Wednesday January 27, 2010
Reforms to enlarge the electorate
REFLECTING ON THE LAW
By Prof SHAD SALEEM FARUDI
More than two-thirds of the population do not take part in the election process. Lowering the voting age will immediately expand the number of voters.
THE Election Commission has reported that 15.47 million of our citizens are above 21 years of age and therefore eligible to vote in federal and state elections. However, only 11.08 million have taken the trouble to register as voters.
This means that 4.39 million eligible electors have opted to forfeit their right to participate in democracy’s showcase event – a general election.
This state of affairs draws our attention to the law relating to the right to vote in our political system. In a functioning democracy the rules must permit as many mature citizens as possible to have the right to participate in the electoral exercise of choosing a new government.
The larger the percentage of the population eligible to vote, the greater the government’s legitimacy. The smaller the electorate, the weaker the government’s moral mandate.
As in all countries, the Malaysian political system imposes a number of pre-requisites to the right to vote. Among these are: age, registration on the electoral roll and residence in the constituency where one wishes to vote.
Voting age: In Malaysia an elector must be 21 years of age on the “qualifying date”. This date is not the date of the election but the date on which he applies for registration as an elector.
In practice this means that if a 21-year-old registers as an elector today he may get to vote for the first time only in 2013 when he is 24. Obviously many young adults become eligible to vote for the first time well past their 21st birthday. It may, therefore, be a good idea to permit advance enrolment between 16 and 18. Australia allows it at 17.
An unreasonably high voting age has the undemocratic effect of shrinking the electorate. In Malaysia, for example, of the population of 26.99 million (in 2008), 42.68% is below 21 and not eligible to register or vote.
A survey of 221 nations or regions where democratic elections take place indicates that in seven nations, including Austria and Brazil, the voting age is 16. In six countries, including Indonesia and Sudan, it is 17. 188 countries have 18 as the age of franchise. In South Korea, it is 19. In four countries, among these Japan, Taiwan and Tunisia, it is 20.
In only 15 countries the right to franchise comes at 21. Malaysia is one such country. One nation, Uzbekistan, beats us all at 25.
In some countries, the voting age depends on marital or employment status. In Bolivia one may vote at 18 if married; at 21 if single. In Indonesia and the Dominican Republic, married people can vote at any age. In Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro, citizens can vote between 16 and 18 if employed. In many countries there are different voting ages for federal, state and local elections.
The argument in favour of keeping the voting age at 21 or higher is that voters must have the maturity to assess election candidates and the national issues at stake. But these arguments are hardly convincing.
Malaysian data indicates that 69% of our population is urbanised, and 54% uses the Internet. Total adult literacy rate is 92%. A 16-year old can be tried in the courts as an adult. An 18-year-old may get married; may join the army; may start a company, invest in stocks and pay income tax.
Lowering the voting age will immediately expand the number of voters and improve the legitimacy of the government in power.
This will force political parties to look more seriously into issues that affect young people’s lives and to court young citizens for their votes. Of course, our education system will have to be improved to provide better political education.
Registration: It is not enough to be 21. A voter must be registered on the electoral roll as an elector in the constituency in which he resides on the qualifying date.
Only 11.08 million voters constituting 41.05% of the 2008 population of 26.99 million have registered as voters, and 16.26% of the eligible population did not register. It would, therefore, be advisable if registration was automatic.
Residence: A voter must be resident in a constituency on the qualifying date. If not, he must be registered as an absent voter under the Election (Postal Voting) Regulations 2003.
This residence requirement deprives thousands of citizens who are out of town on election day to forfeit their right to vote. The residence requirement appears most anachronistic and must be viewed afresh either by vastly expanding the postal registration eligibility or by permitting early voting (as is being proposed by the Election Commission).
Voting not compulsory: Unlike countries such as Australia and Bolivia, where voting is compulsory, in Malaysia voters face no sanction if they refuse to go to the electoral booths. Nearly 25% of eligible voters do not exercise their right to vote.
The combined effect of all the above factors is that nearly 69% of the total population does not take part in national or state elections! This appears scandalous and has obvious implications for the democratic theory. What is obviously needed is to increase the proportion of the electorate relative to the overall population.
A three-pronged reform is recommended. First, in keeping with the worldwide trend, the voting age must be reduced to 18 to enfranchise a bigger chunk of the population and to decrease the 43% proportion of the population not entitled to vote.
Second, the registration requirement should be abolished altogether. Registration should be automatic on the basis of National Registration Department records at the address mentioned on one’s identification card. If one wishes to change one’s constituency, then and then only must one be required to fill the necessary forms in advance.
Automatic registration would enfranchise the nearly 15% of the population, i.e. 4.39 million voters, who do not register with the Election Commission.
Third, voting is a civic duty and must be made compulsory. This would add 11% more votes on the day of the ballot.
With these reforms the electorate will increase significantly and the dream of making the government truly representative of the people will come closer to realisation.
Datuk Prof Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi is Emeritus Professor at UiTM and Visiting Professor at USM.