Council Elections, Constitutional Reform, Governance & Institutional Design

On polling day, we make not one decision but two. We decide who to cast our vote for. But before that, we decide whether to vote at all.


Trying to encourage voters to turn out for the vote, the government’s election advertisements say that we should vote because this is what responsible residents should do, because we care, and because we should support the Legislative Council elections.


These however are incorrect characterizations of the meanings of elections. Rather than being an act of care or support, voting is an act of exercising our political right – the right to participate in public policy determination.


According to democratic principle, each of us should be equally entitled to this political right. We are entitled to this political right because the life of each is equally important as another’s, hence the interests of each ought to be given equal consideration in public policy making. We exercise our participatory right indirectly through electing our agents – our representatives – to the legislature. We make the representatives work for our best interests in public policy making through their desire (incentives) to be elected and reelected. In other words, our right to vote is at the same time a means to protect and advance our interests in public policy making.


So, the reason why we should vote is not because we happen to care about or support the elections; the fundamental reason is because we are the “boss”, we want to make sure that agents who succeed in getting into the legislature are those we approve of and who will be accountable to us; it is in this sense and for this reason that we should care about and support the elections.


If we abstain, we not only forsake an important means of safeguarding our interests against exclusion; in effect, we disenfranchise ourselves. Our voluntary abstention is functional equivalent of what dictatorial regimes do to their people – deprive them of their voting rights.


Some voters may reason that none of the candidates is impressive, so they would rather abstain. This line of reasoning fails to comprehend the full functions of voting. Apart from electing legislators whom one approves of, voting serves two further functions, namely, to sanction underperforming incumbents by voting for their rivals and to deter the election of poor-quality candidates by voting for their rivals. If you are not impressed by any of the candidates, help prevent the election of the worst by casting your vote for his/her rival.


Other voters may hold the view that the GC legislators hardly make any substantive difference to policy outcomes. To these voters, it is not rational to take the trouble – the time and the effort – to turn out for the vote. The fallacy of this view lies in its blaming the victims for their ineffectiveness. The cause of the ineffectiveness of GC legislators is Hong Kong’s unequal political system.


Firstly, public policy making in Hong Kong is dominated by a small minority. The Chief Executive is elected by 800 electors only. For the Legislative Council, half of its 60 Councillors, the functional constituency (FC) representatives, are returned by 229,861 voters while the other half, the geographical constituency (GC) representatives, are returned by 3,372,007 voters. Yet, in the legislature, the vote of a functional representative carries as much weight as that of a geographical representative’s. In other words, some voters – FC voters – enjoy preponderant influence on public policy making through their agents in the legislature although these voters constitute only a very small minority of either the population at large or of the electorate. Numerically, one may say, the policy process is dominated by 200,000-plus voters.


The limited right of the Legislative Council to initiate legislation is another restriction on the policy making powers of GC legislators. The government is the principal source of legislative initiatives. Members of the Council cannot initiate proposals that relate to public expenditure or political structure or the operation of the government. Nor can they introduce proposals that relate to government policies without the written consent of the Chief Executive. In effect, therefore, the policy making function of the Council is restricted to amending legislative proposals initiated by the government.


Worst still, such policy amending power is further handicapped by the split-vote mechanism of the Legislative Council. While government proposals require only a simple majority of legislators present to be passed, passage of motions or amendments introduced by individual legislators requires respective majority support by FC legislators and GC legislators present. In other words, an amendment to a government proposal approved by the majority of GC legislators may be voted down by FC legislators; in reality, this is very much the case.


In this unequal political system, we, ordinary citizens with only the GC vote, must utilize all possible means to protect and advance our interests in public policy making; the vote in our hands is one important tool for this purpose. As an important means to protect our interests, and far from being irrational, turning out for the vote is a very rational thing to do. As political scientist Arend Lijphard says: “with regard to voting, the exit option spells no influence; only voice can have an effect.” To abstain is to disarm ourselves unilaterally in the fight for our right to participate in public policy determination.


Abstention will also reduce the legitimacy and hence the bargaining power of GC legislators versus FC legislators and the government. This is because the lower the turnout, the less representative GC legislators can claim to be. The less representative they are, the less legitimate they will be. On the other hand, the higher the turnout, the more legitimate GC legislators will be. Hong Kong citizens should therefore not only vote but also encourage others to vote.


Still other voters may reason that the odds of one’s vote being determining in an election outcome are minuscule and therefore that it is not worth the trouble to cast the vote. While this reasoning may seem rational at the individual level, at the aggregate level, it is not. The irrationality is not that if everyone abstains, the institution of election will collapse; empirical observations show that some voters cast their votes for whatever reasons. The unpleasant consequence of non-voting relates rather to the turnout problem. Turnout matters because the difference between voters and nonvoters is not random, it is systematic. Cross-country empirical studies show that compared to nonvoters, voters tend to be of higher socioeconomic status. This will result in a socioeconomic bias in the election results and inequality in representation. Thus, in Hong Kong, abstention stands to aggravate the political inequality already in our system and skew the system further towards the haves and the privileged. In view of this, we should therefore not only vote but also encourage others to vote.


In Hong Kong, the cost of voting is “cheap”. Our elections are to date relatively clean and free of political intimidation. Unlike Zimbabweans, we do not risk getting maimed or killed when casting our vote. Polling stations are situated in easily accessible locations, polling is always on non-working days, and voting procedures are simple. Given all these and the analysis presented above, it should be clear that not voting is more irrational, unless one disagrees with the principle of equal political right or is really content to have public policies determined by a small minority, which may or may not be in one’s interests.



George Cautherley (高德禮)

Hong Kong Democratic Foundation (香港民主促進會)

11 August 2008



Unpublished manuscript




Ballinger, Chris. 2006. Democracy and Voting. London: Hansard Society.

Bennett, Stephen Earl and Resnick, David. 1990. The implications of nonvoting for democracy for the United States. American Journal of Political Science 34(3): 771-802.

Ghai, Yash. 1999. Hong Kong’s New Constitutional Order. 2nd Ed. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Keaney, Emily and Rogers, Ben. 2006. A Citizen’s Duty: Voter Inequality and the Case for Compulsory Turnout. London: Institute for Public Research.

Lijhart, Arend. 1997. Unequal participation: democracy’s unresolved dilemma. American Political Science Review 91(1): 1-14.

McGinness, Padraic and Puplick, Chris. 1995. The pros and cons of compulsory voting. Election Today 5(3): 3-5.

Singer, Peter. 2007. Why vote? Policy Innovations: The Carnegie Council’s Online Magazine for a Fairer Globalization. []





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