Democracy for Hong Kong

On Wednesday April 22nd, 2015, Hong Kong's local government unveiled a new election reform package outlining a process by which candidates for Chief Executive will be pre-screened by Beijing loyalists. The initial proposal set off widely publicized protests last year, and this latest update offers only minor changes from that. This has led to backlash from pro-democracy lawmakers and activists who desire free elections without filtering by mainland China, which will virtually guarantee the exclusion of any pro-democracy candidates.

The proposal is set for a vote requiring two thirds of the 70 local legislators to support it for passage. While the 27 members who are overtly pro-democracy (the so called "pan-democrats") could veto the bill, that could be a risky move, as they might not subsequently be able to negotiate anything better. A recent article in the International Business Times describes the hard line stance of senior Communist Party officials saying, "Beijing will not make any concessions over Hong Kong’s electoral reform that deviate from its own principles". The article continues:
The result of the package’s rejection would be the continuation of the existing system, where a nominating committee effectively appoints the chief executive, and the continuation of dysfunctional government in one of Asia’s key financial centers, which experts says is a losing proposition for all parties... 
Other analysts offered guarded support of the proposed reforms, indicating that if pan-democrats do not take the deal currently on offer, that could be the end of the political-reform process in the region.
“Even though the package is quite conservative, it is worth getting through, because if we lose this opportunity, we really don’t know when we will have the next round of negotiations with the central authorities,” said James Sung, a political analyst and lecturer at the City University Hong Kong.
Opportunities to negotiate a compromise that would allow Hong Kong to continue its democratic development in a manner acceptable to Beijing seem slim.
The inflexible attitude of mainland China leaves reformers with very little (read almost zero) room for negotiation. Thinking tactically and acknowledging practical realities, any remotely viable counter proposal must accept the general framework of the current package as well the basic premise that the Communist Party will have substantial influence over the process. But in order to leave room for democratic progress, it must create a subtle "lever" which can be the subject of future negotiation.

What chess moves do we have at our disposal? As a co-founder of The Center for Election Science, I've spent nearly a decade studying electoral system design with a focus on game theory. Here's my three-step plan. The third step is the "lever" I mentioned.

1. Remove the current 2-3 candidate limit

The current proposal allows the 1200-member nominating committee to select only 2-3 nominees using Approval Voting. Approval Voting simply means that committee members may vote for as many candidates as they wish. There is also the requirement that any eligible nominee must be approved by at least half of the committee members.

Instead, allow any and all candidates who meet the 50% threshold to run in the general election. This should not seem threatening to Beijing, since the committee is a group of hand-picked Communist Party loyalists. But this move creates at least some choice, and more importantly sets the stage for future maneuverings which I'll get to shortly.

2. Institute Approval Voting for the general election

Though the current reform package calls for Approval Voting in the nomination round, it unfortunately specifies Plurality Voting (aka First-past-the-post) for the general election. Political scientists have known for decades that Plurality is the worst voting method ever invented. For instance see this analysis of 18 different voting methods by the Voting Power and Procedures department at the London School of Economics. Plurality Voting came in dead last, whereas Approval Voting was their top choice.

Why? Plurality Voting can lead to the election of polarizing and unrepresentative leaders whenever there are more than two candidates, as the current package allows for. This is known as "vote splitting" or the "spoiler" effect, and it would be a particularly serious concern if the 2-3 candidate limit were rescinded. Approval Voting is the simplest solution to support an election with multiple candidates. It uses ordinary ballots and counting procedures. The candidate with the most votes still wins. But Approval Voting is mathematically proven not to harm voters who support their sincere favorite candidate. This allows voters to choose based on merit rather than on electability. It also elects candidates with the broadest consensus, leading to political stability.

Best of all, Approval Voting is already part of the reform proposal. In their Consultation Report and Proposals document, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government (HKSAR) briefly alludes to the benefits of Approval Voting.
there are also views which suggest that the “voting on each person seeking nominations” should be adopted (i.e., each member could support all persons seeking nomination, or support only some of such persons), so as to enable such persons to have more opportunity to seek NC members’ nomination on a fairer basis; and that members could consider each person seeking nomination more freely according to the merits of each person.
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam clarified in her speech, "Each NC member may vote for all persons seeking nomination, or vote for only some of such persons."

Even Beijing-friendly LegCo member Regina Ip endorsed Approval Voting, writing the following:
In past elections, the number of candidates an Election Committee member could vote for was limited by the number of votes he or she had - a maximum of one. But under the new rules, with far more votes at his or her disposal, a nominating committee member would have far more choices, and much greater freedom to nominate a convincing candidate, irrespective of the candidate's political background. 
This method of voting, which political scientists classify as "approval voting", is adopted by the UN General Assembly in electing its secretary general, after nomination by the Security Council. As the UN experience shows, "approval voting" has the advantage of fostering the selection of a consensus candidate, a person who attracts the least objection and is most capable of accommodating diverse interests and factions.

3. Lower the 50% threshold

Here is the "lever" I spoke of above. In negotiations over any complex piece of legislation, it is dramatically easier for policy to evolve if key negotiating points are numeric. For instance, a parking fee of $10 can potentially be negotiated down to $5. And from there it can potentially be negotiated down to zero dollars. Or "free on Sundays".

If the pan-democrats could manage to pass points 1 and 2, then they could come back in the future and push for that 50% threshold to be lowered, perhaps to 45%. And then a few years later down to 40%, and so on. Giving a percentage point here or there is not a particularly worrisome proposition for mainland China, especially given that the nominating committee is their puppet. But it leaves open a path to gradual improvement. And this plan leaves nearly all of Beijing's package intact, creating the superficial appearance that Hong Kong as conceded, which has obvious political implications given their need to appear in control of Hong Kong.

Lastly, however flawed or insufficient this proposal may be, it seems unlikely that there is any alternative that stands much hope of passage. Give Beijing their nomination process with a few nonthreatening adjustments though, and you may have something.

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