The Paradox of Malaysia’s Lowering of Voting Age – Expanded Enfranchisement Devalued by More Unequal Representation
In Malaysia, the Barisan Nasional had long benefited from its dominance over the smaller rural constituencies, winning more seats even if they performed poorly in the larger, under-represented urban constituencies. CA2019 aggravates this phenomenon because the new young voters tend to be located in the urban areas.
Malaysia’s constitutional amendments on two key electoral matters – to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, and to automatically register voters – were greeted with widespread acclaim. One politician called the CA2019 a “game changer” that has the potential to create policy-oriented discussions, discard race-based politics, and dilute the insidious culture of patronage politics. Dissenters’ opinions were overwhelmingly drowned, with civil society, experts, academics, and businesses endorsing what is broadly regarded as a policy based on common sense. However, CA2019 also came with a series of unintended consequences, including worsened malapportionment; this had largely been overlooked.
The first part of this paper considers the background and definitions of CA2019, before dissecting the impact of malapportionment in the second. Malapportionment, a form of electoral malpractice designed to create unequal constituency sizes for electoral advantage, is not simply a minor side-effect of the CA2019. Instead, this paper argues that its exacerbation could have far-reaching consequences and could potentially reverse the intended gains of the constitutional amendment.
BACKGROUND: HISTORY DELAYED
Fifteen months after Malaysia’s first-ever government turnover, Malaysia once again made history. Upon passing CA2019, through a bicameral unanimity of 211 votes at the lower house (Dewan Rakyat), and 47 votes at the upper house (Dewan Negara), Malaysia’s Federal Constitution (“FC”) was changed to automatically convert every adult above 18-years-old into a voter. This was the first constitutional amendment in 12 years.
The initial proposal of CA2019 was only to lower the voting age to 18 (“Undi18”), as Malaysia was one of the 14 remaining democratic countries that have not done so. The then-opposition bloc, led by Barisan Nasional (“BN”), however, conditioned their support on two additional constitutional amendments, namely lowering the qualification age for elected representatives, and automatic voter registration (“AVR”).
Eventually, Undi18 and AVR became the most salient provisions of CA2019 for their seismic impact of adding 5.8 million to the voters’ roll, expanding it from 15.22 million persons to 21.02 million.
Table 1 differentiates between AVR and Undi18. Notably, the number of registered voters that will be included under AVR – which applies to all citizens regardless of age – is almost four times higher than the eligible voters under Undi18. The difference was also found in the inclusion exercise, where Undi18 requires continuous updates, necessitating a monthly validation check by the Election Commission (“EC”), compared to AVR. Despite its unanimous outcome, it is important to note that the AVR and Undi18 proposals originated from parties on opposing sides of the aisle, which means CA2019 was realised through a compromise.
Though not explicitly mentioned, the EC was assumed to completely take on the registration role, by transferring data from the National Registration Department. This model is similar to that adopted in Argentina, Germany and Peru.
According to the parliamentary Hansard during the CA2019 debates, the AVR and Undi18 are meant to bring key democratic benefits to the electorate in two main ways.
First, accountability and welfare. CA2019 is a sensible quid pro quo for the legal responsibilities expected of Malaysian adults above 18. More voters can hold politicians to account, in turn increasing politicians’ incentive to improve voters’ welfare and decreasing opportunities for corruption and abuse of power.
Second, voting interest and turnout. Removing self-registration makes voting easier, encouraging voter interest and turnout. Before this, voters had to physically travel to one of the approved destinations to register as a voter. Bureaucratic deterrence such as a four-month wait period, reduction in assistant registrar officers, and documentary challenges, will no longer exist under AVR, ensuring that “an eligible voter’s right to vote cannot be taken away.”
Notwithstanding this, the implementation of CA2019 proved overwhelming for the EC. The rollout deadline was extended twice, from an estimated 18 to 24 months, to 36 months. Time-consuming obstacles such as data verification, cross-departmental coordination, computer system upgrades, and logistics, prompted the president of the parliamentary upper house to call CA2019 “impractical”.
