Canadian politics, Hong/couver, Long Read

Voting. It’s easy, and it isn’t.

Voting in Canada is easy, even with everything the government has done to make it difficult.1 The simple mechanics are rather clear: you can take some time to observe the various candidates on offer and platforms up for debate, then you ruminate alone, or with your significant others, as to which candidate is the least offensive. Then, you gather up all the ID you can find that has either your photo or your address on it, preferably both,2 and you head on over to your local voting station.3 At the voting station, you queue in line and wait for a kindly elderly (or young) staff person to hand you a ballot. You then hide behind a piece of cardboard, scratch an X in the circle next to the name of the candidate you’ve decided is the least offensive, hand the ballot back to the staff person, and you’ve done your civic duty.

Writ large, millions of these kinds of actions take place during an election in Canada. Then, they’re aggregated together in 300-odd geographic groupings across the Canada, and the least offensively candidate in each area is declared the winner, and the party that has the most winners is handed the reigns of power.

It’s easy, but it isn’t.

It’s easy, because it’s easy to count the one candidate who received the most votes. It’s easy, because it’s easy to aggregate those individual winners across Canada and come up with a single winner. It’s easy, because we don’t have to think too hard about it. But it isn’t always so easy. This system benefits the people in power — the parties who have always had power, and who seem to always be in a position of having power. In Canada’s elections, the winners are decided by a solid minority of voters — the Conservative party, who won the last election, won 100% of the power with 38% of the popular vote. And not everyone voted, so the real percentage of support is likely much lower. This is easy to understand, but it’s not easy to understand why there isn’t an alternative — a more proportional system of voting, one that allocates power based on support.

Well, that’s actually easy to understand. There isn’t change because it doesn’t benefit those in power. And thus it ever was.

It might be easy to understand elections in Canada. It’s not so easy to understand elections in Hong Kong. First, the entire land area of the territory of Hong Kong is about the same size as the entire land area of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. You can get on a subway train in downtown Hong Kong and end up in Mainland China in about an hour and half, not taking into consideration the potential lineups at the border.

And that presence of Mainland China not too far away from downtown Hong Kong is something that complicates even the idea of elections in Hong Kong in a ridiculous fashion. Nevermind the colonial history of Hong Kong – a colonial history that meant that when Britain controlled Hong Kong, it wasn’t too interested in giving Hong Kong residents the vote, except until the point when Hong Kong was going to be returned to China, at which point it tried frantically to give Hong Kong residents the vote  — until China asked them not to.

So you end up with a bizarre electoral system in Hong Kong, which means that despite the fact that the pro-democracy parties in Hong Kong received 57% of the vote in the 2012 legislative council elections, they received only 38.5% of the seats in the legislative council.4 Admittedly, even that is somewhat easy to understand — Hong Kong has a party-list proportional system, where residents are asked to vote for the parties that they support, with a list of candidates who will receive seats made available, and that list sorted based on the party’s preference. That sounds super complicated, making elections not easy, but that’s not true.5 In any event, what’s easy about Hong Kong’s elections is how simple it is for the system to be rigged against democracy:  a large part6 of the seats in the legislative council are reserved for “functional constituencies,” or business groups and organizations. Arguably, these voters are easy for Beijing to influence – and that’s borne out by the massive number of seats that go to the pro-Beijing camp.

But of course the legislative council itself isn’t the end of the road in terms of elections in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s de facto head of state is its Chief Executive7, and the Chief Executive is supposed to be elected. Key word there — supposed. In reality, the CE post isn’t elected, or even close. Instead, there’s an electoral committee of 1,200 people who vote on the nominated candidates — and Beijing gets to give the nod to the nominated candidates. Even the 1,200 electors in the electoral committee are nominated by Beijing. So, it’s incredibly easy to understand how the CE vote will go — it will either be a candidate approved by Beijing, or a candidate approved by Beijing, or a candidate approved by Beijing. And the people voting for the CE? All approved by Beijing.

This is ridiculously complicated, and it’s not easy. But what’s easy to understand is the impact: Hong Kong’s “democracy” is a pseudo-democracy, one that’s been built under the constraints of China, who do not want Hong Kongers to vote for anything that would give them independence outside of the framework China has given them. And interestingly, the people in Hong Kong are not happy with this.

What’s not so easy to understand is the difference in public reaction between Hong Kong and Canada. Canada’s democracy is one that is solidified in its constitution and one that cannot be reduced to meaninglessness easily. However, it’s quickly trending that way — recent cases of alleged electoral fraud haven’t seemed to have provoked any kind of public response. The current election is one that seems to be ready to return the Conservatives to power, despite the alleged corruption and fraud. Why are Canadians taking the easy way out, of not voting, of not contesting?

Hong Kong has a voting system that is rigged against the voters. Beijing controls the legislature, Beijing controls the election process for the Chief Executive. And yet, this year, and last, tens of thousands were on the streets of Hong Kong, protesting for the unfettered right to vote. Calling for the same basic rights that Canadians have.

Would they be protesting so strongly if the system they were about to get was the same as Canada’s? Or, rather, should Canadians be on the streets in similar proportion to Hong Kong?

At the very least, no matter the candidates that may be the least worst in your individual riding, the least you can do as a Canadian is get out there and cast a vote. Think of the people in Hong Kong who cannot.

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Notes

Image credit: “2008 Canada Ballot” by D’Arcy Norman and “Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution” by Pasu Au Yung, both Creative Commons.

  1. See “Unfair Elections Act” as an example: http://democracywatch.ca/campaigns/makefairelectionsactfair/
  2. Especially since the government no longer allows the voter identification cards they send you to be considered identification
  3. Though, there have been a number of incidents this year where the government has sent incorrect information that would lead some voters to think their polling station was more than 500 kilometers away.
  4. Wikipedia details this, here.
  5. Arguably, this electoral process is actually the closest to the true way that Canadians weight and evaluate their voting intentions, but that’s another article.
  6. 30 seats, or fully 42.8% of the legislative council
  7. The name of the post may not be a nod to Hong Kong’s centrality in the global corporate flow of money, or maybe it is…?
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