How government can prevent voter registration absurdities

September 08, 2015 15:49
The government spends a lot on its campaigns promoting voter registration (inset) but the Registration and Electoral Office has failed to prevent numerous irregularities. Photos: Metro Daily, HK government

Voting in a democracy is a great civic duty embraced by most citizens.

However, in Hong Kong, the government is treating voter registration as a game.

Its failure to ensure registration is done properly could damage the credibility of the elections for district councils and the Legislative Council.

Instead of conducting voter registration using its own databases, the government requests Hongkongers to register themselves, resulting in numerous absurdities.

Loopholes in the process allow the creation of many virtual voters in a single flat, for example.

Some voters have had lampposts and hotels accepted as their registered addresses.

The public is understandably suspicious that political forces are manipulating the voter registration system to move their supporters from one constituency to another in an attempt to ensure the victory of their candidates.

Dozens of people appeared in a court in Sha Tin Monday. They were among 326 accused of registering false addresses with the Registration and Electoral Office (REO).

However, many cases were dropped after it was revealed that REO employees had made errors while entering the addresses into the database.

The magistrate chided the REO for the mistakes its staff had made.

The court also dealt with several suspicious cases.

Among them were two dead people who were registered as voters.

Other cases involved residents' addresses on the register being changed without their knowledge.

These cases indicate that the government is taking a careless attitude toward the voter registration process.

Accurate voter registration has been the foundation of open, fair and transparent elections in Hong Kong since the 1980s.

But it was not until the last Legco election in 2011 that cases were discovered of many voters with different family surnames using the same registered address.

That gave rise to speculation that political forces behind the scenes were using loopholes in the voter registration process to turn local elections into an unfair game.

The government should have tightened the voter registration process by now to prevent third-party access to voter registration records.

The REO has published full voter registration records online for reference.

Voters can access their own personal records using their identity card numbers and their Chinese name codes.

No further authentication is required. 

That offers an opportunity for any political party in possession of voters' identification data to access such information.

One pro-Beijing district councillor complained to the REO that her registered address had been changed by a third party without her knowledge.

Under the current regime, voter registration is voluntary.

That's the reason the government spends plenty of money on campaigns each year to promote voter registration in an attempt to boost the number of voters.

But the registration process is not even as strict as those required when applying for a mobile-phone plan or a credit card.

Voters don't need to submit proof of their address to the registration officer, usually a university student working part time or an assistant to a political party.

While the REO reserve the right to cross-check the address with the voters, this doesn't happen often, as the office handles hundreds of thousand of such applications.

That has emerged as a serious loophole in the voter registration system.

Of course, it would be quite a sensitive matter for the government to handle too much personal data, but the fact is that many government departments -- such as the Inland Revenue Department, the Water Supplies Department, the Education Bureau and the Hospital Authority -- hold personal records that could be cross-checked against the voter record.

Moreover, the government should also limit the channels through which voter registration forms can be collected and forbid non-government entities, such as political parties and their affiliates, from handling voter registration forms.

Political parties have apparently been using the collection of registration forms to garner certain personal data for their own use. 

One voter at Monday's hearing told the magistrate her registered address had been changed without her consent.

The court suspected someone might have made the change to prevent her from receiving information about the election, thereby depriving her of her right to vote.

To uphold the fairness of voter registration and elections, the government should immediately revise the existing laws to tighten the process of voter registration to ensure the accuracy of the records, as well as to prevent third parties from accessing and handling those records for any purpose.

The government may also request the public's consent for it to cross-check personal data in its various databases to ensure its accuracy.

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EJ Insight writer