Consequently, 18 youths sued the Malaysian government, compelling the enforcement of CA2019 on or before July 2021 (18-month preparation period), as promised. The High Court judge found that the government was obliged to implement CA2019 “with all convenient speed”, and since “July 2021” was a deadline set by the government, any further delay was considered “irrational” and “illegal”. Another court order quashing the government’s postponement was simultaneously granted.
On 16 January 2022, the new system came into force and was used for the first time in the Johor state election on 12 March 2022.
CA2019 has however created several unintended consequences through the massive influx of voters; these include exacerbated malapportionment, multiplied electoral roll errors, and logistical difficulty in preparing administrative facilities and officers, among others.
This paper focuses only on the critical issue of malapportionment. This is done for three reasons. One, the massively increased number of registered voters and the subsequent worsening malapportionment may ingrain voter disinterest over the long term. Two, the EC had indicated that practical difficulties are largely confined to the first cohort of AVR and Undi18, and with tighter verification routines, future administrative problems are predicted to be “manageable”. Three, CA2019 represents a most dramatic exacerbation of malapportionment from a single event, and filling the research void on that question needs to be given higher priority and urgency.
DEEPENING OLD WOUNDS: EXACERBATED MALAPPORTIONMENT AND ITS EFFECTS
Malapportionment is a form of electoral “pathology” that is worst in countries that are partly-democratic, partly-authoritarian such as Malaysia. In a perfectly-apportioned country, like Fiji and the Netherlands, the number of voters in one constituency should be roughly similar to that of another. Acknowledging that perfection is practically unattainable, most countries allow a set deviation level from the national average of voters per seat, called the “electoral quota”. The United Kingdom sets it at 5 per cent and Australia at 3.5 per cent. This means that all seats in Australia cannot have a voter size of more or less than 3.5 per cent of the national average. Although Malaysia’s FC provided that seats ought to be “approximately equal”, it also justifies electoral quota in favour of rural seats for administrative efficiency. This limit, however, was increased from 15 per cent to 33 per cent, and was removed entirely in 1973.
BN could take advantage of the immense disparity between parliamentary seat share and popular vote share and focus largely on small, rural seats to secure a winning majority.
The result is one vote in a small constituency is worth significantly more than a vote in a supersized constituency, resulting in overrepresentation of the former and underrepresentation of the latter. Oliver and Ostwald found that malapportionment and other electoral malpractices created a partisan bias that allowed BN to win “bonus” seats – as high as 65 seats – simply by performing the same (in terms of vote share) as the disadvantaged party. BN could take advantage of the immense disparity between parliamentary seat share and popular vote share and focus largely on small, rural seats to secure a winning majority. In 2013, BN clinched a comfortable parliamentary seat majority to form government despite having significantly lower popular votes than the Pakatan Rakyat opposition that held mostly heavily populated seats in urban areas by a wide margin.
Even before CA2019, rounds of biased delimitation exercises had already made Malaysia one of the most malapportioned countries in the world. Recent independent exercises in West Malaysia (2018, 2003), Sabah (2017/2019, 2003), and Sarawak (2015, 2005) directly exacerbated seat inequality. Increasing parliamentary seats require a two-thirds parliamentary majority, and the former BN government was able do this for all delimitation exercises except 2018, worsening malapportionment at all instances. While Malaysia’s parliamentary borders remain largely unchanged in the recent decade, population growth in urban centres aggravated the urban-rural voter number disparity further.
Adding another 5.8 million predominantly urban voters via CA2019 is akin to a “voter tsunami” that exacerbates already-serious malapportionment problems, and this will have long-term side effects.
Regarding the largest-smallest constituency ratio, West Malaysia’s increased to an average of 11.45 per cent, Sabah’s at 20.09 per cent and Sarawak’s to 20.57 per cent (Table 2). The worst-malapportioned parliamentary seats in Malaysia are between Bangi and Lenggong, where the former’s are 8 times the latter’s.
Save for Melaka and Pahang, all states in Malaysia experienced a hike in the largest-smallest ratio. The five biggest state gainers had an average increase of 24.59 per cent, indicating a dramatically worsening seat inequality. These states – Selangor, Johor, Pulau Pinang, Sarawak, Sabah – were unsurprisingly also Malaysia’s richest states, contributing 56.01 per cent of the national GDP. Economic and employment opportunities draw voters, existing and new, to the urban centres more than do the semi-urban and rural areas.
