Malapportionment of constituencies

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Serious malapportionment of voters in the various state and parliamentary constituencies in Sarawak undermines the democratic principle of one person one vote, asserts Andrew Aeria.

Photo credit: hazuism.blogspot.com

A key principle of democracy is that of one person having one vote. In principle, every vote in a democracy has equal value. This means everyone’s vote – irrespective of their constituency – has equal weightage in terms of its ability to influence electoral outcomes.

Historically, there has been some divergence in this principle especially between rural and urban constituencies whereby “differences in constituency electorate sizes were limited to 15 per cent above or below the average constituency electorate at the time of Merdeka”.

‘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” ((Lim Hong Hai in Malaysiakini comments, 3 December 2011).

Consequently in Malaysia, this principle of every vote having equal value has been subverted by successive mal-apportionment of constituency sizes. By mal-apportionment, I mean that constituencies have been gerrymandered into sizes with vastly different total vote numbers, which undermine the basic principle of one person having one vote of equal value and weightage to that of another person.

In Sarawak, there are 31 parliamentary and 71 state constituencies. All these constituencies suffer from the phenomenon of mal-apportionment. This is not a phenomenon that is unique to Sarawak. It also exists in all parts of the country.

Table 1 shows:
(a) the total voters of all state constituencies and their mal-apportionment in terms of relative percentage differences between the smallest to the largest constituency, and
(b) the relative percentage differences between all constituencies and what I consider to be a fair average total voter sized constituency.

Table 2 shows the same but for parliamentary constituencies in Sarawak.

For state constituencies, a voter in Ba’kelalan (6958 voters) has a vote that is approximately five times more value in terms of weightage than that of a voter in Pending (29488 voters). For an urban comparison, a voter in Satok (10431 voters) has a vote with a weightage that is more than twice that of a neighbouring voter in Padungan (23576 voters).

For parliamentary constituencies (Table 2), a voter in Lawas (15717 voters) has a vote that is approximately five times more value in terms of weightage than a voter in Stampin (67257 voters). For a close semi-urban comparison, a voter in Petra Jaya (40533 voters) has a vote that is approximately 1.66 times more value in weightage than a voter in Stampin.

These figures suggest serious mal-apportionment of voters in the various state and parliamentary constituencies in Sarawak. They undermine the democratic principle of one person having a vote of equal value with that of another voter in another constituency.

To stay true to the democratic principle of one person one vote, a fairer apportionment of voters in Sarawak-based constituencies would see the Election Commission fix an average number of voters per constituency. (Take the total number of voters in Sarawak and divide by number of constituencies giving 13805 voters for each state constituency; 29808 voters for each parliamentary constituency.) The Commission should then delineate all constituencies in a fair way to ensure that constituencies do not deviate too far beyond the set average number of voters per constituency. Leeway should be given for extremely rural constituencies but the deviation should not exceed 20 per cent of the set average since transport and telecommunication networks today in Sarawak are much better than what they used to be in 1963.

[When Malaysia was formed in 1963, electoral limits for Sabah and Sarawak were such that they allowed “the largest constituency to have twice the number of electors as the smallest constituency, this is, one-third or 33 per cent above or below the average constituency in each state” (Lim Hong Hai, 2011). Also, to overcome any travel-related cost related issues related to large constituencies, parliament should mandate an annual allocation of travel funds for all parliamentarians that is indexed to distance travelled via a reasonable mode of transport available for such travel.]

Recommendations

Given that this issue of mal-apportionment of constituencies and subsequent gerrymandering of constituency boundaries is an issue that affects the whole country and hence the health of the nation’s democracy, I thus urge the PSC to recommend the setting up of a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate this issue of mal-apportionment of equal average voters among constituencies thoroughly.

The mandate of such a RCI should examine (but not be confined to) current mal-apportionment and to draw up fairer rules that will guide the Election Commission to redraw all constituency boundaries to ensure that all constituency delineations empower voters equally.

As well, strict rules about future delineation exercises must be drawn up to ensure that the Election Commission genuinely assists in promoting and protecting the equal values of our democratic vote for all time.

I also urge the Parliamentary Select Committee (on Electoral Reform) to recommend that parliament enact a cross-party constitutional amendment to restore the Election Commission’s formerly independent powers to ensure equal distribution of seat apportionment between states (removed via Constitutional (Amendment) Act (No. 2) of 1973) and equal average voters among constituencies, which was also removed by the same constitutional amendment.

As well, the Election Commission should be made answerable to parliament and not to the government as is the situation now. (Lim Hong Hai, ‘Electoral Politics in Malaysia: “Managing” Elections in a Plural Society’, pp. 111-112, (accessed 8 December 2011).

The above submission was made by Aliran exco member Dr Andrew Aeria during his submission to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reforms in Kuching on 9 December 2011

This piece was originally published on the Aliran website on 13 December 2011.

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