A ban on blank ballots would be terrible for sound governance

April 13, 2021 11:03
Photo: RTHK

With the seismic political changes in Hong Kong has come the increasingly apparent stance from Beijing – the issues that permeate this city can and ought to be attributed to its intransigent, recalcitrant, and obsolete governance model; additionally, its arcane political culture is fundamentally impervious to any and all attempts at reform. In short, sound governance is lacking, and it is precisely the dearth of governing talents and “meritorious” individuals that plagues the city today. So far, so good.

If such logic holds, then the ban on blank ballots – touted by some in the establishment and the government – would be a terrible way of doing politics. Given the substantially and largely uncontested state of politics in the city, there remains little to no need – if at all – for further mechanisms to be in place in order to keep the opposition out of official institutions. Indeed, the prohibition of blank ballots is gratuitous at best – and would foster an active regression away from meritocratic governance. Here’s how.

Firstly, given the constricted room for dissent in the city (as it stands), and the equally stringent set-up of political institutions and apparatus when it comes to the formalised opposition, blank ballots remain a critical mechanism for disillusioned masses to register their discontent towards the political establishment. Note, blank ballots are unlikely to amount to much political opposition in practice – even a sizeable number of them would do little to sway the results of the elections under the new system; instead, their presence could serve as a damning indictment (or a helpful reminder) that the quality of politicians in Hong Kong’s legislature remains poorly at best. This cuts across partisan lines – whatever’s left of the Democrats may find themselves just as unappealing to the masses as pro-Establishment politicians, who are now offered effectively first (and only) picks on legislative seats and institutional representation. Even from Beijing’s point-of-view, there remains significant value in having local criticisms and critique that keep the establishment parties in check – as a means of nudging them away from mindless sycophancy and towards genuinely competent governance.

Secondly, to the extent that optics still matters in Hong Kong, it’s well worth noting that blank ballots are plausibly the comparatively most publicly ‘palatable’ means in coopting mass dissent. A polity where blank ballots and votes are indeed criminalised, would be one where turnout rates of pan-city elections would reach absurd lows, as voters scramble to opt out of a system in which they can cast no protest vote. Alternatively, expect strategic voting that seeks to thwart the chances of pro-Establishment candidates, as the choice – for radicals and staunch Pan-Dem supporters – would no longer be between a “moderate” Pan-Democrat and a blank ballot, but the Pan-Democrat and not voting at all. Either way, the Establishment has little to gain and everything to lose from coming across as vindictive, petty, and unwilling to cop losses. There are better ways than a prohibition on blank ballots through which the Establishment can vindicate its worth – it could absorb and recruit genuine talents, up its regional and district outreach, and advocate substantively constructive reforms, for starters. None of this is infeasible.

Finally, I would argue that there exists a critical epistemic function in blank ballots. Setting aside the logistical nightmare of tracking down each and every ‘blank voter’, we ought to recognise that blank votes can be informative. They can inform the administration of the regions or districts in which public faith and buy-in are at their lowest – enabling, crucially, those with genuinely benign or magnanimous motives within the system to turn to implementing targeted reforms in response to the disillusionment. Voting rate figures alone are less informative – yes, there may well be boycotts to the LegCo; there may also be glaringly low turnout numbers, but such statistics alone are unhelpful, in that they do not accurately encapsulate how sizeable, if at all, the ‘protest vote’ bloc in fact is. To ameliorate the frustrations of the ‘protest’ bloc, for what it’s worth, requires open, deliberative, and responsive consultation, as opposed to mindlessly driving-home the point that they must comply with and embrace the government. If the government is devoid of even the most rudimentary of information concerning where frustrated voters are clustered, how should we expect it to have a clue when it comes to promulgating measures that tackle this city’s deeply entrenched socioeconomic inequalities?

All in all, setting aside the quibbles over democraticity and democracy, a moratorium on blank ballots would be a grave setback to the city’s governance. If we want an administration that can harness the people’s mandate in accomplishing structural transformations and reforms, we must at least retain some modicum of perceptual legitimacy within it. Banning blank votes would only send us down a path that is neither conducive towards Hong Kong’s future, nor Beijing’s interests in the city.

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Assistant Professor, HKU