Of the 100 largest constituencies, 63 per cent are urban seats, and only 3 per cent are rural. Conversely, of the 100 smallest constituencies, 61 per cent are rural seats, and only 9 per cent are urban. Taken together, urban seats have now become vastly underrepresented, and the value of votes in underrepresented seats has eroded by a national average of 16.10 per cent, after CA2019. If you are a new 18-year-old voter in Bangi, your vote is worth one-eighth that of a new voter in Lenggong.
However, the largest-smallest ratio neither accurately depicts the degree of seat inequality nor provides a benchmark for countrywide comparisons. Bangi’s size may be 8 times larger than Lenggong, but if other seats were relatively equal, then the largest-smallest ratio is a bad representation of overall malapportionment. A better measurement is Samuels and Snyder’s adapted Loosemore-Hanby index of electoral disproportionality (hereinafter “SSI” for Samuels Snyder Index).
SSI functions as a comparative index for malapportionment, where zero indicates perfect apportionment – all constituencies are equal – and the higher the value, the higher the degree of malapportionment.
Compared to other countries, a MAL of 0.180 puts Malaysia in 147th place out of 160 countries, making it the 13th worst-malapportioned country in the world. As observed in Table 3 below, Malaysia’s electoral manipulation is comparable to low-income countries such as Ghana, Zambia, and Haiti. Malaysia also trailed its Southeast Asian counterparts – Singapore (53rd), Cambodia (62nd), Indonesia (67th) – by a significant margin. Developed countries such as the United States, Malta, and Finland have MAL closer to 0.014 to 0.018, which is at least 10 times lower than Malaysia. The mean MAL for all countries is 0.087, putting Malaysia’s shortfall to the mean at a massive 0.103, or 10.3 per cent.
Graph 1 calculates Malaysia’s MAL since 1974. After CA2019, the malapportionment value rose to a historic high of 0.180. This is 28.6 per cent higher than the previous record of 0.146 from 1984, and almost double the MAL value from 1974. Malaysia’s MAL has always been higher than average and persisted over time.
Overall, CA2019 brought MAL to historic highs and Malaysia’s rankings to historic lows. Malapportionment is clearly the most significant unintended consequence of CA2019 that needs to be urgently addressed. Ideally, increasing the number of urban seats relative to rural seats is the shortest path to redress malapportionment, though realistically, the bipartisanship required – the same condition that delivered CA2019 – a two-thirds parliamentary majority support – is unlikely in the near term.
Effects of worsened malapportionment: Electoral ethics, welfare, voting interest
Three long-term effects follow from worsened malapportionment. First, malapportionment is considered “ethically unjustifiable” because it severely assaults human dignity by implicitly devaluing one person’s democratic voice over another’s. Severe violation of the “one person, one vote” principle made the disadvantaged voter “less a citizen”. Scholars also argue that malapportionment functions as “double voting” i.e. voters in malapportioned seats have differential powers in casting the tie-breaking vote.
Second, malapportionment causes welfare losses by diluting political representation and skewing political behaviour, mainly in large constituencies. Recall that one of the benefits of CA2019 was to improve voters’ welfare by changing politicians’ incentive structure. Without a vote, a citizen is voiceless as they are not electorally significant to the politician. CA2019 was designed to change that by extending enfranchisement. However, in a severely underrepresented supersized seat, a citizen’s vote is virtually worthless, making the voter as good as a non-voter.
Bhavani argues that politicians in large constituencies are less accessible and accountable to voters, because of reduced voter-politician touchpoints. At a higher level, political parties will choose to focus only on overrepresented seats, typically rural and small, because electoral payoff relative to resources spent would be significantly higher.
