(Reprinted from HKCER Letters, Vol.44, May 1997)


Four Principles for the First SAR Direction Election

Stephen Ching


In just a few months, Hong Kong will undergo a change of government. In the absence of a through-train arrangement for the current legislature, a new legislature for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) will have to be formed after this change has taken place. The most controversial issue regarding the formation of the First SAR Legislative Council is that of the election method to be used for geographical constituencies. There are several possible election methods that could be put into place. These include the first-past-the-post system (also referred to as the single-seat, single-vote system)1, which is currently in use, as well as the two systems considered by the Preparatory Committee: proportional representation and a multi-seat, single-vote system. The single-seat, single-vote system and a multi-seat, single-vote system are mnemonic. Under the former system, there is one seat in a constituency and voters can cast one vote. Although there are more than one seats in a constituency under the latter system, voters are only allowed to cast one vote. The idea of proportional representation is to make the number of seats a political group receives as proportional as possible to the number of votes it wins.

The purpose of this article is to assess the election methods described above. The assessment is based on four fundamental democratic principles: anonymity, neutrality, reinforcement, and independence of dominated candidates.2 These four principles will be described in more detail later in the article. The assessment shows that of the methods considered, the first-past-the-post system is the only election method that is in accordance with the four democratic principles.

Consultation on the formation of the First Legislative Council for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) was handled by the Preparatory Committee and ended on April, 1, 1997. The three most important issues the committee discussed are: the election method for geographical constituencies, the replacement of Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten's nine functional constituencies, and the composition of the Election Committee. The Basic Law specifies that the ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage. The last two issues are therefore transitory in nature. They will not be discussed in this article.

Attention will be focused on the election method for geographical constituencies. Only two kinds of election methods were considered during the consultation: proportional representation and a multi-seat, single-vote system. Note that under proportional representation, independent candidates will form coalitions to secure enough votes to compete with large political parties. Despite the fact that the current first-past-the-post system was excluded from the agenda of the consultation, it is considered in this study. No study of election methods would be complete without considering this system.

Election methods form the core component of rules of the election game, and players will strive to influence the rules as much as possible. Various political bodies submitted their views to the Preparatory Committee. Conflicts of interest clearly exist. The views of these political bodies can hardly represent the overall interest of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, these views have dominated in the mass media as a result of political bodies' high-profile actions. In order to achieve an objective view on this matter, it is necessary to independently assess various election methods that set aside the interests of all political bodies. Such an assessment can also help different political bodies reach a consensus, since no single body is isolated.

Democratic development in Hong Kong has lagged far behind the city's economic development. It is fair to say that Hong Kong is a "democratically developing area." To ensure proper development, a long-term view needs to be adopted. Priority should be given to fundamental principles rather than to the current political situation, which is transitory in nature. In this article, assessment of election methods is based on the following four fundamental democratic principles:


To let voters submit ballots anonymously can ensure that they vote according to their own wishes. The advantages of anonymous ballots are both simple and effective, inter alia. Anonymous ballots are almost universally accepted.3 Note that the first-past-the-post system, proportional representation, and a multi-seat, single-vote system are all anonymous election systems. One can imagine the problems that would arise if a submitted ballot could be used to identify the voter who casts it. By no means can the First SAR Legislative Council afford to use a non-anonymous election method. One serious practical consequence of such a step would be the drastic drop in the number of voters casting votes.


The neutrality principle is best illustrated by the following example. Candidates are commonly assigned numbers. Neutrality means that these numbers are irrelevant to voters. To put it formally, voters make rational decisions. These decisions are based on relevant information, such as what a candidate can and will do for the voters if he or she is elected. Voter rationality can provide a candidate with the proper incentive to act in accordance with the interests of voters. This is important, since the interests of voters and those of a candidate may not coincide. Voter rationality can also result in the increased likelihood of an elected candidate keeping the promises he/she has made during a campaign.


A strong candidate may exist who can win in either one of two constituencies. If the constituency boundary is redrawn and these two constituencies are combined into a single one, then the two constituencies are expected to reinforce each other, and the strong candidate will still win in the combined constituency.

The reinforcement principle is most relevant to the current debate. If the first-past-the-post system is changed to either proportional representation or a multi-seat, single-vote system, constituency boundaries will have to be redefined, and constituencies will be enlarged. It is conceivable that some enlarged constituencies will consist of more than one previous constituency. Suppose that there exists a strong candidate who could have won in any of the previous constituencies but who loses in the enlarged constituency under the new election method. Such a change of election method would be highly criticized.

Independence of dominated candidates

This principle can be considered the inverse of the reinforcement principle. It deals with weak candidates. Consider a candidate who is ranked below another candidate by all voters. Such a candidate is called a dominated candidate and should have no chance to win. The principle of the independence of dominated candidates goes a step further. It requires that election results be independent of the presence/absence of a dominated candidate. This is an important step in preventing a strategic move on the part of a dominated candidate. Making a dominated candidate fail to win may not cause him/her to drop out of the election, since his/her participation can help (or hurt) his/her allies (or opponents).

One would expect these four minimal democratic requirements to be met by all reasonable election methods. In fact, this is not the case. It can be shown that both proportional representation and the multi-seat, single-vote system fail to satisfy at least one of the principles. On the other hand, the current first-past-the-post system satisfies all of them. In light of this fact, the current first-past-the-post system should remain unchanged.

The above description is a small logical implication of a powerful result derived by Richelson in his 1978 paper.4 He shows that the first-past-the-post system is the only election method that satisfies all four fundamental democratic principles; that is, all other election methods fail to meet at least one of the principles. This implies that even if additional election methods are considered in the future, the first-past-the-post system will still remain the best one. There are more constructive ways to assist Hong Kong's democratic development than by expending effort on shaping the election method. It is disappointing that the Preparatory Committee was not made aware of the fact that the first-past-the-post system is the only one that satisfies the four democratic requirements. A proper consultation should not be based only on public opinion, but also on the existing knowledge of the subject matter. An uninformed developing democracy can be as harmful as the lack of democracy can be.


1 A more academic name is plurality rule.

2 This approach is known as the axiomatic approach and was first adopted in economics to study election methods by the 1972 Nobel laureate, Kenneth J. Arrow.

3 An exception is the ballots cast by elected legislators, since they need to be accountable to their voters.

4 In Richelson's original paper, there is an additional principle known as overwhelming majority and his proof is quite complicated. The version reported here is based on a 1996 paper by this author in which a simpler and independent proof is shown.

Stephen Ching is assistant professor in the Department of Economics and Finance, the City University of Hong Kong.


| Index | Research Projects | HKCER Letters |
| Speaker Program / Conference | Index of Economic Freedom |
The Hong Kong Centre for Economic Research
School of Economics and Finance
The University of Hong Kong
Phone: (852) 2547-8313 Fax: (852) 2548-6319
email: hkcer@econ.hku.hk