Hong Kong, a former British colony, recently registered a record low voter turnout of 27.5% in its district election, prompting concerns about the credibility of the democratic mandate associated with such a figure. With the UK general election later this year, just how important is voter turnout to democracy?
The self-prescribed ‘patriots-only’ Hong Kong elections follow amendments to the electoral system which sees anti-government voices prohibited from standing and the number of directly elected district councillors cut to less than 20% of total seats, down from 94% in 2019.
The 2019 district election, which occurred amidst the infamous Hong Kong protests, saw a landslide victory for the pro-democracy movement, with 17 of the 18 councils won by pro-democracy councillors. This year’s changes are viewed largely as a retaliation from Beijing and symbolic of its refusal to entertain notions of political reform in the once-British territory.
The British Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), responsible for administering British Overseas Territories, condemned democratic backsliding in Hong Kong in its official response, arguing all meaningful opposition in Hong Kong’s electoral system had been eliminated.
What is voter turnout and why does it matter?
Electoral democracies hold elections to enable their citizens to vote for their representatives. Voter turnout refers to the proportion of citizens who use their vote. Generally speaking, the higher voter turnout is, the healthier the democracy.
In the UK, voter turnout since 2001 had gradually been increasing up until the last election in 2019, when turnout fell from 68.8% to 67.3%. Not great, but not bad either, right?
Whilst valuable in their own right, headline figures such as voter turnout can distort important underlying demographic trends. Take, for example, the fact that young people tend to vote less than older people. Growing evidence suggests age is now the most important dividing line in British politics. A useful tangible example of this is home ownership.
Older voters are more likely to own their own home and thus vote for political parties which protect their wealth. Non-homeowning younger voters are likely to vote for the party seeking to increase their opportunity to get on the property ladder. In such a case, low turnout amongst younger voters has a direct consequence on economic opportunity and social mobility within this demographic.
Despite popular sentiment, democratic understandings aren’t universal
Returning to Hong Kong, Chinese democratic understandings do not value electoral systems and low voter turnout is not of the foremost importance because the general population lacks the specialist knowledge and long-term perspective required to elect competent officials. Voters choose candidates based on the persona or information presented to them in the media, which is inconsistent with the ability of the individual to govern. Elections become popularity contests rather than means to a government working in the interests of the people.
From this perspective, political legitimacy becomes procedural rather than outcomes-based. This means legitimacy acquired electorally becomes the democratic achievement in and of itself, rather than tangible improvements for the population such as poverty alleviation, safety, and infrastructure development.
Instead, a highly competitive civil service system designed to equip leaders with both the know-how and experience to govern is viewed as the principal instrument of a functioning democracy. In effect, only those deemed qualified can vote.
The results? Over the past 40 years, China has lifted nearly 800 million people out of poverty, accounting for more than 75% of global poverty reduction. Over the past decade, China has built 25,000 km of high-speed rail—more than the rest of the world combined. The expense? Elitism. Authoritarianism. Taboo words in the West. A means to an end in China.
So does voter turnout matter? That depends on what democracy means to you.