Another welfare cost, Bhavani argues, is that large constituencies suffer from double exclusion – they will be underrepresented in the legislature (a vote is worth less) and in the executive. On the latter, it is speculated that the cabinet will be inclined to pick ministers from smaller constituencies because they are less demanding. It is “cheaper” to amass political capital this way, and the cabinet would be under less pressure to deliver. Thus, policy decisions and developmental distribution would more likely lean towards favouring smaller, overrepresented seats, similar to how the former BN government focused on their mostly small and rural constituencies. Resultantly, large constituencies suffer poorer welfare outcomes in the long run.
Adding another 5.8 million predominantly urban voters via CA2019 is akin to a “voter tsunami” that exacerbates already-serious malapportionment problems, and this will have long-term side effects.
Third is voting interest. As mentioned above, political parties in other malapportioned countries have shifted their campaign focus from large to small seats because the former is less competitive than the latter. With reduced media attention and canvassing in oversized seats, voters will assume that the stakes and competitiveness of the election are low, thus reducing their interest to vote.
To a certain extent, this has happened in Malaysia’s oversized constituencies even before CA2019. Using pre-CA2019 data, 25 out of the 35 largest constituencies (with at least 100,000 voters) had unregistered voter rate above the mean of 23.71 per cent. On average, the largest constituencies had an unregistered voter rate of 29.86 per cent, with the highest in Kapar, where more than half of its 130,066 constituencies (50.68 per cent) were unregistered. It was pointless for voters in oversized constituencies to even register to vote when their vote would unlikely change the outcome and more likely be considered a “wasted vote”.
Voter disinterest creates a possible effect of lower turnout. Perceived election importance, election closeness, seat disproportionality, and election integrity have been found to lead to lower turnout in other countries. The latter was noted in a study covering 700 elections held in 85 democracies between 1950 and 2008. Through multiple sources such as word-of-mouth and news reports, voters will learn of the unfairness of malapportionment, and this has a “strong and highly significant impact on willingness to cast a ballot.” This problem most likely worsens over time. Wong anticipates that since manipulation of voting act (machinery, money, media) and vote choice (phantom votes, miscounting or misreporting votes) has diminishing returns in past election cycles, malapportionment would likely be retained or exacerbated by the hegemonic BN regime.
Particularly of relevance is the long-term effect of youth voter turnout. Already youths are generally predicted to have low turnout due to problems of early adulthood (lifecycle effect), Malaysian youth voters are now likely to develop a habit of vote abstention from the unfortunate time of entry. If their first election happened during a time of extreme malapportionment, coupled with an existing climate of political disillusionment, the low turnout of youths will likely leave a “footprint” that will gradually pull down the voter turnout of the country for decades to come.
According to Table 4, voters between 18 and 20 years old are concentrated in urban (47.3 per cent) and semi-urban (33.1 per cent) areas. These areas are hotspots for supersized constituencies with the highest malapportionment incidences. In the name of electoral cost-efficiency, politicians will end up chasing “fewer and older voters” at the expense of young first-time voters. Wong thus cautioned against the exuberance over Undi18, and suspects that malapportionment would create youth disillusionment, cynicism, and potentially radicalisation instead.
In the past few delineation exercises, the BN government had relied heavily on malapportionment as part of its electoral manipulation menu to maintain its election advantage. The shocking BN defeat in 2018 momentarily removed reform attention from malapportionment and other electoral malpractices, but CA2019 has now brought back, into full glare, these problems that have long haunted Malaysia. The intended benefits of CA2019 to create greater political participation and accountability are predicted to be substantially derailed by this fact, leading to potentially poorer outcomes of electoral ethics, welfare, and voting interest. Ironically, the youngest voting group would likely absorb the largest negative hit because of the electoral lifestyle effects and existing political disillusionment that could give birth to a habitual abstention from the political process, and leave behind a “footprint” on future cohorts.
Any corrective work to increase legislative seats and/or redraw boundaries would rely strongly on interparty cooperation and political will to achieve the required two-thirds majority, ingredients that seem wanting in the present political landscape.
A court case successfully prevented CA2019 from delayed implementation, but it did not stop malapportionment from delaying its real benefits indefinitely.
This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2022/63 published on 15 June 2022. The paper and its references can be accessed at this link.
James Chai is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and a columnist for MalaysiaKini and Sin Chew Daily.