The mother of all electoral abuses

comments     Lim Hong Hai     Published     Updated

COMMENT I refer to the Malaysiakini report, ‘A retiree exposes gerrymandering in Sabah' , and applaud Ng Chak Ngoon for his contribution, especially his graph on the unequal numbers of voters among electoral constituencies.

The delineation of constituencies has long been considered unfair because of two practices that are generally regarded as electoral abuses, namely mal-apportionment and gerrymandering.

Both these practices can have important effects under the first-past-the-post electoral system, which we use in Malaysia.

What Ng has so graphically exposed ( chart below ) is mal-apportionment or inequality among constituency electorates, rather than gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the drawing of constituency boundaries for partisan advantage and it can be done even in the absence of mal-apportionment.

chart on gerrymandering 02

Starting with the first constituency revision in 1974, various scholars have noted signs of gerrymandering but the more important source of unfairness in electoral constituencies is mal-apportionment.

The question now is: what can be done to reduce mal-apportionment and gerrymandering in constituency delineation? Three things seem important.

Reform the EC

First, strengthen the independence of the Election Commission (EC), the delineator at first instance. This can be done mainly by improving the process of appointing commission members, just as we have recently done with respect to judges.

The EC should also use its existing constitutional power to appoint its main administrative officials instead of totally relying on federal civil servants.

Second, the EC should report its recommendations on revised constituencies directly to Parliament for approval.

azlan At present, the EC reports to the prime minister, who can then make changes to the commission's recommendations before tabling them in Parliament, and also thereafter, in order to secure their approval by Parliament.

This procedure does not inspire confidence that constituencies will be fairly delineated. An added measure is to require more than the present simple majority (in effect, the support of the ruling party alone) in Parliament for the approval of revised constituencies.

For example, such changes should require concurrent majorities by government and opposition or at least a two-thirds majority of Parliament.

Third, restore the clear numerical limits to mal-apportionment that have been removed from the federal constitution. Some background is useful for understanding the suggested measures.

To safeguard the fundamental principle of approximately equal electorates among constituencies, differences in constituency electorates were limited to 15 percent above or below the average constituency electorate at the time of Merdeka.

No more limits

These clear numerical limits were relaxed in 1962 and then removed in 1973 by constitutional amendments: the federal constitution now allows, rather imprecisely, "a measure of weightage" in favour of rural constituencies.

With clear limits removed, rural weightage has been liberally applied by the EC, even though communications and other disadvantages of rural areas that form the justification for rural weightage have undoubtedly and significantly declined since Merdeka.

Indeed, constituency electorates are now so unequal as to make one wonder whether the fundamental requirement of approximate equality is still being complied with.

For peninsular Malaysia, therefore, it is not unreasonable to restore the limits to mal-apportionment that existed at the time of Merdeka, that is, 15 percent above or below the average constituency electorate.

Conditions in Sabah and Sarawak would justify wider limits than those for peninsular Malaysia. We may restore the limits that were in force when Malaysia was formed.

Those limits allow the largest constituency to have twice the number of electors as the smallest constituency, this is, one-third or 33 percent above or below the average constituency in each state.

This would still represent a considerable reduction from present levels of mal-apportionment in the two states.

Largely, because of mal-apportionment, the practice of constituency delineation is the major cause of unfairness in our electoral system. It causes more unfairness than deficiencies in voter registration and campaign rules.

Indeed, correcting unfairness in constituency delineation is the acid test for the parliamentary select committee on electoral reform and the government. 

LIM HONG HAI is a political scientist with Universiti Sains Malaysia. Here is a more detailed examination of the Malaysian electoral system in Lim's essay, ‘Electoral Politics in Malaysia: ‘Managing' Elections in a Plural Society' .

chart on gerrymandering 01

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